She’s been retired two and a half years, but she has the answer to just about every question related to Hawaii schools.

Joan Husted started out as a teacher in the late ’60s and in 1971 became one of the founders of the Hawaii’s State Teachers Association union. For the next 36 years, she was the union’s chief negotiator. Her negotiation for a 17 percent teacher salary increase in 1997 made her a legend. Before retiring, she served seven years as HSTA’s executive director.

Even though she’s no longer involved with the union, few people are more abreast of education issues in Hawaii than Husted. So I sat down with her recently to talk story. The scene: Zippy’s dining room on Vineyard Street. Over coffee and apple pie, Husted shared some historical perspective on collective bargaining issues, and shared with me her shockingly simple yet practical solution that could have prevented Furlough Fridays: Furlough teachers on paid holidays instead of school days.

Unions and Negotiating

CIVIL BEAT: I’m interested in the history of collective bargaining in Hawaii, because I know you were here in the beginning and a lot of people are questioning why we have collective bargaining laws.

JOAN HUSTED: You have to separate out the public sector and the private sector when you’re talking about collective bargaining. For the private sector, you can research things like the Hilo Massacre in the ’30s, when the sugar workers tried to unionize and got machine-gunned down in ditches. PBS just did a program a couple of nights ago about the West Coast Longshore strike in 1934, which had ramifications for Hawaii, as we were trying to organize longshoremen. The private sector, by the way, is all people who are not on on the government’s payroll, and unionization there is an old phenomenon going back to maybe the ’20s.

The public sector collective bargaining law was passed in 1970, to be effective Jan. 1, 1971. So we’re coming up on our 40th anniversary for public sector collective bargaining. It came out of the Civil Rights movement, and the thinking was that the private sector employees had the right to bargain and strike, so why shouldn’t public sector employees have the right to bargain and strike? A lot of innovation in this state occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and getting that right for the public sector was not as painful a process as it was in the private sector. The Legislature was much more predisposed to support collective bargaining for public employees, because Hawaii was very heavily unionized in the private sector. Many legislators came out of the plantations and had done their battles with the big five companies in Honolulu.

At the time (in the 1970s), what were perceived as the biggest benefits of collective bargaining, and are those benefits different than they are maybe today?

That’s a good question. The greatest overall benefit was for public employees to have a collective voice. To have some protections against the patronage system — you know, like ‘I want my nephew to have this job, goodbye.’ And in a highly politicized society like Hawaii, that unfortunately happened more times than people cared to admit. And it still happens today, where people get jobs because they know politicians and they work politicians’ campaigns. The desire was to bring some sense of order into that and bring some protections into that. And the preamble to the collective bargaining law says that joint decision-making is the modern way to run government.

Do you think that’s true now? That most people still believe that?

I think there’s a feeling within the community that unions run government, so there’s no ‘joint’ about it. And the unions will tell you that they’re not listening — that government’s not listening to us. But I think there’s a lot of collaboration still. Not as much as there was in the 70s and 80s, but more than there would have been had there not been collective bargaining.

What do you think is the most common misconception people have about collective bargaining?

I think one of the great misconceptions is that when the unions snap their fingers, government officials simply jump — and all of us in the labor movement wish that were true! I think there’s a clear recognition by many elected officials that what labor brings to the table, especially during elections, is people in the neighborhoods, in the precincts, who can work for them; who can help get them elected. And actually most campaigns that have failed in this state among politicians who like having labor support them, fail because they didn’t make use of the foot soldiers on the ground. This is still a state in which people get elected one on one, door to door.

Because collective bargaining is designed to protect teachers’ jobs, how do you reconcile that with attempts to increase educational quality?

First of all, collective bargaining isn’t intended to protect teachers’ jobs. It’s to protect teachers from being taken out of their jobs. We do go battle when the Legislature, say, wants to cut 1,000 teaching positions. We will argue that quality of education requires those positions. But collective bargaining is not designed — for us or any other bargaining units — to protect a teacher from being fired from a job. What it’s designed to do is provide a teacher due process. It’s the defense attorney for the teacher who is terminated, suspended or in some way disciplined.

Remember, the employer hired these people; the union did not. So if the employer does its job properly, there should be no poor teacher teaching, period. But I have had department of education people tell me that they’ve gotta keep this teacher on the job because they’re so short teachers. Our philosophy is, it’s better to have no teachers than bad teachers in those classrooms. Good teachers don’t like bad teachers; they don’t want them in there. But remember, even Charles Manson had a defense attorney. It doesn’t mean whoever defended Charles Manson believes what he did was right. But it frustrates us when you have a teacher you know shouldn’t be teaching, and the department terminates them and you look at the case and go, “Where’s your documentation?” and they say “Oh we never had time to put any together.” I personally think administrators who do such a bad job of that should be canned. That’s like giving you an F in class and your parents going in and asking why and them saying, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

But if the department does it right, I will tell you, they win. We’ve never succeeded at defending a teacher for a termination that’s been well documented.

What was your greatest achievement as a negotiator?

Giving teachers a legitimate voice again.

