AFL-CIO figures put Hawaii back on top as America's most unionized state. The labor federation estimates 26.5 percent of all our wage and salary earners were union members at the end of 1998.
State must reform
After World War II suppressions, including military rule, Hawaii bounced from being one of the least unionized areas in the U.S. to one of the most unionized. We have stayed near the top ever since.
The reasons have been good and sufficient. Hawaii workers are better off for it.
My thesis today is that power brings responsibility. Our strong unions should not duck a major obligation to help bring the state economy back to prosperity.
The ILWU historically worked with management to keep industries like sugar and pineapple as prosperous as possible even though they paid the world's highest agricultural wages. It let management manage. High costs now have shrunk these industries dramatically but no one would want to go back to stoop labor.
Our biggest center of union power today is in government with 54,000 workers in 13 different bargaining units. Besides good pay, they have some of the state's most generous vacation and sick leave benefits, good retirement pay including lifetime family health insurance, death benefits and a full schedule of holidays. Counting sick leave, little more than nine months of 40-hour weeks can bring a year's pay to most government workers.
Except around the fringes, as with some super-generous retirements for judges, no politician is suggesting tampering with this package.
What we should do, however, is loosen rules that muscle-bind state managers. They make government almost always less efficient than private enterprise. Union leaders should be real leaders in persuading members that facilitating better management is in their long-term best interest.
Governor Cayetano highlighted two areas in his State of the State speech -- civil service reform away from the present 1,700 job classifications and creation of two pilot "Schools for the New Century" with much freer management practices.
These are significant but still modest reforms of a system recently described in a national comparison as "one of the most rule-bound personnel systems in the country."
Other desirable changes would de-unionize school principals and modify the nation's only state-wide seniority system for teacher-principal assignments. We also should modify the atrocious "bumping system" that allows top-salary employees to take their high salaries with them to much lower level jobs in work force reductions.
University professors might also be de-unionized since they have their faculty senate to speak for them and tenure rules for job security.
Change must be achieved on two fronts. The first involves the governor, county mayors and the 13 employee bargaining units who meet them individually across the table for contract renewals. Much might be done here in trading pay raises for management concessions.
The second front is the two-house Legislature. It must fund pay raises and has a few still unfunded from past agreements. It also can pass changes that will improve management.
Unions leaders are not 10-foot-high giants. Linda Lingle's near victory for governor came despite near-solid opposition from union bosses. A lot of union members must have joined in the vote for change. Their numbers will swell if sensible improvements aren't achieved by the winners.
A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.