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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 8, 2004

Mel Kahele's tenacity again on display

 •  Concrete talks break off as island construction idles

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mel Kahele doesn't budge if it means giving up benefits for his union members.

But even when there's little on the bargaining table to discuss, Kahele — president of the Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996 — will schedule back-to-back bargaining sessions anyway and rely on his physical stamina to wear down the other side.

It was a combination of Kahele's philosophies and tactics that contributed to last summer's citywide bus strike. And Perry Confalone, who faced Kahele in marathon bus negotiations, can see shadows of the Kahele approach that led to the current O'ahu concrete workers strike.

"Mr. Kahele is a very strong-willed individual," said Confalone, chief negotiator for the Oahu Transit Service and an attorney specializing in management, labor and employment. "He's very old-school in his approach to collective bargaining, very power oriented. There's not a lot of nuance when you're negotiating with Mel."

Kahele, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, has led his Teamsters into two of O'ahu's highest-profile strikes in just seven months.

The biggest and most divisive against TheBus system ended in a three-year wage freeze and was largely considered a flop. It also generated islandwide resentment toward bus drivers.

Memories of TheBus strike had hardly disappeared when Teamsters concrete workers struck last week and presented the first sign of trouble for a red-hot construction industry that was expected to generate $5.4 billion in revenue this year.

But even though Kahele and his blunt-talking style stand at the center of both strikes, most of his labor negotiations end quietly, said Bill Puette, director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu.

The Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996 represent more than 5,700 members, working for 60 Hawai'i companies at more than 160 job sites — from Airborne Express to Daiei to Kapiolani Medical Center.

Most of the time, Puette said, Kahele and his union leaders negotiate contracts throughout the year with no public attention.

"Just because one strike followed another, you'd think the majority of negotiations he leads go on strike," Puette said. "But other contracts are being negotiated all of the time and as a union leader you have to go with what's happening with that particular employer."

The issues that led Kahele to call for a concrete workers strike — decreasing sick days and increasing medical costs for workers — are agitating unions nationwide, Puette said.

But Kahele's personality and tough negotiating style certainly are factors.

"Teamsters have always had a reputation of when they make promises, they aggressively make them happen," said Ron Brown, labor law professor at the University of Hawai'i law school. "They have a history of making sure they get results."

Kahele doesn't follow the cutting-edge approach of many modern labor leaders, Puette said, adding that it works for the mostly blue-collar Teamsters members.

"He didn't come out of a professional master's degree program in resource management," he said. "He's definitely a rank-and-file leader who people in the union identify with. He speaks with a heart that they can understand and with a passion that they can understand."

Kahele can also display a range of emotions, a "mixed bag" that Confalone saw in bus negotiations in 2000 and again in 2003.

"He can be very direct and he can attempt to be very coercive," Confalone said. "He'll also, at the appropriate time, have a sense of humor about things. ... He also has a lot of physical stamina and he likes to get into long negotiating sessions where people physically break down. That seems to be standard operating procedure."

But Kahele remains consistently stubborn when it comes to changing existing employee benefits.

"He will draw a line in the sand and say, 'We will not go there,' " Confalone said. " 'Either withdraw them or we will go on strike.' When that happens, you leave yourself very little wiggle room. If the union had taken one step back and not gotten so emotional, perhaps there would have been an agreement that the union could have lived with."

When TheBus negotiations ended, Kahele appeared in Confalone's law offices and made a joke about Confalone that the management negotiator would not repeat last week. "It was meant as a joke and that's how I took it," Confalone said.

But no hard feelings linger, Confalone said, just a mutual respect won over hard negotiations.

At the end of the year, Confalone even sent Kahele and his union staff a Christmas card with a picture of his family.

The union and its leader appear to be intertwined, just as Hawai'i carpenters leader Walter Kupau and David Trask of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association came to embody their unions during their day.

And like many others, Teamster Sam Keli'iho'omalu said Kahele only acts on the wishes of his members.

"He tells us all of the time, 'It's the (negotiating) committee that makes the decision' whether to strike, said Keli'iho'omalu, a cement truck driver and negotiating committee member who walked a picket line on Friday in front of Ameron Hawaii's Sand Island plant.

"It's us that makes the decisions, not just him. But we're all behind him."

Despite the outcome of TheBus strike, Jason Kahumoku still believes in Kahele. Kahumoku, who also drives a truck for Ameron, said Kahele inspires loyalty because he listens to the rank-and-file members.

"Mel is a good president," Kahumoku said. "He's just going according to the employees, and that's us."

But it's an approach that can also take Kahele and the Teamsters to a strike.

"His members understand him and Mel understands his members," Puette said. "When they get passionate about something, he gets passionate."

Reach Dan Nakaso at 525-8085 or dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.