LAS VEGAS — Gov. Neil Abercrombie stood on a stage here Wednesday and extolled the importance of fair wages, collective bargaining and solidarity among workers.
He decried government policies that he said are killing the middle class and insisted that public spending is both the key to economic recovery and a statement about a society’s values.
As he spoke to more than 1,000 national delegates of the United Association, a union for plumbers, welders and other laborers, Abercrombie recalled the struggles of his mother, a teacher during the Depression. He said she was fired by the Buffalo, N.Y. school district after she got married because they wanted to deny her a pension and benefits.
“(She) went into the principal’s office and stamped (her) foot. That’s all she could do, the frustration and demonstration of the anger she felt inside, of the impotence,” Abercrombie recalled. “But she could not, could not get justice because she didn’t have a movement behind her. She didn’t have an organization behind her. She didn’t have a collective will willing to stand up for her as an individual.”
“That’s what the labor union is all about,” Abercrombie continued. “That’s what the UA is all about. That’s what we’re about.”
The audience cheered. Few seemed aware of the struggles Abercrombie himself is experiencing at home with Hawaii’s teachers union.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association last month filed a formal complaint against Abercrombie and his collective bargaining team accusing them of bullying negotiators and using unsavory “take-it-or-leave-it” tactics to impose new employment terms on the state’s 12,500 teachers. (Read Civil Beat’s coverage of Wednesday’s Hawaii Labor Relations Board hearing on the matter.)
With a budget crunch looming and the school year fast approaching, Abercrombie cited a lack of agreement and unilaterally imposed salary cuts and a benefit hike on the teachers, leaving members and several other unions questioning his commitment to collective-bargaining rights.
The liberal Democrat, whom UA members on Wednesday repeatedly described as “a really good friend,” tried to use his speech to set the record straight (although he made no explicit mention of his battle at home). He praised the collective bargaining process. He called for a revival of the values that bore the labor union and urged members to adopt the “aloha spirit,” reach out to one another and work together.
“If we’re looking out for ourselves and not for each other, we’re not going to make it,” Abercrombie said.
He even extended the sentiment beyond labor. The former congressman argued that the only way Americans will achieve a sustainable Social Security system and receive national health care is by banding together and demanding it.
The 347,000-member UA was one of Abercrombie’s earliest supporters in his bid for governor and could play a key role in future election campaigns, particularly if Abercrombie’s turmoil with the teachers union continues. Abercrombie won November’s election in a landslide with the support of the HSTA.
The governor appeared surprised when asked whether he thought his speech conflicted with decisions he made regarding the teachers’ contract. He repeated his claim that union negotiators shook hands on the agreement that HSTA’s board later rejected and insisted that he is proud of the contract process.
“Perhaps the board needs to give credit to its negotiators,” Abercrombie said. “Maybe it’s best to leave the lawyers out of this and get back to collective bargaining.”
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