By Rep. Colleen Meyer
Hawai'i's unions are the 1,000-pound gorilla at the Legislature, and the Democratic majority has proven itself to be a very willing dance partner.
As the saying goes, "You dance with the one who brought you." The most powerful special-interest lobbies in Hawai'i are the public and private unions.
David Shapiro was right on target in his April 27 commentary, "Union workers win at Legislature this year." Mr. Shapiro wrote, "Clearly, job No. 1 for the Democratic majority in the Legislature is taking care of public employees who work tirelessly to get them elected, creating an incestuous government that feels entitled to serve itself first and the public second."
Mr. Shapiro's cutting criticism couldn't be more to the point, but union wage gains are only one side of the coin. The flip side of the Legislature's union bias is the plethora of pro-union bills poised to become law this session.
Senate Bill 294 will raise the minimum wage and translate into union negotiating power, in the form of a new wage floor. Unions will use this new floor as leverage to negotiate for increases throughout the entire wage structure.
Senate Bill 1808 neuters the director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR), under the guise of reforming workers' compensation, by stripping him of rule-making authority. This is a blatant example of hostile, partisan legislation.
Since 1963, when the current law was enacted, the Legislature has supported the DLIR director's broad general rule-making authority, viewing this authority as necessary to properly administrate the department and see that workers receive the compensation benefits they are entitled to. During the past 40 years of Democratic rule, unions had grown accustomed to having one of their own run the DLIR. But now that a Republican is governor, the unions are wary and distrustful of the current director. At the behest of the powerful union lobby, the Democratic majority is stripping him of the authority to do his job but only until after the 2006 gubernatorial election.
The unions are notorious for their opposition to refinement of the workers' compensation laws even if it means improving them, which is what Director Nelson Befitel has tried to do by tweaking out-of-date rules and policies. This legislation is a union torpedo, aimed at the governor and her appointee with it, the unions are sending a clear message: "Don't mess with us. We may have lost the governor's office, but we still own the Legislature."
Senate Bill 1889 would revoke the DLIR director's decision-making authority in regard to establishing new apprenticeship programs and would transfer this power to an apprenticeship council. This change would create disastrous conflicts of interest. The bill would transform an advisory committee, made up of apprenticeship program operators, into a decision-making body that would rule on whether or not to allow non-union programs to compete with their own union programs.
The way the current law reads ensures that the director, an individual without a vested interest, makes these final decisions. The effect of this pro-union bill would be to effectively shut out non-union apprenticeship programs and result in a union monopoly.
Unions use their muscle to advance the interests of their own members. The result, unintended but understood, is that their gains come at the expense of others. Public worker union gains at the negotiating table come out of limited tax dollars. Private unions, buttressed by protectionist laws, rig the game for union contractors and all but eliminate competition. The extra expense translates into one of the highest costs of living in the United States. Hawai'i has the No. 1 state tax burden in the nation and has the second most unionized workforce. The relationship between high unionization, high taxes and high cost of living is not coincidental.
This year was especially shameful, as the Legislature looked and acted more like an arm of the powerful unions than it did an independent voice of the people. Unions clearly have the "boots on the ground" to shape elections, and then "their politicians" dance to the tune they call.
With this much influence, the 75 percent of non-union Hawai'i taxpayers should be concerned. It is time the people of Hawai'i take notice and demand their legislators put public interests ahead of union special interests.
Rep. Colleen Meyer is the minority floor leader.