Viewpoint – Governor is right: Hawaii is not Wisconsin

“For the record: This is not Wisconsin. This is not Michigan,” Gov. Neil Abercrombie declared of Hawaii in his State of the State address Tuesday, referring to state governments that recently mounted offensives against public worker unions.

While there is truth to that declaration, there is also a certain irony in the comparison. Wisconsin and Michigan were the states where the labor movement began in America. Hawaii plantation workers extended that struggle against unjust working conditions and wages through union organizing and overwhelming support for the Democratic Party.

Indeed, it is fortuitous for the governor to remember that, and to recognize that Hawaii is the third most unionized state in America. Unionized workers built the Democratic Party in Hawaii.

“This administration is not going to abandon collective bargaining,” Abercrombie went on to say in his address.

That tends to fall on deaf ears when it comes to public school teachers here, who comprise the largest bloc of state workers. That is because the governor attempted to impose his will regarding how teachers are to be evaluated without teachers having any say in it. This did not fly in collective bargaining with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, so he attempted to coerce the Legislature into doing his dirty work in this regard. When that failed, he simply decreed it through his appointed Board of Education.

While Abercrombie early on in his speech ballyhooed “today’s fiscally favorable outlook,” he later thanked “those state employees who agreed to labor savings and additional payments for health benefits. There was no way we could have balanced our budget . . . without the commitment of those public workers.”

Well, guess what? The teachers did not agree to the amount of the salary cuts and increases in their health insurance premiums. The contract mandating the labor savings the governor referred to was arbitrarily imposed on the teachers via a last, best and final contract offer.

HSTA responded via a complaint to the state labor board that Abercrombie did so without following the process required by the state’s collective bargaining laws. This was to be futile, though, because the labor board was also appointed by the governor. And since it has yet to rule on the complaint, the union was checkmated by state law into any further response such as a strike.

Hawaii Government Employees Association was the first to reach a contract under the governor’s watch, because that union’s members believed Abercrombie when he gave HGEA “most favored nation” status, in effect guaranteeing them that percentage cuts in wages would be matched if more favorable amounts were agreed to by the other public worker unions. When United Public Workers agreed to a more favorable contract, Abercrombie’s administration legally maneuvered out of having to be held to what it promised HGEA.

Although “we have now turned a fiscal corner,” the governor postures that “good faith collective bargaining negotiations are essential if we are to move toward a resolution that is fair to everyone.”

Forgive the unions if this speech sounds disingenuous, considering what transpired the first time this governor entered into collective bargaining with the unions representing all those teachers, counselors, principals, police officers, judges, firefighters, lifeguards, nurses, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, accountants, inspectors and the rest of the myriad white- and blue-collar workers who actually make this state tick.

Wisconsin’s governor is Scott Walker, a staunchly conservative Republican who repeatedly vowed to his wealthy campaign contributors that he would undermine the state’s collective bargaining laws and thus destroy the state’s public worker unions.

Yes, Hawaii is not Wisconsin. But Neil Abercrombie has some convincing to do if we are to believe that he is not Walker.

* Alan Isbell is a 4th-grade teacher at Wailuku Elementary School and the school’s head faculty representative for the Hawaii State Teachers Association.