Union leader criticizes OTS, mayor
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By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Striking bus workers' union leader Mel Kahele yesterday blamed the O'ahu Transit Services company, Mayor Jeremy Harris and "slanted" media coverage for an apparent lack of public sympathy as Honolulu enters a third week with no bus service.
Rebecca Breyer The Honolulu Advertiser
Driver Daniel Sylva spoke out at Teamsters headquarters, saying he backs the union "100 percent" but wants to be kept better informed.
Rebecca Breyer The Honolulu Advertiser
Kahele acknowledged that the union has been pummeled on talk radio and in letters to newspapers since more than 1,300 bus workers walked off the job Aug. 26.
Each side has accused the other of bad faith and distortions during the negotiations.
Kahele vowed to fight back hard this week with a new media advertising campaign designed to bolster public support by deflating what he said were distortions by OTS.
"There's been a lot of deception, a lot of lies," Kahele told hundreds of strikers who gathered in the parking lot of the union's Hart Street headquarters.
OTS has begun airing TV and radio ads aimed at pressuring union members to settle. The TV ads ask bus employees to return to work and request pay raises when financial times are brighter. The ads praise the bus workers, but note they make a good salary. Radio ads are expected to begin running this morning.
Kahele yesterday struggled to extinguish fears and rumors raised by workers, and said they should show strength and unity to win pay and pension concessions.
The union is seeking a three-year contract with increases of 50 cents per hour in both pay and pensions during the second and third years. Negotiations with OTS are to resume this afternoon at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. Bus workers make between $15.26 and $21.17 an hour.
"We're very displeased with OTS, and most of all with the mayor for sticking his big nose in our business," Kahele said.
He said it was wrong for Harris to publicly criticize the union and say the city won't have any money for raises, while at the same time insisting he is not involved in negotiations.
Harris has called the Teamsters' negotiating style "erratic" and accused the union of changing its demands and pushing for pay increases after he brokered an assurance that benefits wouldn't be cut.
"Mr. Kahele better get used to me sticking up for the taxpayers of the city," Harris said yesterday. "After all, they're the ones paying the bill."
Kahele said a public guarantee by Harris that there would be no layoffs or benefit cuts came with strings attached, and were good only if the City Council provided enough money.
He said the union attached similar language to its proposal for increased pay and pensions, making any raises subject to council budget approval.
"It was a fair and reasonable proposal where no one can call us greedy," Kahele said.
OTS is a private company under contract with the city to provide subsidized public bus service. The city owns the buses and facilities and supplies the money to operate buses and pay the workforce, which is employed by OTS. The company's management team is paid $375,000 per year under a five-year contract.
Less than 400 of the 1,333 workers on strike attended the meeting yesterday, and some indicated they were unhappy with the way the strike has been handled.
"I'm not interested in an increase," one woman who didn't give her name told Kahele. "I'm interested in going back to work as soon as possible."
Others said the union hadn't kept its members adequately informed. Driver Daniel Sylva told Kahele, "I back you guys 100 percent. I just want to know what's going on."
Kahele criticized media coverage of the strike. "I'm not the bad guy they labeled me out to be," he said, while some strikers jeered reporters with calls to "get your facts straight!"
But Lynne Waters, the union's newly hired media consultant, said the Teamsters message had not reached the public. "I can't tell you enough how much I feel your message has not gotten out there to the public," she told the strikers.
Waters said it was more important now to fix the problem than assign blame.
Two City Council committees meet today on fare increases meant to raise $6.8 million for the bus system. The money would prevent service cuts that could trigger worker layoffs, but council members are split over how the fare changes should be structured.
Kahele urged at least 27 strikers to attend and seek political support for ending the strike. "We already typed out a script for you to go out there and testify," he told the crowd. "We need to get people out there to send a strong message to all these politicians out there: We are the ones who helped you get in, and we expect you to help us get out of this situation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Johnny Brannon at 525-8070 or email@example.com.
Correction: Lynne Waters is the media consultant for the Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996. Her name was misspelled in a previous version of this story. In commenting on the bus strike, Waters said the union's message had not gotten out to the public, but she did not say that the Teamsters had done a poor job explaining their actions.