Thursday, October 15, 1998

Pulling strings
United they stand

Little happens without
the blessing of Hawaii's
labor leaders

By Richard Borreca


Separately they command respect. Together they can make or break a legislative career, derail a candidate or propel an issue into the public consciousness. Their influence reaches into virtually all aspects of state and county government and even the judiciary. Significant change rarely happens in Hawaii unless they sign off.

Illustration by David Swann
Illustrations by David Swann, Star-Bulletin

The two are Russell Okata and Gary Rodrigues, leaders of Hawaii's two biggest public employee unions -- the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers.

With nearly 35,000 politically active members and thousands more retirees between them, their influence can be seen everywhere:

bullet HGEA and UPW have emerged as major supporters of the political status quo, working energetically this year to re-elect Gov. Ben Cayetano and House Speaker Joe Souki and to keep Senate President Norman Mizuguchi in control of the upper house.

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Union boss Gary Rodrigues talks with Gov. Ben Cayetano
as Sen. Daniel Inouye and Cayetano's wife, Vicky, listen in on
Primary election night at Cayetano's campaign headquarters.

Even Linda Lingle, Cayetano's Republican opponent, is making soothing noises to union members about work-force reduction and other key issues, hoping to pick up votes among state employees even though their leaders back Cayetano.

bullet Critics say Okata and Rodrigues have virtual veto power over labor-related bills in the Legislature. Many regard the Senate's labor committee as a graveyard for bills the unions oppose.

bullet Both Okata and Rodrigues were appointed to the Economic Revitalization Task Force formed by Cayetano, Mizuguchi and Souki, effectively assuring from the outset that reducing the government work force was off the table.

bullet HGEA and UPW are represented on other key boards and commissions throughout state and county government. Okata and Rodrigues both served on the Reapportionment Commission that makes key decisions about the legislative districts of the lawmakers they lobby. Rodrigues served on the commission to pick a new University of Hawaii president and another panel to help the state Supreme Court select a Bishop Estate trustee.

Gary Rodrigues In a highly controversial move, Mizuguchi appointed Rodrigues to the State Judicial Selection Commission where he has a big say on the appointment and reappointment of judges who hear cases such as UPW's privatization lawsuits against the counties. The state Ethics Commission declined to rule on whether the appointment created a conflict of interest. The governor appoints the Ethics Commission from nominees recommended by the Judicial Council, of which Okata is a member.

"In this state, the public-sector unions are extremely important and extremely powerful. Their voices are heard in all the political hallways," said Tim Ho, president of the Hawaii Employers Council.

Rodrigues, however, insists that talk of union power is exaggerated.

"I was there many years, no one paid attention and I was happy," he said. "I think (union) power or influence is relatively stable. Our influence is not at such a high level as people think it is."


An inch-thick, blue and white computer printout occupies the center of Okata's desk at the downtown HGEA office. Out of some 40,000 names of members and retirees on the printout, 4,766 are a great puzzlement.

Those names, just 12 percent of the HGEA total, are not registered to vote. "You ask me why -- I don't know," Okata said with some irritation.

Okata, the HGEA's executive director since 1981, said those 4,766 need to understand that their votes can help elect friendly public officials who will have a direct affect on their pay and working conditions.

"I don't expect that a person who has a strong objection to a candidate would vote for that person, but I do expect that, by and large, that if a candidate has supported workers and the union's program, they would give us a vote," Okata said.

Russell Okata In Kalihi, Rodrigues, UPW state director since 1981, looks over another computer printout -- this one of all the voters in the state.

The information can be arranged and mined by the UPW computers to provide a cache of political ammunition for politicians.

"In an election, we can do a lot if we endorse you," Rodrigues, the Kauai-born union leader, said. "We can target specific areas where we need to campaign, we can print stuff and we can provide manpower."

Last month, for instance, state public employee unions staged a massive labor appreciation day rally at the state Capitol to conclude the national American Federation of County, State and Municipal Workers. Cayetano spoke and the rally soon became a re-election pitch to state workers, on state time at a state facility.

"The opinion by the state Ethics Commission that the Cayetano Worker Appreciation Day rally on Capitol grounds was informational and educational not political, shows again that union rules override state statues and ethics," said state Sen. Sam Slom, a Republican critic of Rodrigues and Okata.

Even Okata admits that the rally became political.

"I think the Republicans are complaining and probably legitimately so, because of some of the statements that we made, but how do you separate the public employees from the election coming up?" Okata said.

How the unions turn friends of labor into electable leaders explains the influence of the unions at the Legislature and county councils.

"The most effective HGEA lobbyist isn't Russell Okata. It is that person helping a candidate that a legislator sees day in, day out working in their campaign committee," Okata said.

"We have a rule, that if you can get 20 volunteers who will give you 100 days of their life in an election year, you can mount a terrific campaign -- even if you are unknown," Okata said. After the election, the candidate can expect to hear a lot from those 20 union volunteers who got him elected when issues of interest to the unions come before the Legislature.

"We have a large number of these people who we can call on during the Legislature to make that personal call," Okata said.

Even a critic like Slom has to respect the effectiveness of such efforts. He said of Rodrigues, "I respect him because he works hard."


