Former star athlete head of Hawaii labor board
|Full interview with James B. Nicholson|
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
Q. How did you wind up as chairman of the Hawai'i Labor Relations Board?
A. My background had been as a union rep with the Kansas City Chiefs years ago when I was playing ball. I went to law school and took classes in labor, got out of law school and worked with the Hawai'i Employers Council as a management negotiator with Al Fraga. I moved from there to become a production manager at Weyerhaeuser Paper Co., and from there I worked for the joint labor management trust fund with the Carpenter's Union. I went on to private practice from there and represented the Teamsters in arbitration and became an arbitrator. This job requires all of that in order to fully understand the relationships between the parties and the collective bargaining process, the grievance process, what unfair labor practice is and what it isn't, and basically trying to promote labor-management cooperation.
Q. Your background seems to be more on the union side. Do people look at that and feel that you may be biased?
A. It seems like it's more union, and management's perception in a lot of cases is once you work for the union you're always union. The majority of us are born in blue-collar families. My dad was an adult corrections officer, my mom was a housekeeper in a hotel. I think all our roots are in labor. One of the reasons I was selected was I have been an arbitrator for over 10 years and you're only selected by mutual agreement between the parties. During this process with the HLRB you have three appointees. One represents labor, one represents management and the chair represents members of the public. That's the position I'm at. I feel that with my background that I've been groomed for this position.
Q. What's your approach to this job?
A. The board's mission is to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between the employers, employees and employee organizations. The whole system is set up traditionally to be adversarial. We're working on changing the administrative rules for our organization to permit us to have more flexibility and give them opportunities to settle disputes on their own, create a vehicle so that if they so chose that they could go to mediation through the board at no expense to them using the federal mediators. We're able to work with the parties to do some of this right now. But it's not the way it's been done. I want to try and slow it down to give the parties some time to catch their breath, sit down and talk about it before the attorneys get into a battle. We've been successful in a couple of cases so far.
Q. Was it an adjustment to go from the private sector to the public sector?
A. It's sort of yes and no. It's a huge employer, but because we're quasi judicial, even though we fall under the Department of Labor, we're only under it for administrative and budgetary purposes. We don't answer to anyone so it's sort of like running your own business again. In that way it's not different, but at the same time you're a public employee and you have to abide by whatever rules that you're required to abide by. For myself, you're devoted full time to this position, which means you can't do any other work besides what you're doing here. I wanted this opportunity for quite some time and when it came up, this is what I wanted to do. It's another challenge and something to put some fire back into me again.
Q. Why did you want to pursue the job?
A. I've been in labor for a long time and I've seen what's happened. As an arbitrator, I've watched the parties and there are so many times that I felt that if only people would just sit down and have a meaningful discussion and try to work things out and try to find ways of resolving issues without having arbitrators decide things for them, I think the system would be better served. One of the things that we're responsible for here, and one of the things that I'm working on first, is to find qualified individuals to serve as arbitrators. So many of the arbitrators who are on the list now have no experience in collective bargaining negotiations, have never worked for unions, have no human resource background, and those are the kind of people that you need. You don't have to be an attorney to be an arbitrator. That's where I gained a lot of experience at the Hawai'i Employers Council where I did 30 to 40 negotiations on my own and sat in on a bunch more.
Q. Since you started, has there been anything that surprised you?
A. One of the things that I was surprised with was that, in reviewing annual reports and information concerning board activities in preparation for my interviews, in order to try and get this job, I found that over 40 percent of the board's decisions were overturned. That's bad. That's just not paying attention. You have to look at the courts. You can't just make decisions. You can't make decisions based on emotions. The perception of the public was that the board wasn't being fair. Something needed to be fixed. We have a really good board. Emory Springer is a former police officer on the Big Island. He was the Big Island SHOPO representative. He's just a breath of fresh air and he's all gung-ho to try to resolve disputes, bring the parties together and try to work things out. And I'm the same way. And then there's Sarah Hirakami who is just brilliant. We come up with ideas and she looks up the law and tells us whether we can do it or not or finds cases in support of our positions. We have a real nice balance.
Q. Are some cases more difficult than others to deal with?
A. The cases that I have problems with are cases that have been sitting around here without decisions being issued for over 10 years. Those are difficult. None of the board members was there at the time of the hearing and motions and whatever else happened. Now, if we were to rule in favor of the employers, in a lot of the cases there's a substantial amount of back pay and other issues that are involved that make it a real big mess. You want to be fair. What we're supposed to do is return it to the status quo, but how do you do that 10 years later?
Q. Do you see yourself fulfilling your six-year term?
A. Definitely. I like this place. The opportunity for me to make an impact on the state so far as labor relations is tremendous.
Q. When you leave the board, what do you hope to have accomplished?
A. I'd like to see management and labor walking down King Street holding hands, but that's not going to happen. But to reduce the number of cases that have to go to arbitration; to encourage the parties to include in their collective bargaining agreements provisions for mediation; to reduce the number of unfair labor practices that are filed with the board. At the same time, that number may increase because of the effectiveness of the board as a place to go to resolve problems. So it sort of cuts both ways. You may have more unfair labor practices because whenever there is a problem they may want to say, "Let's go over there and take care of it. That way at least we'll get to talk." That's what I'm hoping.
And (another goal) is to educate people about relationships and trust and get the state and counties to rely upon the people that they hire to advise them on labor relation issues and union issues. Often times that doesn't happen. And encourage them to foster relationships with one another that are meaningful.
Reach Curtis Lum at firstname.lastname@example.org.