A legal battle between the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state has dragged on for five months, and yet the end is nowhere on even the most distant horizon.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for the state got so fed up he told the union’s attorney that teachers should drop their complaint and strike, already.

It was the first time the state has publicly told the union to go on strike to try to resolve the dispute.

The standoff started in July after Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi unilaterally implemented a new contract for teachers containing a 5 percent pay cut, claiming negotiations had reached an impasse. The union fired back by filing a case with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, and followed up with lawsuits when it didn’t feel the labor board was acting fast enough on the union’s request for relief from pay cuts.

When given the option to strike Tuesday, the union immediately renewed its commitment to carrying its belabored case to the end.

The issue surfaced after Deputy Attorney General Jim Halvorson had enough with questioning by union attorney Herb Takahashi.

“I want to put an objection on the record right now,” he said in the middle of Takahashi’s examination of Matayoshi. “He’s wasting the time of a very senior official. She’s the superintendent of the Department of Education; she’s in charge of a large number of schools, a large number of personnel, and school has started.”

Labor board Chairman Jim Nicholson asked Takahashi what he was trying to get at with his line of questions.

“I’m trying to establish that the employer implemented provisions in the last, best and final offer that were never discussed, and that the employer included a provision that prohibits the union from striking…” he said before Halvorson interrupted him.

“Let me clear this up right now,” Halvorson said. “The employer will stipulate that the union can strike right now if they want to. All they have to do is withdraw this (labor) complaint.”

Takahashi retorted immediately that he has no intention of withdrawing “any” labor complaint.

It’s not the first time the union has been told it has the right to strike against the state. The Supreme Court told the union the same thing two months ago. The only stipulation then was same one that the union heard Tuesday, that it first had to withdraw its labor complaint.

HSTA President Wil Okabe told Civil Beat then that he and his colleagues don’t want to withdraw their case. They feel that they’re in the right, that the governor violated collective bargaining rights. And if a ruling from the labor board won’t uphold their point of view, maybe a ruling on an appeal to the circuit court will.

So far, five witnesses from the highest level of state government — averaging one a month — have taken the stand and faced days of examination from Takahashi.

When he is not delivering questions in such complex sentences and rapid-fire sequence that they confuse the witnesses, he is having them read documents from the stand. Documents already submitted into evidence. Documents that in many cases the witnesses themselves have never even seen.

“Mr. Takahashi, I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” is an oft-repeated refrain from Nicholson when the union’s attorney pursues lines of questioning that appear irrelevant, or when he has witnesses read obscure portions of equally obscure documents.

It’s the type of examination that a lawyer may employ when attempting to build a record for an appeal. Takahashi appears to be laying the groundwork for such a record by employing a court reporter to document the hearings, and by even requesting last month a nonexistent official transcript of the case. Takahashi declines to speak with reporters as a matter of policy.

The courts rejected the union’s attempt to have judges overrule the labor board and restore the pay cuts.

After the last hearing, former teachers union Executive Director Joan Husted shared what she thought needed to happen.

“As an experienced negotiator with 40 years of bargaining experience in the public sector both in Michigan and Hawaii, there is no doubt in my mind that the state violated the law w/ their last best final offer. From John Burns through Linda Lingle, no governor has imposed their last best offer even in the face of three strikes and two almost strikes,” she wrote in a post on Civil Beat’s live blog of the hearing.

“The legal battle will drag on for months or perhaps years of appeals, unless the parties wake up one day and decide that for the sake of the students, teachers and collective bargaining, they need to get back to the table and resolve both the contractual issues and the legal issues.”

But based on Takahashi’s statement Tuesday, the union stands by its commitment to the legal battle.

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