Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe has accused Gov. Neil Abercrombie of being “infected by the Mainland political strategy of attacking teacher unions” and having better things to spend money on than schools.

The heated rhetoric had come more from the governor earlier this year, but now it’s union leaders who are lobbing the most lurid insults.

Okabe sent the fiery letter to teachers last week as they prepared to start a second year working under a contract Abercrombie imposed last July, which included pay cuts and increases in health care costs. The threatening language likely won’t expedite an accord on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The state and union haven’t managed to set a time this summer to sit down and negotiate a contract, let alone agree to its terms. There’s even disagreement and confusion over what proposals are on the table.

HSTA insists the six-year contract offer teachers shot down in January was ratified when they subsequently approved it in a May re-vote. The governor has called the most recent vote “invalid” because that offer no longer had legal standing.

In the meantime, the state and union are trading letters back and forth. Both sides feel the other side is being unresponsive, so the standoff continues.

Ray Camacho, HSTA negotiations specialist, sent the state’s chief negotiator, Neil Dietz, a letter May 30 asking the state to sign off on a memorandum of agreement acknowledging the January offer as the current collective bargaining agreement.

Dietz replied June 8, asking if this meant HSTA was withdrawing its Feb. 28 proposal. He also questioned whether the union leaders were authorized to make such an agreement with the state because they testified otherwise during the Hawaii Labor Relations Board hearings.

Okabe followed up with a July 6 letter, renewing the union’s request for the state to sign and return the MOA within 14 days. A week later he told teachers that HSTA’s board of directors would consider exploring legal and other means to enforce the agreement if the governor failed to respond.

Dietz replied July 12, saying the state had received HSTA’s “demand.” But he pointed out that the union never responded to the state’s June 8 letter or a June 29 letter notifying HSTA of the governor’s intent to negotiate terms of a collective bargaining agreement.

Okabe said last week that the union is still waiting for the governor to respond to the ratified contract. He did not respond to a request for comment this week on what HSTA plans to do since the union’s self-imposed July 20 deadline has passed.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Dietz’s letters to HSTA leaders speak for themselves, although there was no mention as to how the state felt about the union threatening legal action.

Aside from blasting the governor in letters to teachers, Okabe has tried to strengthen his argument by suggesting President Obama has his back. Okabe has repeatedly referenced a June 26 letter from Obama to ramp up his rhetoric about teacher contracts in terms of preserving Race to the Top money.

He says in a June 28 op-ed, for instance, that “President Barack Obama wrote to me.” And in a July 20 letter to teachers, he notes “President Obama’s positive reaction to our ratification vote.”

However, Obama’s letter to Okabe is just a form letter written from a template the president has used for months. Aside from changing the name and date at the top, a quick Google search reveals the same letter has been sent mostly verbatim to bloggers and educators across the country.

Teachers pointed this out on HSTA’s Facebook page, where comments reveal a high level of frustration among educators eager for a resolution to the contract dispute. Some applauded Okabe’s letter, but others took issue with his comments about Abercrombie’s “Mainland political strategy of attacking teacher unions.”

“The labor union struggle is a class war, not a regional war. It is not Hawaii versus Mainlanders,” Miz Ott wrote on the site. “Fueling prejudice is an effective political tactic used by a small group to divide and conquer the masses. . . . Please don’t buy into it.”

The HSTA president has called on the union’s 13,000 members to “join us on the frontlines” in fighting for the profession.

“We must focus our energy and effort on preventing (Abercrombie’s) anti-teacher, anti-education positions from spreading to other political leaders in Hawaii,” Okabe said in the message to teachers Friday. “As we approach the 2012 elections, we are evaluating candidates by a simple measure — are they better for education than Abercrombie?”

The governor’s term doesn’t end until 2014, but dozens of legislative seats are up for election this November.

Okabe has said the HSTA board will meet next month, and there may be new developments at that time as far as a course of action.

The ruling in the labor board case could be another game changer. The board is expected to decide soon whether the state violated the union’s collective-bargaining rights when it implemented the “last, best” offer.

About the Author