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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 9, 2009

HSTA can't expect to sacrifice nothing

By David Shapiro

A unionized worker I know in the travel industry had to take a pay cut of about 10 percent when the company's revenues steeply declined.

Employees not only didn't get extra days off to compensate for lost pay, but had to give up a week's vacation as part of the union's concession package.

Stories like this have been occurring in Hawai'i's private sector for more than a year as workers deal with pay cuts, reduced hours and lost jobs as businesses struggle to survive the worst economy since statehood.

Many of these workers are dumbfounded by the drama kicked up by their brethren in state government over their 8-percent pay cuts compensated by "furlough Fridays" that give them two three-day weekends a month.

Furloughs in place of straight pay cuts are not unheard of in the private sector, but never on so massive and disruptive a scale as the state has done.

Wages are like the stock market; they always go up over the long term, but sometimes the economy dictates that they must come down for periods that are usually relatively short.

Employees feeling entitled to do less work when pay is cut in a recession makes no more sense than employers requiring workers to labor more when their pay goes up in a boom economy.

Public school teachers, for instance, got pay raises totaling 11 percent over two years in their last contract. Did they have to spend 11 percent more time in the classroom?

This illogic is at the heart of the stalemate between the teachers' union and Gov. Linda Lingle in negotiations to end school "furlough Fridays" that have reduced Hawai'i's classroom time to the lowest in the nation and made our state a subject of ridicule.

Lingle, who originally agreed to the school furloughs, has acknowledged the mistake and is offering teachers $50 million from the rainy-day fund to fix it a generous amount that might otherwise go to the poor and needy, who have been hit far harder than public workers by the recession.

The governor's offer is enough to give teachers a deal equivalent to HGEA workers at the University of Hawai'i, who accepted pay cuts of 5 percent instead of 8 percent in exchange for working furlough days that would disrupt classes.

The Hawai'i State Teachers Association has balked because it would require teachers to give up some nonclassroom planning days and wouldn't make them whole an unreasonable expectation when everybody else is sacrificing.

Both houses of the Legislature endorsed Lingle's offer and agreed to a special session if there's a deal, but mixed signals from individual lawmakers have HSTA hoping for a better deal by holding out until the Legislature convenes its regular session next month.

House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro said last month it would be unfair to make teachers whole while other state workers take 8 percent pay cuts and social services are slashed.

"I want to nip it in the bud already," Oshiro said. "It would create problems in the work force. Can you imagine us making teachers whole but not doing the same for social workers, professors, lifeguards, custodians, the whole nine yards?"

But now, HSTA is quoting Oshiro as saying Lingle should end the furloughs by rescinding her $134 million reduction of the DOE budget nearly three times more than the current offer and enough to make the teachers whole.

Oshiro had it right the first time, and if this is ever going to be settled to the benefit of students, legislators must impress on HSTA that there's no better deal to be had in January.