Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, December 22, 1998


Unions’ need for
enlightened self-interest

UNTIL 1954 very little got through the Hawaii territorial legislature or was approved by a Hawaii governor without the approval of the Big Five -- the five firms clustered around Merchant Street. They controlled most of the economy.

Today organized labor has a grip on government operations, comparable to what the Big Five had on the whole economy.

The Big Five grip was broken by labor union bargaining victories, Democratic election victories starting in 1954, and a law, passed soon after statehood in 1959, banning interlocking corporate directorships. These last were crucial to Big Five control.

Despite talk of change, last month's election weakened Big Labor hardly at all. There are some new faces in the Legislature, but the political balance is the same -- a 23-2 Democratic Senate, a 39-12 Democratic House of Representatives.

Gov. Ben Cayetano won re-election by pledging change but can't do much about streamlining government unless union leaders go along. All our legislators are chosen from single-member districts.

In many districts unions can credibly incite their fears of not being re-elected. These legislators won't go with the governor unless the unions say yes. Merchant Street days reversed!

Our best hope is enlightened leadership from the unions -- a willingness to accept change in the common good, even at some short-term sacrifice. Even the Big Five did this. In the 1930s Hawaii was the first state or territory to accord collective bargaining rights to agricultural workers. I don't know all the forces that were involved then but the Big Five must have seen it as enlightened self-interest.

What could our unions do today in the way of enlightened self-interest to help Hawaii better compete in a global economy?

bullet Return more management rights to government. Help it move toward private sector efficiency.

bullet Support a financial overhaul that will allocate government costs more clearly -- department by department. This includes figuring fringe benefits into the cost of the departments for which employees work. No department today really knows its overall costs.

bullet Yield some excessively burdensome seniority privileges-- in education, in particular -- to allow more effective personnel assignments.

bullet Accept more privatization to achieve some of these same results, yet follow Governor Cayetano's rule of protection for individuals.

School vouchers to encourage private-sector competition with the public schools will remain only a dream. Even our charter school law is considered among the weakest of any state.

Governor Cayetano pledged in his re-inaugural to make education his No. 1 priority. Graduating better-qualified seniors than we now do will require much more than simply throwing money at schools. It will require give on the unions' part to support better administration.

THERE was some sense the 1998 election might be a landmark of change, that it might produce our first Republican governor in 36 years and expand Republican strength in both the Senate and House. The most optimistic even dreamed of a House majority. Had such things happened I would be writing with more hope for change than I do now.

Yet the need remains great. The governor and lieutenant governor both acknowledged it in their re-inaugurals.

Linda Lingle, the No. 1 exponent of change, lost by a whisker in November. It looks as though she may try to stay visible to prepare for another try in 2002. She could be a wonderful watchdog if she does.

State of the Unions




A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.




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