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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, May 6, 2000

Unions boss
the Legislature

Critics blame public employee unions for the Legislature's failure to pass meaningful civil service reform and other key measures this year.

Don't blame the union leaders. They were just doing a very good job of representing the interests of their members.

Blame the weak and inept lawmakers who didn't do nearly as good a job of representing the interests of their constituents. They abdicated their constitutional responsibilities to union bosses who were only too happy to tell them what to do.

Also blame lazy voters who say they want change but put forth no effort to bring it about.

The last days of the session told it all. As legislators worked out the final details of their bills, they didn't bother consulting Gov. Ben Cayetano -- the head of the state government and of their own party.

Instead, they repeatedly went groveling to Gary Rodrigues of the United Public Workers for permission to act. As Rodrigues called the shots, legislators obediently derailed civil service reform, Cayetano's proposal for a privately run prison and the move to set performance standards for teachers outside of collective bargaining.

It brought back memories of last year's session, when the Senate provoked public outrage by ousting Attorney General Margery Bronster at the behest of the unions and Bishop Estate trustees Dickie Wong and Henry Peters.

In trashing all serious reform of civil service and collective bargaining laws, legislators clearly ignored the will of the public.

A poll taken this year by the Business Roundtable with labor participation showed overwhelming public support for such reforms as performance-based merit pay, allowing counties to negotiate labor contracts separate from the state and restructuring medical insurance. Union households supported most reforms even more strongly than non-union households.

So will the wrath of the electorate come down on union-backed lawmakers in the fall elections? Probably not.

The fact is, unions have disproportionate power in the Legislature because their members vote in disproportionate numbers in elections. Union members educate themselves about the issues, recruit and work for candidates who support their positions and get out to vote on Election Day.

They win fair and square against apathetic voters who complain about the status quo but do little to change it. The armchair critics who bother to vote at all often walk into the polling booth ignorant of what their candidates stand for.

Sure, some legislators most closely associated with recent scandals will retire or be defeated this year, but it won't likely make much difference.

A majority of Democratic senators have already gotten the boot in the last three elections, but new senators have brought more of the same. Public worker unions still run the Senate, their errand boy is still its president and the Senate is still cluelessly disorganized.

The unions are so cocky about their hold on the Legislature that they're looking past this year's legislative elections to the 2002 governor's race.

Both the UPW and Hawaii Government Employees Association have come out strongly for Mufi Hannemann over Jeremy Harris for mayor this year. Hannemann is a worthy candidate, but the unusual early endorsement by labor has more to do with knocking Harris out of the 2002 governor's race early to pave the way for the more compliant Mazie Hirono.

Gary Rodrigues isn't bashful about wanting it all. And he'll have his way until those who say they want change emulate union members by educating themselves, organizing around quality candidates and finding their way to the polls.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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