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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 1, 2006

System perverted by binding arbitration

By David Shapiro

In the "Buzz Lightyear" movie, the space ranger battles slag monster mutants as he searches an uncharted moon for three Little Green Men who mysteriously went missing from Star Command.

"This diabolical plot can only be the work of the sworn enemy of the Gallactic Alliance, evil Emperor Zurg," Buzz declares. His partner, Warp Darkmatter, rolls his eyes. "You think Zurg is behind every kitten stuck up a tree." "The fiend!" Buzz exclaims. "Why can't he leave kitty cats out of his nefarious schemes?"

Recent scoldings I've taken from public workers and union officials leave me feeling that they view me in the same way Warp sees Buzz that I blame them and their pay raises for every ill in Hawai'i. Not so. Government employees do honorable work and deserve good pay raises in a flush economy just like anybody else.

After sitting on both sides of the negotiating table in the private sector, I respect the power of collective bargaining to produce fair agreements on pay and benefits. But real bargaining no longer exists for the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, the largest public union with 40,000 members, and it works to the detriment of the taxpaying public.

Since the HGEA used its political clout in the Legislature to have its contracts settled by binding arbitration, there's been little incentive to seriously bargain. Union negotiators can count on having their wage demands met by friendly arbitrators who almost always rule in their favor all without having to risk a strike to get what they want.

It's an issue now because of warnings in the Legislature that much of the nearly $600 million state surplus could disappear if arbitrators use it to justify oversized pay raises for HGEA members that trickle down to other unions. That could mean little is left to address pressing public needs such as school repairs, affordable housing and tax relief.

The HGEA defends binding arbitration with the disingenuous argument that it protects the public from the disruption of strikes. This is bogus; arbitration was devised to prevent work stoppages by essential public safety workers such as police officers and firefighters. Few of the mostly white-collar workers HGEA represents fit in this category.

We've survived recent strikes by teachers, University of Hawai'i professors and bus drivers. Surely we'd muddle through a walkout by office workers. If they think they're getting a raw deal, why shouldn't they have to show the courage of their convictions on the picket line, the same as other unions?

Binding arbitration perverts not only collective bargaining, but accountability on how our tax dollars are spent. Basic decisions about spending priorities are taken out of the hands of elected legislators and the governor and put in the hands of shadowy arbitrators who needn't consider pay raises in the context of other public needs. Lawmakers acknowledged that binding arbitration for non-emergency workers was a bad idea when they repealed it at the behest of former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

The HGEA retaliated in the next election by helping to defeat several legislators who backed the repeal. The Legislature got the message and quickly voted to restore binding arbitration over the veto of Gov. Linda Lingle.

In the end, the argument can be settled with one simple question: If binding arbitration doesn't strongly favor the union, then why does HGEA fight for it so ferociously while governors from different political parties seek its repeal?

By the way, in the "Buzz Lightyear" movie, Zurg did turn out to be behind the disappearance of the Little Green Men and Warp was exposed as a lackey on the evil emperor's payroll.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.