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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Unions reasserting their clout

By David Shapiro

Public employee unions came into this election year a dispirited bunch.

They'd endured brutal strikes in the public schools and University of Hawai'i, taken reduced benefits to get arbitrated pay raises, lost key legislative votes on civil service reform as Democrats abandoned them and had no natural ally in the governor's race.

The big question was whether the unions still had the clout to be a dominant force in Hawai'i politics.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the answer to that is a resounding "Yes."

Public workers led by the Hawai'i Government Employees Association have rebounded to forcefully reassert themselves and lead a scrambling campaign to continue Hawai'i's 40 years of Democratic rule.

Already in the primary election, the HGEA and other unions cut the heart out of the civil service reform movement in the state Senate by defeating four incumbents aligned with the reform-minded Sen. Colleen Hanabusa. The show of strength will take the starch out of similar reform movements in the House.

In the governor's race, unions are the leading force in lifting Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono's campaign from the political trash heap to a position where she has a credible chance of winning the governorship against Linda Lingle.

If Hirono wins, she'll likely drop Gov. Ben Cayetano's hard line in contract negotiations with state workers, as well as his combative drive to force civil service reform and privatization on the unions.

Reforms already made by Cayetano and the Legislature would be targets for repeal.

Lingle supports civil service reform and privatization, but even she steps gingerly around public workers, backing away from her cost-cutting proposals of the 1998 campaign and promising no layoffs of state workers if she's elected.

After being endorsed by the police union, Lingle noted that the state has four of the eight votes in county labor negotiations and promised to use them to pressure counties to boost police pay.

This is the same Lingle who, as Maui mayor, complained mightily that the state should have no vote in county contract negotiations.

Impressively, the unions have achieved their turnaround while Gary Rodrigues, the highly visible leader of the United Public Workers, is on trial in federal court for corruption, putting all unions under negative scrutiny.

Much of the credit goes to HGEA leader Russell Okata, who is cementing his reputation as one of Hawai'i's most brilliant political strategists of our time.

Okata succeeds by selling his 40,000 members on political activism, dispatching small armies of campaign workers to help appreciative union-favored candidates and getting his members to the polls in big numbers.

The unions thrive in an environment of low voter turnout, such as the 41 percent in the primary election, which magnifies the high turnout of union members. Similar low turnout in the general election is perhaps the best chance the unions and Democrats have to sneak Hirono to a victory once thought impossible.

As troubling as it is to see a special interest rely on poor voter participation to prevail, Okata isn't keeping other voters away from the polls at gunpoint; he just capitalizes on their apathy.

The HGEA's political clout comes from sound strategy and hard work, and the union will continue to flourish until its dedication is matched by those who favor a more balanced relationship between the state and its employees.

The UPW's Rodrigues was dubbed the "26th senator" for the influence he wielded in lobbying the Legislature.

If Hirono wins, look for Russell Okata to be anointed Hawai'i's "2nd governor."

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.