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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 21, 2009

HGEA agreement a responsible move

By David Shapiro

The 29,000-member Hawaii Government Employees Association did the responsible thing by agreeing to a new contract with 42 furlough days amounting to an 8-percent pay cut over the next two years.

This is the first time Hawaii public workers have had to accept pay cuts and the amount will sting, especially when coupled with significant increases in health insurance premiums.

Many private sector workers have been dealing with such hardships for more than a year, and HGEA leaders and members deserve appreciation for creating a sense that we're truly all in this together as Hawaii digs out from our worst recession since statehood.

Sentiments were heartening from some of the HGEA members coming out of ratification votes that produced more than 70-percent approval in most units.

"If there's a lack of funds, you have to do what you have to do," said Dan Bitner, an engineer in the Department of Transportation. "We all have to sacrifice. We all have to give a little. Everybody's got to pitch in."

Let's hope the leadership shown by HGEA and the Hawaii State Teachers Association rubs off on the United Public Workers and University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, which are still denying reality and dragging their feet in reaching settlements with the state as budget projections worsen by the month.

Gov. Linda Lingle made no promises to scale back plans for some 700 layoffs in November and possibly a second round later, but HGEA's cooperation in cost-cutting should earn a hard look at other options for balancing the budget before their jobs are chopped.

These sacrifices also deserve to be recognized the next time HGEA negotiates a contract in a more robust economy.

Some union members expressed frustration with the drawn-out negotiations, such as Tom Koontz, a planner in the Department of Accounting and General Services, who said, "We should have agreed to this in June. It's way overdue. I'm highly disappointed with the union's actions in this entire thing. Everybody is ready to move forward and make this happen."

Collective bargaining is an adversarial process that is seldom pretty and this negotiation produced more public drama than most but the outcome was a fair compromise between the 14 percent cuts initially sought by the governor and the 5 percent offered by the union.

Lingle deserves credit for standing her ground against almost universal resistance from the political establishment in her effort to get a fair deal for taxpayers, many of whom are struggling with pay cuts and loss of hours in their own jobs.

She was continually undermined by Democratic legislators, who defended 36-percent pay raises for themselves while steep cuts were demanded of everybody else.

Lingle was sandbagged at virtually every step by grandstanding mayors led by Honolulu's Mufi Hannemann, who all but sat on the union side of the bargaining table to make themselves look good at the governor's expense and then shamelessly tried to take credit for the agreement while hitchhiking on the tough cuts Lingle negotiated to balance their own budgets next year.

Even Hawai'i's senior U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye took a shot at Lingle on behalf of the unions.

There's been much criticism of HGEA's binding arbitration rights including from this column but it should be noted that the union's last two contracts were settled without going to the arbitrator.

In this contract, binding arbitration likely worked in the state's favor; if the arbitrator made the decision, the union almost certainly would have faced straight pay cuts, giving HGEA incentive to bargain for more advantageous furloughs that allow workers days off in exchange for lost wages and don't reduce their base pay in the next negotiation.