Honolulu Lite

Charles Memminger

Bus drivers lose
the hearts of riders

Being a good union leader is like being a good poker player: You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. You also need know when to play the game.

Unfortunately, in taking his bus drivers and other bus company employees out on strike, bus union President Mel Kahele blew his hand.

As a member of two unions myself, I don't say that lightly.

The union-management relationship is an adversarial one. It is rooted in the historical truth that each side has something the other one wants. Management wants a service to be provided by employees, and what employees want, chiefly, is fair pay, job safety and job security. Where the problem comes in is simply when management thinks it's overpaying for a service and employees think they are aren't being paid enough.

What ensues is a not-so-delicate dance where representatives for each side try to find some middle ground that will leave both sides ticked off but able to live with it.

The key element to a successful resolution of negotiations is that management has to have the ability to pay what the employees want. And this is where I think the bus company's union leaders made a tactical error.

Some employers are, shall we say, less than truthful about how much money they have. I know this from experience. Not so long ago, I worked for a large newspaper publishing concern that during union negotiations whined it was on bankruptcy's doorstep when actually, thanks to a federally approved monopoly, it was practically printing its own cash.

But that's not the case with the City and County of Honolulu. Like many cities across the country, Honolulu is basically broke -- or at least living well beyond its means. This is a true, factual, verifiable thing. As a result, services are being cut, taxes are being raised, and cops and teachers are not getting paid what they should.

Most people believe that bus drivers, however, who get paid more than police and teachers, are receiving a fair wage considering the rotten state of the economy, a rot that can be largely attributed to the 9/11 tragedy and the war on terror.

When so many people -- like me, for instance -- have had to take cuts in pay, bus drivers aren't creating a lot of good will by going on strike and leaving tens of thousands of working stiffs without transportation.

This was no time for Kahele and his negotiators to play hardball. Think of the good will he would have won from the community if he had said the union would take a hit now, maybe lose a few drivers and pass on a raise, in order to help the city get back on its feet. Then when times were better, every bus rider would be cheering for drivers to get raises. Instead, riders and everyone stuck in horrible traffic jams will remember that they were ruthlessly used as poker chips in a game that didn't need to be played at this time.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail


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