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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Teachers to test political clout

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

A year after the statewide education strike of 2001, teachers and their union say they want to take the hard lessons of the picket line into the voting booth, by giving candidates closer scrutiny and not automatically backing Democrats.

HSTA executive director Joan Husted said teachers will mobilize politically.

Advertiser library photo • April 19, 2001

Teachers and University of Hawai'i faculty walked out April 5, 2001, in the nation's first labor shutdown of a state's entire public education system. The UH strike lasted 13 days; public school teachers were out three weeks.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, like most public worker unions, traditionally has been a significant part of the Democratic Party's base of support. But the teachers blame the strike on Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat whom they helped re-elect in 1998.

And many feel the strike is not over, since the issue of teacher bonuses still is not resolved.

Ray Hart, a fifth-grade teacher at Kamali'i School on Maui, said he has grown more skeptical of candidates and their promises to support education.

"We were always told by both political parties that education was the most important thing and the teachers were the most important part of the education system, but what does that mean?" said Hart, a teacher for 37 years, including 10 in Hawai'i. " 'We're all behind you all the way,' but what happens? ... I think they're going to have to be (specific about their positions) almost issue by issue, rather than just a blanket 'I'm behind you.' "

Hart said politics is a more common topic of discussion now at work. "People always used to complain about politics, but I think it's become more personal," he said.

Some political observers believe the nearly 13,000-member HSTA — the third-largest public worker union in the state — will be a free agent in this gubernatorial election, remaining open to endorsing Republican candidate Linda Lingle, Democrat Jeremy Harris or Republican-turned-Democrat Andy Anderson.

None have been particularly close to the public worker unions in the past. Harris, in fact, has had an outright feud with the United Public Workers, which recently endorsed Anderson.

Also complicating things for the HSTA was Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono's decision to run for Honolulu mayor instead of for governor. Hirono had a friendly relationship with the HSTA and other unions and was considered by at least some teachers to be a natural pick.

HSTA executive director Joan Husted said the union's alignment with political parties has dramatically changed.

"Where public school teachers 20 or 30 years ago were considered very strong supporters of the Democratic Party because the party represented what teachers believed in," Husted said, "right now I would say that a majority of teachers would identify themselves as independents, wanting to see what the candidate stands for, particularly (regarding) public education, and then deciding from that point on."

To that end, the union is changing its endorsement process, HSTA President Karen Ginoza said. The union has welcomed all members to attend interviews with candidates and will make videotapes of the interviews available to them.

Perhaps most important, teachers will have an opportunity to approve or disapprove the recommendation of the union's board before an official endorsement is made.

This is notably different from the 1998 election, when HSTA's endorsement of Cayetano prompted objections from some teachers who said the union board of directors ignored their support for Lingle.

Teachers agreed to raises of about 18 percent over four years, including a 10 percent pay increase, salary increment raises worth another 6 percent, and a $1,100 bonus for every teacher equivalent to about 2 percent.

UHPA and the state agreed on a two-year contract that included a 4 percent raise in the first year and 6 percent in the second year.

Strike strengthened union

Senate Vice President Colleen Hanabusa said the union is stronger since the strike.

Advertiser library photo • Nov. 13, 1998

The University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly is stronger now, UHPA executive director J.N. Musto said. The walkout by the more than 3,100 faculty members was the longest in university history.

"Members are more inclined to organizing activities," Musto said. "We have a new women's committee, which is probably a result of the strike. But generally, this is not the faculty's full-time work. It's an interruption of their full-time work. Everybody wanted to get back to doing what they should be doing."

UHPA endorsed Lingle in 1998, and Musto said the faculty union is open to all candidates in this election.

HSTA officials and teachers active with the union say the strike has strengthened the union and attracted more of the rank-and-file to get involved in the political process.

"I think it showed teachers that they do have a voice, and that they're the ones who are going to be making the difference," Ginoza said. "Teachers, I think, for the first time in many, many years recognize their collective power, that if they banded together they became stronger. They didn't become weaker, they became stronger. And the community recognizes that, too."

But others say it's unclear how much teachers are willing to get involved in politics.

While the strike gave teachers a high, enthusiasm quickly evaporated as they returned to the same burdens that come with issues such as school standards and the Felix consent decree for special-needs children.

Kailua High School physics teacher Derek Minakami said he hasn't noticed a shift either way when it comes to teachers' interest in politics after the strike.

"We don't talk about it at school," he said. "We talk about our students, we talk about what we're trying to plan. Not much has changed in terms of that. Teachers are still very much focused on teaching kids."

Minakami, who considers himself an independent, said he is looking for candidates who are very supportive of public education, especially in terms of helping ensure teacher quality. He's wary of issues such as school vouchers and allowing nonprofit organizations to run charter schools.

But financial constraints on the state may hinder specific promises candidates can make. Even general statements of support for teachers would likely need to be backed up with money, whether it be for raises and benefits or smaller class sizes and assistance with special-needs children.

"Neither party can promise much," said University of Hawai'i political science professor Yas Kuroda. "They have to show how they're going to get the money."

Keeping issues alive

Some lawmakers said the teachers strike gave the HSTA more political clout.

"I believe that they're probably right now one of the most cohesive unions," said Senate Vice President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Kalaeloa, Makaha). "One of the most positive aspects of strikes from a perspective of a union is that they actually come back and they solidify the union membership. What it means for not only Democrats but for all elected officials now is there is a concern that if the teachers' union reacts adversely to you, how will that affect your ability to get re-elected?"

Husted said the task now is to keep the issues and energy raised during the strike alive and to organize teachers into a meaningful political force.

"There's no doubt that (teachers) are very busy and morale is just dragging on the ground," Husted said. "But we think that ... the teachers (will) mobilize their emotions and their intellectual ability to get involved politically. We're going to turn it into a positive. Teachers have always risen. They will always mobilize."

Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.