After months of what’s often been characterized as tedious and difficult hearings, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board finally heard from the union’s most critical player in the convoluted negotiations over the famously failed teachers contract.

And he had very little to say.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe answered questions about the negotiations process and his educational background Wednesday when he took the stand in the union’s months-long labor dispute.

The board is considering whether Gov. Neil Abercrombie violated teachers’ constitutional right to collective bargaining when his administration imposed a new contract in July.

Since the union filed its case against the state June 8, teachers have rejected a January contract agreement and submitted a counter-proposal in February. The governor has offered a settlement in March, and now the union plans to hold a re-vote this month on the January contract.

Less than 12 hours before the hearing began, HSTA’s Board of Directors officially declared that union members had elected Okabe to another term as their president.

Okabe withstood five hours of questioning from the union’s attorney, Rebecca Covert, and Jim Halvorson of the state Attorney General’s Office.

He was asked over and over about the contract negotiations process, both in specifics and generalities. But he stumbled at times over the implications of the “last, best, final offer” that was unilaterally implemented last summer.

Lack of Understanding

One of the biggest revelations from the hearing was how little Okabe appeared to know about the implications of an impasse and a “last, best, final offer.”

Okabe said he has had no training in contracts or labor negotiations, and Halvorson repeatedly asked him how he interpreted the HSTA board’s unanimous rejection of an April 2011 tentative agreement.

Okabe said he felt talks would continue to “tweak” whatever the board members were concerned about and get back to the table.

Halvorson tried to steer Okabe back to his original line of questioning about the status of that tentative agreement after the board rejected it.

“What good is it?” Halvorson asked, referring to the rejected agreement before abandoning the effort. “You’re obviously not going to answer my question so let’s move on.”

The state turned its focus to the “last, best, final offer” that the governor submitted in June. Halvorson asked Okabe what he thought that “label” meant when he first saw it.

“That there would be no more negotiations, that we’re not going to be talking,” Okabe said, later adding that he never thought that contract would be imposed.

Halvorson questioned how Okabe could not know that a last, best and final offer, as used in labor negotiations nationally, means an employer can implement it.

“You’ve never been in this situation before, have you?” Halvorson said.

He told Okabe that there is a legal requirement that both sides continue to negotiate if an LBFO is implemented.

Does ‘Support It’ Mean ‘Recommend It’?

HSTA’s attorney opened up with questions for Okabe on last summer’s infamous meeting in which state negotiator Neil Dietz used profanity and banged the table.

While there was some dispute Wednesday over whether Dietz hit the table once, or multiple times, with a fist, or with a clipboard, the questions zeroed in on the alleged agreement both sides arrived at last June.

Okabe testified that there was no agreement, but the state says negotiators shook hands on one.

When asked if he told anyone on the state team that he would personally be supporting an agreement on a contract, Okabe said no. Explaining his position another way, he said he told state negotiators at the time that he would be “recommending it” to the union’s board, but not “supporting it.”

“There was no deal,” Okabe said, adding that he didn’t have the authority to sign off on one even if he’d wanted to do so.

On The Table

Wednesday’s hearing marked the first time since the re-vote plan was approved earlier this month that Okabe has publicly acknowledged that the union’s 130-some-page February contract proposal is still on the table.

He avoided Halvorson’s first question about the status of that offer, but answered “no” when asked if it had been withdrawn. Okabe also acknowledged that the governor’s March settlement offer still stands.

Abercrombie has said the January contract offer no longer has any legal standing. This makes the implications of the re-vote uncertain, at best.

The result of the re-vote could just amount to a broad statement by teachers on how they feel about January’s tentative agreement after it was more thoroughly explained. That contract offer includes 5 percent labor cost reductions and a 50/50 split on health benefits.

The labor hearing is expected to continue Thursday morning with HSTA negotiator Ray Camacho on the stand.

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