Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Public worker unions
block reform effort

HAWAII'S Legislature is probably at its lowest point in decades. After almost three years of conferences, seminars, task forces, commissions and legislative hearings, the state has only been able to form a consensus that Hawaii is failing to succeed.

Education rankings put us near the bottom. The surging stock market only illuminates our own weak economy. Our debates about quality of life now must include the fact that many of the best and brightest are leaving.

All those issues, however, have been thrashed around before. Something new is happening.

The forces in government, perhaps even in the community, are starting to line up for a bigger fight. Public employees mark the dividing line.

The public was outraged at the Senate's refusal to reconfirm Attorney General Margery Bronster, because she was the point of the spear thrust at the Bishop Estate.

But legislators also evaluated her stand on collective bargaining issues. She was not a one-dimensional target, because, at Governor Cayetano's behest, Bronster was also working on restructuring the relationship between management and the public worker unions.

A conflict is surfacing between the public employee union leadership and other forces in the state. First it was county mayors trying to privatize government operations. Then it was small businesses pointing to the connection between government payroll and high taxes.

Finally Cayetano was able to use the public employee unions as a wedge issue in his re-election campaign, saying in essence, "Vote for my opponent and no public union job is safe."

But now it is the governor who wants to change public employee rules. Whether he will be successful is open to debate, but the unions aren't about to risk their gains by hesitating to attack.

The public worker unions, mostly through Gary Rodrigues of the UPW and Russell Okata of the HGEA, have consistently controlled or stalled much of the labor reform legislation.

This year, for instance, they saw moves to speed up reforms of public employees rules fail. Moves to allow management to lay off employees without the extensive and expensive "bumping rights" provision failed. Attempts to stop overtime pay from being calculated in retirement benefits also failed.

Finally, much of the problem with changing or dismantling the state mental hospital in order to stave off a federal court challenge stemmed from the public worker unions opposing the potential loss of jobs.

Unions, of course, argue that if the state as manager has already agreed to something, it has no business going back on its word and must adhere to the binding agreement.

Public unions, for instance, were successful in getting their promised retroactive pay increases from this Legislature.

Cayetano, after first winning the support of the unions, now is trying to change the relationship. The resulting fracture is spreading throughout state and county governments. Groups that were allies are now splintering, such as the state Senate and the local Democratic Party.

Caught in the crossfire is a public that sees a Legislature concluding one of its most wretched of sessions.

The story, however, is that we are rushing to polarize the debate between civil service and pro-business forces.

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Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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