Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, May 11, 1999

Public worker
unions block
political change

THE same day a breakfast speaker told a downtown business group that Hawaii needs a "Mr. Make-It-Happen," the state Senate denied the title to Gov. Ben Cayetano by firing his two most important cabinet members.

Last year the governor got another slap in the face when senators nixed a general excise tax boost his Economic Revitalization Task Force urged.

"Who's in charge here?" is a legitimate question.

"Would things have been different if Linda Lingle had been elected governor?" is another one.

To start with Question Two, Lingle would have had to deal with the same legislators who this year signaled the status quo seems just fine, and that any change will have to be in small steps, not big ones.

Could she have persuaded them otherwise? She is better at articulating issues than just about any other politician in Hawaii, Senator Inouye aside. She frames complicated problems and proposed solutions in clear terms.

Could she have gone over the heads of this year's status quo leaders? Judging by her record as Maui mayor, she would not have attempted such ventures unless she saw a clear chance of winning. She chose not to waste her political capital on political impossibilities.

She was criticized effectively in 1998 for not being as specific as the Cayetano-Hirono ticket in outlining what she would do as governor. Now the winners have been resisted in achieving goals probably not too different from hers.

Had she won, it might not have made any difference at all -- but who knows? There would have been electricity in the air about change. She possibly could have harnessed it for good causes.

At a May 21-23 Republican convention on Kauai, she seems sure to want and get the crown of thorns that goes with the state chairmanship. Her big test will be whether she can lead the weak Republicans to win more legislative seats next year. Failure to gain in 1998 despite widespread talk of change disappointed change advocates like me even more than the governorship defeat.

The answer to my first question is government unions.

The solid concrete base of the status quo forces lies with the leaders of the United Public Workers, Hawaii Government Employees Association and the Hawaii State Teachers Association. I exclude the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, which dramatically endorsed Lingle in 1998.

UPW, HGEA and HSTA members go door-to-door and man phone banks to help their endorsed legislators. Sadly, they use the IOUs thus earned to defeat management reforms for greater efficiency.

They compare to the old Big Five business firms that called the tune in Hawaii for 50 years before 1954 with power, favors and money.

By 1954, labor unions, led by the ILWU, and a Democratic Party revitalized by then-young World War II veterans of Japanese ancestry, made the Big Five share political power. The ILWU earlier won major collective bargaining victories in the sugar and pineapple industries and with stevedores.

This movement began with great idealism. It has eroded into cronyism and status quo-ism. The legislative slap at the governor clearly identifies UPW, HGEA and HSTA as the power centers that must be challenged if we want change.

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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