Following the rules. That’s what some Hawaii teachers say they’re going to do — and nothing more — until their union leaders reach a new contract agreement with the state.

Papers won’t get graded. Prom won’t get planned. Students won’t get tutored.

Teachers intend to stop doing all the work they do on their own dime, limiting their hours to what’s contractually obligated, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Everything else that would normally get done won’t on work-to-rule protest days, the first of which was last week at Campbell High School and a few other campuses around the state.

A growing number of schools plan to join in a similar protest Nov. 29, and teachers say the demonstrations will escalate in frequency to increase public awareness and put more pressure on the governor to give them a fair contract.

“We don’t want to do this. We want to be with our students,” Campbell High School social studies teacher Corey Rosenlee told Civil Beat. “But we’ve had two imposed mandates and it’s not looking any better.”

Teachers recently began their second school year working under a contract Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s administration unilaterally imposed in July 2011. The contract included wage reductions and higher health insurance premiums, consistent with concessions other Hawaii public employee unions gave.

There’s no official tally of how many Hawaii State Teachers Association members are participating in the school-organized protests, but hundreds of teachers, parents and students on Thursday waved signs and marched down Fort Weaver Road outside Campbell High.

“It’s taken for granted how hard teachers work,” Rosenlee said. “We’re frustrated, and not just by this contract. This contract is just a symptom of the whole disease of how we approach education in the state of Hawaii.”

Strike Versus Protest

But what is a work-to-rule protest and what does it mean for education in Hawaii?

Honolulu labor law attorney Ryan Sanada highlighted the fundamental differences between a strike and work-to-rule protest. Chief among them is that the teachers are still working during a protest — albeit fewer hours — whereas a strike is a complete work stoppage.

Both, of course, are designed to put pressure on the employer to agree to the employees’ demands, he said, and often a union will utilize a combination of the two. What’s interesting in the current situation is HSTA can’t strike right now.

There are provisions in the law to try to keep the playing field relatively level between the employer and employees, Sanada said, and this has become a factor in the current contract dispute.

The teachers union couldn’t strike right now even if it wanted to because HSTA has a case pending before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, he said. Until the board rules on that case, or the union withdraws its complaint, striking is off the table.

HSTA tried to get the state Supreme Court to force the labor board to rule, but that effort fell flat. The court denied the request, only directing the board and state to explain the months-long delay. The board responded, saying the law lets it take as long as it needs.

This may explain why some teachers are touting the work-to-rule protest as better than a strike.

“A strike is the last card and once we go on strike the Governor gets to decide whether or not to negotiate. With a work to the rule protest, we decide,” a Facebook page created by Campbell High teachers says. “And since a work to rule protest doesn’t affect our pay, all teachers can afford to participate. A greater participation shows a greater unity of our union. Lastly, in a work to the rule protest, since schools are still open, parents and students will have to come face to face with their teachers on protest every day. This will raise public awareness and put pressure on the Governor to give teachers a fair contract.”

Campbell High’s official school website had a community notice to let parents and students know what all the commotion was about on the streets surrounding the campus Thursday.

There are also varying levels of work-to-rule protests. The type the teachers are employing so far has been on the softer end. A more hardline version would involve teachers following the letter of their contract during school hours too, as opposed to just stopping work at 3 p.m.

For instance, teachers are entitled to a duty-free lunch period of no fewer than 30 minutes. A more rigid work-to-rule protest would involve teachers turning down students’ questions for help while they’re eating or not going to a staff meeting during that time.

Joan Husted, former HSTA executive director, said work-to-rule protests are very difficult to do in general, especially the more stringent variety.

“It’s very hard for teachers to say no to kids, to say, ‘I’m sorry, this is my duty-free lunch,'” she said. “They often back away from work-to-the-rule because teachers say, ‘We can’t deny the kids their prom. We can’t deny them their graduation parties.'”

This is the first time Husted could recall more than one school participating in a work-to-rule protest in Hawaii. So far, several schools throughout the state — Campbell High, Iroquois Point Elementary, Waipahu Intermediate Honokaa, Kaleiopuu, Kahalui and King Kaumualii elementaries, among others — either joined in Thursday’s protest or plan to participate in the Nov. 29 one.

“It’s an expression of teachers’ frustration in feeling that the community does not understand how much extra they do,” Husted said. “They’re trying to make a point.”

Impacts on Education

While a strike, like the one that shut down Hawaii schools for three weeks in 2001, impacts students’ education more than a protest because they stop work, concerns remain over the effect the current protests will have on student achievement.

The Hawaii Teachers Work To The Rules Facebook page doesn’t deny that the education of students suffers during protests. Rather, it says their education will fare worse if the teachers don’t take a stand to secure a better contract.

“In the long run this work to the rule protest is better for our schools and our students; good teachers are leaving and the morale of teachers is being depleted due to the lack of respect and the lack of fair compensation,” the site says.

Rosenlee, the Campbell teacher, said teachers can’t afford Hawaii’s extremely high cost of living, causing a turnover every five years of more than 50 percent.

“It’s so difficult for teachers to survive in Hawaii that they leave. In Hawaii, we live with that. It’s become OK for us to accept new teachers constantly coming in,” he said. “We can’t expect a high quality product without high quality input. That’s What we’re fighting for more than anything else.”

Husted, a former counselor, said parents used to call her and say, “This is the third teacher my kid has had this year.”

“Parents feel it when their kids have high turnover rates of teachers,” she said.

But Husted said the high cost of living message could be a tough sell because many parents are dealing with the same problem. She said it will be critical that political leaders hear it loud and clear.

“It’s not just money though,” she said. “It’s workload. It’s a feeling that they’re not respected. Teachers are drowning in work.”

Ultimately, Husted said teachers will be able to make up for the time lost during the protests.

“When teachers decide they’ve made their point, they’ll work doubly hard to make sure it happens,” she said. “Teachers are marvelous at doing that. They know how to accelerate their work to make up for time off.”

Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi wouldn’t comment directly on the protests or their impact on education in Hawaii. She issued this statement:

“Teachers are of utmost importance for the education of our children. We believe that everyone involved in negotiations are committed to finalizing a contract and we’re hopeful for a positive outcome.”

Negotiations Resume

Contract talks resumed Wednesday and are expected to continue next month. The DOE came out with a strong message last week saying the first round of negotiations went well, but HSTA said the state’s 103-page proposal fails to further the interests of public education or advance student learning.

Abercrombie chimed in Friday with a statement of his own, expressing disappointment in the union’s characterization of the meetings as anything other than productive.

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