UPDATED 7/26/11 12:53 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Civil Beat interviewed HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira at noon on Tuesday. Watch the recorded video below.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association is the state’s largest labor union and arguably the most influential.

Its nearly 43,000 members (the figure includes about 10,000 retirees) are divided into seven bargaining units — blue and white collar, supervisory and non-supervisory, educational and administrative officers, professional and scientific employees and registered nurses.

About 28,000 HGEA members are public state and county employees.

In April, all but one of the HGEA’s seven units agreed to a new contract that called for a 5 percent salary cut and an equal contribution between management and workers for health benefits.

The HGEA’s nurses unit did not settle and is seeking a better deal.

UPDATE: The video below is a recording of a live interview held at Civil Beat’s headquarters.

Meet Randy Perreira

Perreira became the union’s executive director in 2008, having already spent 22 years with the HGEA.

Perreira hails from Hilo and, as he told Hawaii Business in a 2008 profile, he grew up in a household deeply involved with labor issues and the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

He studied management at Notre Dame and received a master’s degree in personnel from Michigan State, before returning to Hawaii to follow in his father’s footsteps as an entry-level union agent.

Questions for Perreira

Here are the initial questions we thought people might have for Perreira.

1. Does the breakdown in negotiations between the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state have major implications for Hawaii’s other public-sector unions?

The action by the governor to take the unprecedented step to unilaterally impose his terms is very troubling. Rightfully, all public sector unions will be monitoring this situation to see what impact it could have for the current outstanding contracts and future bargaining.

2. In contrast with what’s happened with the HSTA, the HGEA’s new contracts with the city and state seem to have gone rather smoothly. What made the difference in your settlement?

I am not in a position to discuss the HSTA bargaining situation, and am unwilling to make comparisons between us and them. Our HGEA negotiators, who are rank-and-file employees from each bargaining unit, recognized that the state budget situation was not favorable, with negative revenue forecasts projected. They made a tough decision to take the tentative agreement to give each bargaining unit member an opportunity to vote on it.

That being said, the manner in which this new administration has addressed collective bargaining has been little different from their predecessors. Much of the focus has been on achieving “labor savings” from employees who at best are modestly paid. The additional burden of having to pay 50 percent of their medical premiums — while many private-sector employees receive medical benefits at little or no cost to them — is putting a tremendous hardship on many families. Despite these concerns, our negotiators believed that if left to the governor and Legislature to resolve the budget without an agreement, things could only get worse for employees.

3. Not all of HGEA’s units settled, of course. What can you tell us about negotiations with the nurses’ unit?

All I can and will say about the Unit 9 negotiations is that our members have rejected the package put forth by the employers, and HGEA has notified the Hawaii Labor Relations Board that the parties are at impasse, which clears the way for arbitration. We remain open to negotiate a settlement with the employers if they are willing to address the issues and disparities in our agreement as compared to private sector registered nurse contracts.

4. What’s a misconception that you’ve heard about HGEA that you’d like to clear up?

HGEA members, who are state and county employees, have faced the claim by some that we are the “haves” in island society, while private-sector workers are the “have-nots.” The truth is that for our 28,000 members, the average salary (before pay cuts) was $45,000 a year — with a median salary of $35,000 annually. In Hawaii, these are hardly prosperity wages. We face consistent claims that our members get too much, and do not provide taxpayers an adequate return for their tax dollars.

The media and government critics will focus on those workers who have personal failures (and make the news for the wrong reasons) and use that to paint all government employees with a broad brush as being inefficient and unproductive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Members of the HGEA work hard every day, and in nearly every case for salary commensurate with education, government employees clearly fall behind the wages of comparable private employees.

Of course, the public discourse heats up every time collective bargaining comes around, where critics seem eager to deny government employees the opportunity to earn a decent wage and benefits for their efforts. This has continued despite the fact that for two consecutive contract periods our members have stepped-up and made personal sacrifices to help address the state’s budget situation.

To continue to work in such an environment, when the only support you get from your chief executive is a weekly patronizing statement, is truly demoralizing. I am proud to represent the interests of government employees, and can only wish that one day they get their just and due credit for what they do for our community each and every day.

5. Labor unions are under fire from Wisconsin to Illinois to New York to New Jersey, primarily because cash-strapped states don’t have the resources to give raises and support long-term benefits. As a longtime union leader, what is your reaction to all this?

The first thing that needs to be known is that every state that has addressed public employee pay and benefits is not cash-strapped. In fact, the changes that are being pushed in some of these states have much more to do with partisan politics than they do with money. Wisconsin is a fine place to start. Wisconsin employees indicated a willingness to accept financial concessions; despite that, their Republican Governor Scott Walker pushed through (with the help of his party’s dominance of their legislature) legislation to all but end collective bargaining. This scene is being duplicated in Ohio.

In New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie is claiming pension woes, he fails to acknowledge that his predecessor and fellow Republican stopped making employer contributions to the pension plan — a strategy that Governor Christie has continued. It is well-recognized that public sector unions across the country have long associated with the Democratic Party, and in these states it seems only too obvious — even in public opinion polls — that these efforts reflect an attempt by the GOP to hurt the Democratic middle-class base and improve their chances of regaining the White House next year.

HGEA has always stood for fairness for all, yet we have recognized the state’s fiscal situation and stepped up to do our part to ensure that public services are protected even in tough budget situations. We have a stake in our community, and stand ready to work together to address the challenges our state faces. That is why we react when we hear local politicians, and some media, make comparisons to other states and call for “reform.” We react when legislators call for nothing more than continued cuts to government — without exploring how to protect valuable services that the public counts on — and come up with questionable and suspect ways to balance our state budget that don’t address our core needs.

Some states face some truly daunting fiscal problems; Hawaii is not necessarily one of them. We have challenges that we as a total community must solve. Trying to justify actions that are occurring in other states as reason for making similar “reform” efforts here is wrong.

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