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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Teamsters overplayed their hand

By David Shapiro

An akamai local union leader used to start contract talks by saying, "As long as nobody gets greedy or stupid, everything will work out fine."

He was usually right. Hard bargaining conducted in that spirit on both sides almost always produced contracts that were fair to all parties and reasonably in line with economic conditions.

There's certainly a little greed in the ill-advised strike of O'ahu bus drivers, who walked off the job more than two weeks ago demanding pay and pension increases when other unions dependent on public funds in this dead economy have taken wage freezes.

But looking at the relatively small amount of money in dispute — and the lack of any significant matters of principle at stake — it's clear that the predicament goes beyond greed.

The bigger problem is that somebody in the Teamsters union leadership got stupid.

The drivers went on strike trying to win 50-cent increases in wages and pension contributions in each of the last two years of a three-year contract. That means a driver would collect a total of $2,080 more in pay after three years.

A driver at the top pay scale of some $44,000 a year has already lost more wages than that in the strike.

It's too piddling a sum to strike over, and no responsible union leader would put members on the picket line for such a small potential gain — especially when there's clear evidence that there's just no money to pay for the raises the drivers want.

O'ahu Transit Services, the company that manages the bus system under contract with the city, has engaged in some obnoxious bargaining tactics that understandably have grated on the Teamsters.

But it's difficult to dispute that there's no money for raises when Mayor Jeremy Harris and City Council members adamantly say they won't fund any raises O'ahu Transit agrees to.

The council is twisted in political knots trying to mollify the bus-riding public over $6.8 million in fare increases needed simply to maintain bus service at existing levels. Riders wouldn't tolerate additional fares of $1.5 million to pay drivers more.

The union started out with issues worth fighting over. The city was threatening to lay off drivers to make up the $6.8 million shortfall in the transit budget, and O'ahu Transit was demanding reductions in fringe benefits.

But by the time the strike started, the council had signaled it would increase bus fares to avoid layoffs, and O'ahu Transit was willing to offer status quo on benefits.

It wasn't a done deal by any means, but progress was promising enough for the Teamsters to at least delay their strike to avoid disrupting bus service and spare drivers the hardship of needlessly going without paychecks.

Teamster leaders have negotiated inconsistently and have failed to communicate a clear message to their members or the public.

They miscalculated that public outrage over the inconvenience of a bus shutdown would force the city to give in to their wage demands.

To the contrary, the public has coped reasonably well with the strike, and outrage has mostly been directed at the bus drivers, who are perceived to be fairly compensated compared to police, firefighters and public school teachers.

Clearly, decision-makers in the Teamsters union overplayed their hand and their members are paying for it.

When the economy improves and the tax base starts growing again, bus drivers and other workers who depend on public funding will get their pay raises and nobody will begrudge them.

Until then, it's no time to get stupid.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.