hawaii's new politics:
LAST of three parts
Unions switch dominant positions
State workers union now leads isle machine
STORY SUMMARY »
The Hawaii Government Employees Association is at the top of the heap in political power.
No other union commands as much respect as the 43,000 members and retirees represented by the HGEA.
HGEA's political clout can sway elections and determine what bills live or die at the state Legislature.
But as its political muscle has strengthened in recent years, the once mighty International Longshore and Warehouse Union has lost much of its influence.
FULL STORY »
There was a time when all you needed to know about Hawaii politics could be found at 451 Atkinson Drive, the home of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
A coalition between the ILWU and Democratic Party leaders put unions and Democrats in the driver's seat of a political machine that stretched across the Hawaiian Islands and ran from before statehood through modern Hawaii.
Today union leaders acknowledge the ILWU's political power has been overshadowed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, with its 43,000 active and retired members.
But the HGEA is also a maturing union, and leaders are searching to keep it relevant in today's changing political climate.
"The power no longer revolves around private unions," says Ah Quon McElrath, the ILWU organizer, University of Hawaii regent and political activist, who first started work as a social worker in 1938.
"Generally speaking, the HGEA calls the shots. At one time it was the ILWU, but it is no longer the ILWU," McElrath says.
A union is no stronger in politics than its members. When the ILWU represented sugar and pineapple workers, who were a vital Hawaii political interest group, the ILWU was strong.
McElrath says as the plantations died, the ILWU tried to switch to organize hotel workers, but their interests were diverse and never reached the political force of public employees.
"People look at themselves as the levelers of what they want to be. There is no longer the collective power of the unions in the private sector that we in labor all depended on," McElrath says.
Randy Perreira, new executive director of the HGEA, says Hawaii's population has changed, and the ILWU considered "the social conscience of Hawaii's labor movement" is no longer influential.
As times change, unions look to support new politicians, but they are changing as well.
"The ideology of the people who have gotten themselves elected has changed. We haven't seen the kind of progressive, pro-worker legislation that the ILWU was known to champion for at least one generation," Perreira, 48, says.
"All of this has an impact on whether the unions are able to achieve real social change. We haven't seen nearly as much of it in the last 15 years."
The Hawaii prepaid health act, which assures full-time workers medical insurance, was the last big idea to come from Hawaii's Legislature, Perreira states.
"Hawaii, like a lot of other states, when it comes to fiscal matters, have tended to be more conservative. ... There is a disconnect of sorts," Perreira says.
Labor's continuing power is not always to the advantage of the rank and file, contends Sen. Fred Hemmings, the GOP leader and longtime critic of the HGEA.
"We are all in this economy together, and we have got to work together and work a lot smarter," says Hemmings, 62.
To Hemmings and other union critics, "the public employee unions are the single most influential special-interest group at the Legislature."
"They have become a self-sustaining dynasty and use their incredible power to elect Democrats, and Democrats in return give them what they want from the Legislature," Hemmings says.
Perreira does not apologize for the power of his union, but he says the HGEA has become a "maturing" union that looks in terms of "providing value to our members."
"To some degree we have to move in the direction of consumer unions, where we provide some services and opportunities to our members, health care, buying power and providing more social activities," Perreira says.