There may be an end in sight for the drawn-out labor dispute between Hawaii teachers and the state.

It began in July when Gov. Neil Abercrombie imposed a new contract on the state’s 12,500 teachers that included a 5 percent pay cut and an increase in their health care costs.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association retaliated with a formal complaint before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. Hearings in the case began in August, and have dragged on at the rate of about four per month. Meanwhile, the board has delayed issuing a ruling on the union’s request for temporary relief from the salary cuts contained in the contract.

When attorneys for the other parties in the case asked to speed things along, the board chairman told them that the hearing schedule is determined by teachers union attorney Herb Takahashi’s availability.

But a Dec. 30 motion from the state asking the board to expedite the proceedings appears to have had its desired effect.

This Tuesday marked the 17th day that attorneys had met at the labor board to question witnesses and exchange arguments. But before the hearing resumed, Labor Relations Board Chairman Jim Nicholson said he would speed things up. He wants to hear final arguments by the end of the day March 8, he said, and set 10 hearing dates between Feb. 1 and March 8.

That would bring the total number of days spent listening to this case to 27.

“The board believes the most expeditious way to resolve the complaint before the board is at the bargaining table,” Nicholson said.

But the board doesn’t have the authority to order the state and union back to the table, he said.

“Everyone is anxious to have this case over with,” the chairman said, and set the following dates and times for the remaining hearings:

  • 9:30 a.m. Feb. 8
  • 9:30 a.m. Feb. 9
  • 9 a.m. Feb. 10
  • 9 a.m. Feb. 14
  • 9 a.m. Feb. 15
  • 9:30 a.m. Feb. 16
  • 9 a.m. Feb. 21
  • 9 a.m. Feb. 23
  • 9 a.m. March 2
  • 9 a.m. March 8

If they’re still not done, he allowed for more hearings on March 27, March 28, March 29 and March 30, April 10, April 11 and April 12.

Meanwhile, he instructed Takahashi to provide the labor board with a list of all remaining witnesses he plans to call, in the order he plans to call them, along with an estimate of how much time he will want to spend on direct examination with each. The list is due at noon on Feb. 6.

The state filed its request to expedite shortly after receiving a letter from the U.S. Department of Education that reprimanded Hawaii for lack of progress on meeting federal Race to the Top goals and put the state’s $75 million grant at “high risk.” The letter cited as one of the key shortfalls the state’s lack of a negotiated agreement containing teacher evaluations and performance-based pay. The state sought resolution before the board while simultaneously inviting the teachers union back to the bargaining table.

It likely was not only the state’s motion for an accelerated proceeding that moved the resolute board, though. A written response, filed with the board by Tony Gill, a veteran labor attorney for the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, which has intervened in the case, may also have helped.

Although Gill disagreed with the state that resolution of this case is necessary for saving the Race to the Top grant, he did second the request for moving things along and rebuked the board for a long history of handling its agenda poorly.

“Docket management has long been a problem at the Board, and this Board must take decisive steps to rectify the problem,” he admonished. He added that the case has raised some “vital and urgent” questions about state labor law that need resolution and clarity:

  • Whether the governor can implement a unilateral “last, best and final” offer on union members.
  • When unions have the right to strike.
  • What exactly the duty to bargin collectively entails for the negotiating parties.

In August, Gill called this a “watershed case” for labor unions, because it is the first case in which the labor board has been asked to rule on a “last, best and final” offer.

Gill urged the board to vote first on the union’s request for relief and then to move the rest of the case along.

“The board should do what is necessary to defend its time and docket in the public interest,” he wrote.

While the board on Tuesday did take control of its schedule, Nicholson did not rule on the request for relief from the terms of the contract.

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