Labor prospered under Rodrigues
|||Rodrigues guilty of union fraud|
|||Labor leaders defend union credibility|
Gary Rodrigues, a union boss for 37 years, describes himself as a defender of the working class who is loyal, tough and direct.
Some have called the unflinching state director of the United Public Workers a thug, power hungry, a sort of rough-hewn "lobbyist" who could scare politicians throughout the state because he controlled a lot of votes.
Whether he was liked or loathed, the 61-year-old Rodrigues has always been a visible and formidable part of Hawai'i's labor and political landscape.
Despite his conviction on fraud charges, it may be a while before it is clear how Rodrigues' legacy will be written.
Members of Hawai'i labor unions, representing workers in both government and private business, owe a debt to Rodrigues for winning them better benefits and greater job security, said Mel Kahele, president of Teamsters Local 996.
"I'm not going to say anything negative about Gary," Kahele said. "His record speaks for itself as a labor leader. He's been instrumental in setting the foundation ... for the job security and benefits currently being enjoyed by not only the public sector but by the private sector."
The reality of Rodrigues' broad power in the state was acknowledged today by Gov. Ben Cayetano's office, which issued a brief statement of reaction to the verdicts. Cayetano last went head-to-head with Rodrigues in 2001, winning some concessions in the contract for state blue-collar employees.
"History will show that Gary Rodrigues was one of Hawai'i's most effective labor leaders," Cayetano said. "Today's conviction, however, will tarnish that record."
As the leader of the state's third-largest union, Rodrigues organized strikes as if going to war and freely expressed his views with the subtlety of a head-on collision.
But Kahele said, "He's always been polite to me. Always gentle, always respectful."
Others familiar with Rodrigues and his work with the UPW said they were saddened by the turn his life had taken.
"I regret that this happened," said William Puette, director of the Center for Labor and Research at the University of Hawai'i's West O'ahu campus. "In the beginning, he was a good, strong and clear voice for his union."
Born and raised on Kaua'i, Rodrigues has said his spiritual beliefs are a blend of Zen Buddhism and Sioux Indian philosophies.
He grew up the son of a strict disciplinarian. His father was a plumber who taught Rodrigues the virtues of hard work and church every Sunday. After divorcing his wife, Rodrigues raised his two daughters alone.
In February 1965, when he was 23, Rodrigues became the union's Kaua'i business agent. He held that job until 1981 when he became UPW's state director and promised to "run the union as a militant union should be run."
"My members understand me, and they know I will go to the mat for them," Rodrigues said in a 1997 interview. "I will fight for them. That's my job."
"Gary was fantastic. He was one of the best union leaders on this island, I think," said Bob Mielke, a member of the UPW executive board. "I would classify him as a working man's advocate. He was a strong advocate for the working people."
But as his influence grew in the 1990s, some in the union saw Rodrigues grow greedy, reckless and arrogant. He severely punished those who opposed him, firing and harassing union staff members whom he considered to be disloyal.
His longtime live-in girlfriend, Georgietta Carroll, was a key prosecution witness in the federal trial. After working as Rodrigues' secretary for years and earning more money than any other UPW staff member, Carroll was fired in 1998. She filed a sexual harassment complaint against Rodrigues that was later settled for between $200,000 and $300,000, and union members petitioned to find out if their money was used to settle the suit. Rodrigues ignored their inquiry.
Rodrigues' salary stands at about $200,000 a year, the last raise coming after he was indicted by a federal grand jury.
His influence has had a wide reach. It has been said that Rodrigues could easily schedule meetings with the governor or any mayor he needed to persuade.
Over the years, he spent considerable time at the Legislature lobbying for the union viewpoint. Politicians called him "the 26th senator."
His position as one of the most powerful labor leaders in the state was strengthened in 1997 when he was appointed to the Judicial Selection Commission, which nominates potential judges for selection by the governor and the chief justice.
Rodrigues stepped down from that position in March 2001 to contest the federal charges.
Big Island labor lawyer Ted Hong squared-off against Rodrigues in the 1990s over arbitration, grievances and labor board issues. Hong described the experience as like being on the business end of a sharp stick.
"He's an intelligent, shrewd and aggressive representative for the blue collar workers throughout the state," Hong said. "Conversely, the other side of that is he is also arrogant, dismissive and obstructionist in terms of labor laws in the state of Hawai'i."
Longtime Hawai'i union official and Unity House leader Tony Rutledge called Rodrigues a capable leader. "Obviously, he was in that position for more than 20 years, and he's done well for his membership, judging by the contracts he's gotten," Rutledge said.
Rutledge's Unity House has also been the focus of a series of investigations by federal officials.
"It's too bad this happened," Rutledge said. "I'm sure if something is wrong, he didn't have knowledge that it was wrong; sometimes, you just fall into things that just seem to be the way things are done.
"I didn't expect this," Rutledge said. "No one expected this."
Advertiser Staff Writers Dan Nakaso, Kevin Dayton and Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report. Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8012.