The labor dispute between the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) and Governor Abercrombie hit another snag this week, further delaying a decision on the core “impasse” issue.
On June 24, just days before teacher contracts expired, Abercrombie declared that negotiations with the HSTA had reached an impasse. The governor claimed he had no choice but to impose new contract terms, including the equivalent of a five percent temporary wage reduction. The HSTA disagreed, promptly filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board (HLRB), and consequently become the first case to challenge impasse law in Hawaii.
When Abercrombie, the superintendent, and the Board of Education chairman sent a joint letter to the HLRB last week that made mention of the possibility for mediation – after the HSTA had requested arbitration – the union filed complaints with both the HLRB and the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. HSTA believed that the letter was “ex parte” , private communication used to influence HLRB’s impending decision in the labor dispute.
HSTA attorney Herb Takahashi argued that the governor was using his power to influence the board and cause further delays, while Deputy Attorney General Jim Halvorson reminded Takahashi and the board that the letter was sent to both the board and the HSTA, and as such, did not constitute private communication.
The board agreed that ex parte was not a factor and dismissed the complaint, but not without hitting some snags of their own. Just prior to the hearing on Thursday, board member Sesnita Moepono recused herself. The Hawaii State Ethics Commission believed that Moepono’s husband’s position as a student services coordinator and HSTA member may cause a conflict of interest and as such, required Moepono to recuse herself from the case.
Moepono’s departure leaves only two board members and thus the possibility of a tie vote in this controversial, watershed case. In order to avoid such an outcome, Halvorson reports he is assessing the state’s options. As there is currently no process for replacing board members whom have recused themselves, options may be limited.
Hearings for the initial complaint are scheduled for August 25, 30, 31 and September 1. Whether or not the board is able to replace Moepono, a decision will have to be made regarding the original complaints brought by the HSTA. And this decision is likely to have long lasting effects on the governor’s position, power, and relationship with labor unions. If the labor board rules in favor of the HSTA, labor unions will naturally gain some power and the governor is likely to lose some. If the HLRB decides in favor of the governor, his authority may increase but his relationship with labor unions may suffer.