The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly is launching a fierce counterattack on the National Education Association, alleging that the 3.2 million member labor organization is attempting to “destroy” UHPA after the local union’s board of directors voted earlier this year to withdraw its NEA membership.

UHPA President David Duffy, along with Vice President Sharon Rowe and Treasurer Robert Cooney, held a press conference Friday to explain why the board is publicly bashing the NEA, one of the largest labor unions in the country, representing K-12 teachers and university professors in affiliate organizations in every state.

It was the same day that UHPA published a full-page print ad in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser bearing a scathing letter written to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and signed by Duffy.

The letter opens with this sentence in red boldface: “We’d like to thank you for trying to destroy our union.”

Duffy, Rowe and Cooney allege that, since UHPA board members decided to disaffiliate from the association in February, NEA officials have continually attempted to divide and conquer the union, which has nearly 4,000 members, by creating a national petition, sending lobbyists to Hawaii to talk to professors individually and using other “fear tactics” in an effort to reverse UHPA’s decision.

The NEA, according to some board members, has also threatened to decertify UHPA — a move that would seriously jeopardize the union’s ability to bargain wages and benefits for university faculty.

NEA officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

UHPA disaffiliated from NEA after board members in February voted 13-10 to cancel its membership.

The proposal to cut ties was initially introduced after some board members concluded that UHPA wasn’t getting much in return for the nearly $700,000 in membership fees it pays to NEA annually, UHPA officials said Friday.

According to Duffy, NEA returns only about 40 percent of that money to UHPA in the form of legal fees, voter lists, liability insurance and other nominal services — services that he said UHPA has hardly used. UHPA members for their part pay the union roughly $180 in dues per year.

Duffy added that the NEA hasn’t done a good job advocating for higher education in Washington, D.C., and is much more effective at lobbying for K-12 education.

“Higher education is sort of an afterthought to them,” Duffy said. “All politics is local.”

Rowe also pointed to the NEA’s inability to crack down on growing administrative bloat at universities.

The NEA hasn’t gotten a handle on the “corporatization of universities, where we get increasingly larger, more complex administrations with higher salaries for presidents and vice presidents and chancellors all across the board,” Rowe said, adding that the NEA has also failed to retain tenure-track faculty positions across the country.

Moreover, Rowe said, UHPA represents just 0.1 percent of NEA’s membership, but “they’re drawing quite a cadre of resources to attack us.”

According to UHPA officials, the decision came a year after the motion to disaffiliate was first put forward. In the months that ensued, the board repeatedly delayed decision-making, instead engaging in long-drawn-out deliberations, convening a task force and listening to arguments put forth by NEA President Van Roekel.

“All in all, we thought we had done our due diligence,” Duffy said. “NEA had other ideas.”

What followed, according to UHPA officials, was a string of underhanded attempts to disband the union and regain its membership — a process that Duffy called connecting “the angry dots.”

“They’re a hungry beast and they have to be fed,” Duffy said.

Rowe also said that NEA tried to scare faculty members into siding with the national association.

For example, NEA distributed a fact sheet that falsely accused UHPA of failing to consider the implications of disaffiliation or discussing the decision with faculty members, Rowe said.

“The board made a deliberate decision,” she said, adding that UHPA has posted all of NEA’s responses on its website. “It wasn’t hasty. It wasn’t done in disrespect.”

According to Cooney, the NEA also threatened some UH faculty members by indicating that new insurance benefits offered independently through UHPA wouldn’t be offered at rates as low as those offered in NEA packages. Officials said roughly 645 UHPA members have participated in NEA’s various life insurance policies.

But UHPA officials emphasized that members already have life insurance benefits valued at more than $38,000 each and that the new plan, which is still in the works, should offer all members term life insurance along with upgrade options.

“It’s a form of extortion in my view,” Cooney said.

Duffy said UHPA board members are still deciding how they’re going to use the $700,000 surplus, but that every faculty member will be eligible for the new $20,000 term life insurance policy. He added that the money could also be used for a strike fund and a new staff member for outreach and faculty communication.

“We’re not dependent on anyone else,” Duffy said. “We don’t want Washington calling the shots.”

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