Okata and Rodrigues have built their power one election at a time, making and keeping friends in high places. The message they carry is straight old-fashioned labor rhetoric, mixed with smart, hard-working politics.

"All the great leaders in Hawaii chose to be on the side of the working people," Okata said.

Said Rodrigues, "Russell and I have lobbied together on various issues. We don't go in saying 'If you don't do this, we aren't going to support you.' That used to be the style -- unions may have used that method in the past, but today the businesses use that. They come in and make threats about who they are going to get."

In this year's election, Okata and Rodrigues have put their shoulders heavily behind Cayetano's re-election and the struggles by Mizuguchi and Souki to retain power in the Legislature.

Okata has publicly admonished Sen. Randall Iwase, leader of the Senate's dissident faction, not to challenge Mizuguchi for Senate leadership. To emphasize his point, HGEA refused to endorse the election of three incumbent Democratic senators who supported Iwase.

"It just troubles me that one or two people can come to the Senate and jam up the Senate to the exclusion of other unions and other working people," Iwase said of Okata and Rodrigues.

Mizuguchi, 59, grew up on the Big Island with Okata. Their careers have been linked since Mizuguchi was first elected to the Legislature in 1974.

He said the close relationships between the unions and local politics can be a benefit.

"There is a great need to continue the dialogue and you need leaders who can reach out to labor union leaders," Mizuguchi said. "We are a small state and it cannot be us vs. them."

Two of the senators targeted by HGEA, Malama Solomon of the Big Island and James Aki of Waianae, were bumped off in the primary election. But two HGEA-endorsed incumbent senators also lost and several Democrats still face Republicans in the general election, leaving the battle for Senate leadership unresolved.

In the House, the HGEA pointedly refused to endorse three Democratic incumbents -- including Majority Leader Tom Okamura, a long-time party loyalist. Their offense: They pushed a civil service reform bill, later stalled in the Senate, and a measure to study overtime benefits paid to state workers.

Some union supporters also hold Okamura responsible for the removal of Rep. Dwight Takamine, a labor lawyer, as House Labor Committee chairman four years ago.

"Some HGEA members have been telling union members in my district not to vote for me and not to go to my fund-raisers," Okamura said.

Okamura contends that the state is paying out larger than needed retirement benefits because state workers can calculate overtime hours in their retirement package.

"There are people with a $40,000 salary taking home double that in retirement benefits," he said. "Even worse, the state has no way of calculating how much is spent on this."

Okata calls Okamura his "biggest disappointment."

"Here is a Hilo boy, bright and articulate, roots in the community -- he represents the future of our state," Okata said. "Our message to them is that there has to be a better way of uplifting our community than taking away public workers benefits.

"Rather than bringing some workers down, bring all the workers up -- that is my teaching and I will go to the grave with it."

Rodrigues describes the union's legislative muscle in terms of "education."

"We provide factual information to the Legislature and by doing that the legislators can realize without doing much research that we are providing facts," he said. "It helps them come to a decision."

Sometimes the "education" looks a lot like muscle. Rodrigues recently lent a hand to Souki's battle to overcome controversial dealings involving the Bishop Estate by educating Maui voters about the old misdemeanor criminal record of Souki's Republican opponent, Kalani Tassill.

Souki said Okata and Rodrigues play a critical role in getting legislators elected.

Because of the number of campaign volunteers they can put into the field for a candidate, Souki sees the pair as critical allies.

"They are key legislative players," he said. "You need to listen to them, they are very important in my election effort."

Souki denied the commonly held belief that the public employee unions try to line up candidates who will help organize the Legislature so that powerful committees are controlled by friends of labor.

"Normally, members of the Legislature and the unions have an agreement not to get involved in organization of the Legislature," Souki said.


Many critics cite the high-profile Economic Revitalization Task Force as a good example of how the public employee unions wield power. Cayetano, Mizuguchi and Souki named both Okata and Rodrigues to the task force, tacitly conceding that no economic program could make it through the Legislature without the support of the two labor leaders.

Their appointments virtually ruled out the possibility that the task force would recommend changes that would reduce the power of the unions, such as reduction of the government work force, large-scale privatization of government services or major civil service reform.

"They have a very heavy power. With ERTF they were holding hands with big business and the governor," said Republican Rep. Barbara Marumoto, a veteran House Finance Committee member. "You have to worry if such an old boys' network is good for the state."

Critics say the proposed excise tax increase that ultimately derailed key task force initiatives in the Legislature grew directly out of the unions' desire to avoid reductions in the government work force to balance the budget.

"They carried a lot of influence," said GOP Rep. Galen Fox. "The ERTF refused to consider meaningful strategies to reduce the size of government to pay for tax cuts. The thing that got them going in the odd direction of raising taxes was the power of the labor unions in the ERTF."

House Majority Leader Okamura thinks the power of public employee unions may be declining as the unions age and workers who won public workers the right to organize pass from the scene.

"Much of the membership today was not there when the unions where formed in 1970," Okamura said. "In those days, when the leadership started off in one direction, the membership would just follow. That just isn't going to happen now."

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