Abercrombie and his teachers

Ikaika M Hussey

It’s a matter of conventional wisdom that Neil Abercrombie is a union man. It’s a notion that is consonant with the Abercrombie myth, of the sixties antiwar activist turned progressive politician, with labor solidarity as a key part of the shibboleth of progressivism.

Which makes his rough treatment of HSTA so fascinating.

Yes, he’s governor at the moment when his fellow baby boomers begin to retire, which places an immense pressure on the state to fulfill health care and retirement obligations to retiring public sector workers. The current labor dispute is a inherited from Linda Lingle, who infamously furloughed the teachers in 2010. Those furloughs never really ended, but were baked into the school schedule.

HSTA is also in a weak political position. The K-12 public school teachers don’t have the size of HGEA, nor the buddy-buddy relationship of the university professors. And in spite of a recent study that ranks HSTA as the strongest teacher union in the US, their power pales in comparison with their fellow public laborers. Several labor leaders and Democratic party insiders I spoke with described HSTA as ‘fumbling’ the negotiation process. They may be the weakest of the pack, and the one with which Abercrombie can tousle with the least repercussion.

The governor wouldn’t be able to take his position, though, without two factors. One is the general anti-union sentiment that is perhaps the greatest victory of the Republican party since Reagan. A recent UCLA study found unionization to be at its lowest levels since the Great Depression. As unionization becomes less and less normal, their demands – health care, retirement, fair wages – seem out of touch with an economy which has grown to accustomed to underemployment.

The second is a demonstrable lack of solidarity within the union ranks. HGEA, UPW, and UHPA have been silent on the current round of negotiations. They haven’t called for their members to stand with the


72 schools that are (unofficially) participating in a labor slowdown. Within the ranks of organized labor, only the hotel workers are coming out in force this time, embodying a principled, almost retro notion of union solidarity.

Is this the new day?

By tousling with HSTA, Abercrombie demonstrates his independence from the teachers, which gains him leverage with other parties. He also steers the discussion of teacher salaries towards merit pay, “accountability,” and the overall businessification of the DOE.

Beginning in 2014, though, this all starts take a different shape. Abercrombie no doubt will seek reelection. But the word on the street is that the public sector unions, at least, are looking for an alternative. The environmental movement, whose ideas were echoed in Abercrombie’s New Day vision, have been disillusioned by his position on PLDC. Hawaiians older than six minutes are probably also looking for a different candidate.

So we’re looking at a governor who will go into his second term with weakened support from public sector unions, Hawaiians, and environmentalists. It’s a perfect opportunity for organizations such as PRP to burnish their king-making ability. Fresh off a major win in the Caldwell election, that joint venture between the Carpenters union and construction contractors has some $14 million to spend on getting the next governor elected. Bruce Coppa, a former head of PRP, is already the Governor’s chief of staff.

I don’t know if I’d call this a ‘new day’ – it’s really quite old school.