State extends contracts for public worker unions
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The state has extended labor contracts with three major unions, guaranteeing that public school teachers will not strike for one year and that the workers' health benefits won't be jeopardized while new contracts are negotiated, Gov. Linda Lingle said yesterday.
The contracts are with the Hawai'i State Teachers Association, United Public Workers, and Hawai'i Government Employees Association.
The deals include no wage increases, but bring the total increase in state spending on employee health coverage to $60 million over the next two years, according to Ted Hong, the state's chief negotiator.
"There's been zero increase in wages, but while that's true, the cost to the taxpayers of the state has gone up substantially," Lingle said.
The HSTA and HGEA extensions are for one year, while the UPW deal covers two years. Only the HGEA agreement allows a strike, on 30 days' written notice.
All 13 of the state's collective bargaining units had sought pay increases for the 57,000 state and county employees they represent. Their contracts were scheduled to expire June 30.
Two units, covering correctional and police officers, are awaiting decisions by arbitrators. The rest have reached new agreements, extended previous contracts or obtained arbitrated settlements.
Lingle yesterday said negotiations with the unions kept a more respectful tone than in previous years, with an understanding that the state is undergoing difficult financial times.
"It had always seemed to me that there was unnecessary rancor and a lack of dignity in the process," Lingle said. "It really wasn't necessary, and I think it wasn't in the best interest of the state. While we know we aren't going to agree on everything, we think there's a way to disagree that is still respectful of both sides."
HGEA Executive Director Russell Okata said dealing with the first Republican administration in decades had not been tremendously different.
"Negotiations are always give-and-take," he said. "Principals may change, but whether it's a donkey or an elephant, it seems like it's the same pace. I think it's really unfair to our negotiating teams, because it creates too much uncertainty."
But Okata agreed it was not a time to demand a new contract and pay increases.
"This extension recognizes that a settlement is not possible when the world's economy not just Hawai'i's is impacted by the Iraqi war, the threat of SARS on tourism, the stock market and other forces beyond Hawai'i's control," he said.
The state is shifting from an employee health insurance system in which each union administers its own plan to a single, state-run plan called the Employee Union Trust Fund.
Lingle said the change was not responsible for rising costs, but health insurance coverage is growing more expensive for everyone.
"In fact, I think the transfer to the EUTF probably in total saved us $10 million over what it would have been had we stuck with the previous system," she said.
Hong said the state's contribution for health coverage would be locked in for two years, though some of the contracts are for one year.
The state said in a written summary of the contract extensions that the deal would maintain the same level of classroom instructional time, and teacher demands for more time away from students had been rejected.
HSTA executive director Joan Husted said that mischaracterized the union's position.
"The association never proposed that instructional time be reduced in schools," she said. "We had issues with leave time, but we have worked that out to our satisfaction."
The state reached a partial contract settlement Thursday with the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly.
The agreement does not include salary hikes but covers increased health insurance premiums. It allows university faculty and staff to strike, but union officials have said there is little chance that would happen.
Hawai'i's teachers struck for three weeks in April 2001 before ratifying a contract that included raises totaling 18.5 percent over two years.
UPW officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com or 525-8070.