Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 9, 2001

Teachers study dilemma

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

As Hawai'i's teachers head for yet another showdown with the state over its unresolved contract, the next step could be a potentially protracted court battle or the picket line.

Teachers walked the picket line at Moanalua Elementary School in April. A return to the picket line in September is possible.

Advertiser library photo • April 4, 2001

Coming off an emotionally and financially difficult three-week strike during the spring, though, union leaders will have to balance their strategy for fighting the governor against the cost to their membership.

Local labor attorneys say the fight is likely to go to the Hawai'i Labor Relations Board, where the union could ask the board to force the governor to sign the contract that his staff agreed to.

The governor and Hawai'i State Teachers Association disagree on whether 3 percent additional pay for teachers with advanced and professional degrees was meant to be for one or two years of the contract. Meanwhile, the lack of signatures on the contract has delayed salary increases and the distribution of an $1,110 retention bonus.

HSTA board members meet Saturday, where they will discuss the wishes of the state's 13,000 schoolteachers and decide to put in motion a strategy for securing a contract they thought they had finished in April.

Teachers at meetings statewide Monday were given the option of further negotiations, pursuing legal options or striking for the second time this year.

But negotiations between the state and union over the lingering bonus issue have faltered since May, and the governor has said he cannot budge from his offer of $9.7 million for teachers with advanced degrees or professional diplomas because it will cost too much.

And the options of striking or going to court will be costly for a union that has already gone through one lengthy strike.

"We'll do what we need to do," said Joan Husted, HSTA executive director. "We spent a lot of money operating that strike. The decision will not be an issue of money, though. If we need to seek assistance from the (National Education Association) or mortgage our property we would do that. Though it's going to be a burden, we are going to do something."

HSTA officials won't divulge how much the strike cost them in advertising, legal fees and operating expenditures.

'A deal is a deal'

Labor attorney Charles Khim, who works with the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, estimated the three-week strike could have cost HSTA around $500,000.

However, Khim said a legal battle with the governor might not take long. Hawai'i law calls for the governor to bargain in good faith with the unions, and Khim said the governor's refusal to sign could be considered a breach of contract by the Hawai'i Labor Relations Board. The labor board can issue an injunction forcing the state to implement the contract, Khim said.

"A deal is a deal," Khim said. "The idea that you may not have investigated your financial responsibility is your problem. That's the position the governor is in. The bill came, and he didn't want to pay it. You strip all the legal mumbo jumbo and posturing away, and that's what you're left with."

Husted said the union needed to consult with its membership before heading into a fight before the labor board and appeals courts that could further delay the salary increases. "We couldn't go to court and just tell teachers we're putting your salary on hold," Husted said. "We felt the obligation to talk to our membership. We had to go out and ask them."

Possible strike in September

Husted said if the teachers vote to negotiate, the union will return to the table to discuss the 3 percent bonus. If they vote to strike, the union will return to the labor board, ask the board to withdraw the dismissal of the impasse notice and file a 10-day intent-to-strike notice.

In that case, HSTA is looking at an early to mid-September walkout.

If the union membership wants to pursue legal options, Husted said the labor board is the likely first venue. Appeals by either side would go to Circuit Court.

Khim said the fact that the governor's negotiators agreed to the contract language and later admitted they overlooked the controversial portion should weigh the fight in favor of the HSTA.

The document reads: "Teachers who hold professional certificates based on a Masters degree or a Professional Diploma shall receive a 3% differential calculated on their current salary each year."

That language was written by HSTA staff and reviewed by both parties April 23 when they reached their tentative agreement.

The state's chief negotiator, Davis Yogi, argues that the wording is open to interpretation, but does admit that he overlooked the crucial language in the contract that specifies the bonus be paid "each year."

State officials did not notice the problematic wording until May 1, one week after teachers had ratified the contract, ending their three-week strike.

More negotiations

Negotiations started behind the scenes. Husted said HSTA did not file in court immediately because it seemed until mid-July that the state would "come to a reasonable conclusion."

While HSTA argues that they have a contract, the state is arguing there was never an agreement.

Khim said the governor's attorneys now can argue that if there had been a contract agreement, HSTA would not have returned to the bargaining table.

"The governor can say, if they thought we had an agreement why was HSTA bargaining? It weakens the argument that an agreement existed," Khim said. "They (the union) waived the applicability of the agreement."

Cayetano said he draws the line at $9.7 million for the bonuses because the money is coming from the Department of Education budget and he does not want other education programs jeopardized.

Labor attorney Herbert Takahashi said he cannot imagine the dispute reaching the point where the teachers would go out on strike again.

"The board cannot require arbitration of these disputes, but it may have the parties consider this option. It seems like a question that is more suited for arbitration than a strike," Takahashi said. "This doesn't seem like something there should be a strike over this. Why the governor can't settle this is beyond me."

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.