Isle election to test
union’s political

The GOP is attempting
to change workers’
compensation laws

One in four workers in Hawaii belongs to a labor union, one of the highest unionization rates in the country, according to state figures.

Organized labor's power will be tested this fall, not across the bargaining table, but at the ballot box.

Democratic political leaders say the November general election is crucial because of state Republican calls to change rules for workers in both public and private unions.

Republican leaders agree but say changes to workers' compensation laws and to public worker laws are aimed at helping the state as a whole.

The election of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle in 2002 after her opponent was endorsed and strongly supported by nearly all Hawaii labor unions has caused Democrats to try harder to win the fall elections.

Because Hawaii is such a strong union state, it will be a test of that power for the unions to deliver Hawaii for the Democratic presidential ticket of U.S. Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.

"In this upcoming election, it is going to be important to see if traditional areas are able to hold," said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa.

"My guess is they will hold and the unions will deliver," said Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua), a labor attorney.

In individual state races, unions -- particularly the state's largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association -- are trying to preserve a super-majority in the Legislature permitting Democrats to override a veto by Lingle.

Sen. Brian Kanno, Senate Labor Committee chairman, sees the election as crucial for organized labor because of the GOP administration's attempt to change workers' compensation.

"She (Gov. Lingle) is staging that this is a top priority, and that is a great concern," said Kanno (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo).

Both union and GOP officials acknowledge that there is much at stake.

"Yes, it would be a setback if the Republicans lose seats in this election," said Sen. Fred Hemmings, GOP Senate leader.

But Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo) added that he calculates that the Democrats will lose as many as seven seats in the House and two in the Senate.

Predictions from veteran labor leader Russell Okata, HGEA executive director, run counter to Hemmings.

"Gov. Lingle has declared open war on all Democratic incumbents, and I'm sure that several Republican incumbents will be defeated," Okata said.

"We have an agenda that is the exact oppose of Linda Lingle," Okata said, adding that his union will target all 15 GOP representatives.

This election, Okata stressed, is a crucial one for all the unions in Hawaii because of the efforts Lingle has made to veto legislation that Democrats and unions wanted.

"For the first time the unions have had to be actively engaged in overriding a governor's veto," Okata explained.

If the unions cannot help Democrats uphold legislation approved and then vetoed, Okata said, "Lingle will run roughshod over us."

Labor's biggest weapon in the political battles is to endorse a specific candidate and throw extra resources and volunteers into that candidate's campaign.

This year, the Hawaii State Teachers Association board early on highlighted several key races it would focus on. Last week, HSTA circulated ballots to teachers giving them the opportunity to affirm selected recommendations made by the HSTA board.

While no Republicans were included in the list of candidates that the board requested teachers to affirm, several key House leaders also were left off the list completely.

Reps. Calvin Say, Sylvia Luke and Scott Saiki were all "considered," but the board said it would take no position on their races.

Say, speaker of the House, discounted the rejection, saying it was based on his insistence on not approving changes to the state's funding teacher's health insurance.

In most races, however, the unions have stuck together in their endorsements. The question is if union members will help endorsed candidates and actually vote the way their union wants.

Hanabusa said the unions are strongest on the neighbor islands and with older or retired members. "To be able to motivate union members is no more or less a question for political leaders as it is with any other group," she said.

But, union's influence varies by region, she noted. For instance, the ILWU is still a strong vote-getter on portions of Kauai, but an endorsed candidate in Kona or portions of Maui will suffer.

"By age and union, the power base is still there, but it is with retirees and the older generation -- the other side is that those are the people who tend to vote," Hanabusa said.

House GOP leader Rep. Galen Fox said he still sees the HGEA as a major part of the Democratic Party and considers it an important part of the election equation.

"It is the largest union and it represents some bright people," Fox added. "The unions belong in the political process, and I expect they will remain a big part of it."



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