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Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Cayetano takes on
the public unions

TAKE a state like Hawaii that has defined its modern political history by how much unionized workers are willing to risk and what they want in exchange for that risk, and it is easy to find the political pressure points.

Labor unions started early in Hawaii's history, with some of the very first sugar plantation strikes staged by Hawaiian and Chinese workers. The idea of a united labor front continued before World War II with strikes and vicious management attacks.

During the war, the unions held back. After the war the plantation workers and stevedores -- the workers with their right hand on the means of producing wealth and their left hand on the way to deliver that wealth to the world -- balked.

They wanted more of the spoils. The benefits were money, respect and equality. While plantation managers controlled the money, the unions had to go to the politicians for the rest.

At the same time, the politicians had to go to the unions for voters. There were more union members than plantation owners.

Politicians didn't always want to do exactly what the unions wanted. John A. Burns had several disagreements with the ILWU while in Congress. And unions didn't always go along with the Democrats. The ILWU, for instance, endorsed Republican Hiram Fong.

Unions, however, called the shots for Hawaii's growth immediately before and right after statehood. To succeed in politics, you had to succeed with the unions.

If you had an agenda that drove the unions nuts, you were not likely to go far. Even the GOP had to moderate its stands in the face of the unions' political solidarity.

The faces in the unions changed. Some leaders jockeyed for position by backing one faction or another within the Democratic political establishment.

The ILWU lost much of its power as forces outside Hawaii changed the local economy. Sugar plantations died and the docks are largely mechanized.

Today the workers are in government and the big, powerful unions represent public workers.

The unions' desires are tempered, however, by new forces.

The unions no longer face an easy-to-despise oligarchy, but the public. The workers are public workers, the money comes from taxes, and state and county workers are union members and taxpayers, too.

The biggest challenge to the power of local unions is now being played out before the state Legislature, as Gov. Ben Cayetano wants to rewrite the laws dealing with future benefits of the public workers.

THE unions are ready to resist almost all of the Caye-tano package, although reportedly a compromise that was floated during the summer is still a viable alternative.

The equation doesn't add up yet. While Cayetano is willing to wrestle with the unions, there has been no cheer of support from fellow Democrats.

Instead, nominal allies such as Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris have sought to back Cayetano, while also including the unions.

While the difference may seem slight, it is important.

If Cayetano's reform plan is approved, it changes how unions deal with state government. The deals are worked out by the Legislature or executive, not through collective bargaining. If unions lose under that plan, that is it -- they lose. No strike, no arbitration.

If other Democrats along with the unions win, then there has been no change. Hawaii will continue to be defined according to the interests of local unions.

Legislature Directory
Hawaii Revised Statutes
Legislature Bills

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

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