Was there a specific instance where you had to fight particularly hard to ensure they got that?

In fact, we struck. The 2001 strike was probably a classic example. The issue was having a qualified teacher in every classroom. The department of education was so short teachers, it was almost hiring anyone who had a pulse — they really literally were. They were hiring high school kids to teach in classrooms. They had a special ed youngster who ended up teaching special ed because they were so short teachers. That was in part the underlying battle, that teaching was a profession; teaching is an art and science; people can’t just walk in off the street and be teachers. And I think the 2001 strike made the community very, very aware of that. I think that’s why community members were so supportive. We had tremendous public support.

Paying. Though our wages certainly are very good by comparison to what they were, I think the community understood that as a profession, teaching had to be paid more.

And I think the third thing was shedding the pink collar image of the teaching profession — that teachers became teachers because they didn’t have anything else to do with their lives. We got rid of that. And we don’t have near the number of men teaching in Hawaii that we need to have. But until we get salaries up…

What role do you see collective bargaining playing in such difficult economic times, when every part of the education department is getting gutted because of budget cuts?

The HSTA has to keep everybody’s focus on the fact that money in education is an investment in the future. So that’s an important role collective bargaining can play, is keep people’s eye on the prize, and that’s a quality education.

And HSTA ought to be a public critic if things are not going properly in education. Parents and teachers have the same goal: that is the education of the youngsters. They shouldn’t be antagonists; they should be partners. That was the saddest thing about furloughs: we became antagonists rather than partners.

Performance Pay

A lot of school districts all over the country are doing performance-based pay and differentiated pay for teachers working in difficult-to-fill positions like math or science. Do you think that could fly in Hawaii?

We had a performance salary schedule, and that was overwhelmingly ratified by the teachers. Unfortunately, the employer didn’t buy it. And now the new interim superintendent has put it into Race to the Top, which I think is interesting.

On differentiated pay, I think the difficulty is when you have a school that should be a team effort, and you sit there and you say, our math teachers and our science teachers should get more money than our language and social studies teachers. I think in doing that, you put an unfortunate value on math and science, because I don’t know that there’s anybody who says a kid should be able to go through high school and not know how to read or write.

I would rather see the effort go into paying kids to go get math and science programs — pick up the whole tab for that. Do like the old National Defense Education Act. After Sputnik, Congress became so alarmed that American schools were not keeping up with Russian schools, that they gave out grants, or interest-free loans, under what was called the NDEA. I went and got my master’s degree at University of Michigan 1 on an NDEA grant. Plus I got $75/week living expenses, tax-free. And I didn’t have to pay it back. They would pick up all your education expenses, and then you had to teach in certain kinds of school districts, and they forgave 10 percent of your loan for every year you taught in those school districts. I think that makes more sense than if you say in a high school, the math teacher should be paid more than the language arts teacher or the social studies teacher or the industrial arts teacher. I think that’s a phony value.

We tried to introduce Hawaii Defense Education Act. We tried all the way through the ’70s and the ’80s, but we finally gave up because we couldn’t get any real legislative interest in it. This would be a good time to reintroduce it. That, to me, makes more sense.

How She Would Have Prevented Furlough Fridays

Since you brought up furloughs, is there anything you would have done differently in that collective bargaining process?

Oh absolutely. There was a way to have solved the furlough problem without furloughing people. Teachers are paid over 12 months, even though they only work 10 months. If you’re looking for 17 days, where do you take it from? Summer months would have been one place.

There were other bargaining units involved — HGEA and UPW — so it would have had to be a coordinated effort. One way to do it would be, there are 13 paid holidays, so you don’t pay for the holiday: no work, no pay. That was one of the teachers’ issues, was that they didn’t want to take a straight across-the-board cut because they were doing the same amount of work for less money. So that would be one way, and then you could pick up the rest in the summer. So you furlough 13 paid holidays, and four summer days for example. That would have been my preference to doing it.

What about the fact that HSTA initially said they were not willing to give up those teacher planning days, but they ended up giving them up in the end anyway?

They couldn’t figure out any other way out. Where you are is between a rock and a hard place. The tragedy of giving up the planning days, is those planning days were not for teachers simply to sit in their classrooms working by themselves. Those were when departments got together, grade levels got together to do in-service training and they did group work, so I don’t know what they expect those teachers to do now. We fought very hard for those planning days; they were issues in the strike, so I know it was very painful to give up those days. But both parties, I think got — I’ll get killed for this — but both parties got themselves into a corner and then couldn’t figure out a way out of the corner. And they shouldn’t have gotten into the corner in the first place.

I can see why so many respect your negotiating skills.

Negotiating is basically problem-solving. And if you have a reasonably good relationship with the employer — and it doesn’t have to be a wonderful relationship — but if they trust you and you trust them to do what they say they’re going to do, it’s basically problem-solving: We have this problem and we’ve gotta cut salaries; our teachers don’t want to go to work for less pay, but you need to cut the salaries; and how can we figure out how to do that.

Any last thoughts?

I think the union contract has been blamed for everything but the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

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