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The 13,500-member Hawaii State Teachers Association is holding officer elections and after a few fits and starts seems to have settled on a promising new electoral strategy: Simply keep voting until leadership likes the results.
These are no ordinary elections. Perhaps the state’s most influential union — largely credited with last year helping Gov. Neil Abercrombie to the worst primary defeat in U.S. gubernatorial history as payback for his handling of collective bargaining negotiations — HSTA is looking at potentially big changes. Insider candidates for president, vice president and secretary-treasurer are squaring off against change agents who have been sharply critical of union leadership in the past.
Union members began voting in mid April, but when results initially came in, leaders wouldn’t release them, saying through a local public relations firm that they, um, wouldn’t be available until after May 16. Subsequently, a runoff election was announced, ostensibly to settle the vice president race.
But after voting concluded last Friday, the HSTA board voted 21-8 to throw out the election entirely because of “irregularities” they initially wouldn’t name or describe, despite being given ample opportunities to do so by Civil Beat’s Jessica Terrell, who broke the story, and other media. They wouldn’t divulge the results of the initial round of voting, either, even in races where a runoff apparently wasn’t needed.
Finally, late Monday, HSTA President Will Okabe released a letter to members that claimed “many teachers” had complained to HSTA that they had not received an elections ballot and that “several board members” didn’t receive theirs, either. Okabe also said leadership was wary of running afoul of the State Ethics Commission, even though the Hawaii Labor Relations Board has already ruled candidates could put flyers in school mailboxes as they have done for decades. The company conducting the election also released an e-mailed ballot count prematurely and didn’t provide for a way for officials and candidates to observe the counting, he said.
But, troublingly, a paragraph late in Okabe’s message matched practically verbatim a message posted early Sunday morning on the Facebook campaign page for the insider candidates, who are currently the union’s vice president, secretary-treasurer and their running mate, raising new doubts about how the decision was made to throw out the first two rounds of voting.
Union rules forbid any member from discussing election results until results are certified. But that hasn’t stopped former HSTA leaders and rank-and-file educators from expressing shock and dismay in web forums. A Change.org petition demanding answers was launched Sunday and had 260 signatures by Monday evening, as well as a colorful wall of quotes. A sampling:
“I have never trusted this union, but this is the biggest slap in the face to all of us. The (board of directors) actually believes that they will get away with this! Such a travesty!”
“I’m signing because the actions of HSTA’s current leadership border on criminal conduct. Shame, shame, shame when our teachers need to be protected from their own union.”
“We deserve better from our leadership.”
Okabe’s late Monday message said the new election has been scheduled for June 2. Teachers will have to vote in person or request an absentee ballot by May 26.
Leading the teachers union in a state where the public education workforce is not only one of the largest employment sectors but concentrated in a single school district is a responsibility that comes with considerable power. Given that, it’s hardly a surprise that elections to lead HSTA are hard-fought, competitive affairs.
But the way in which these elections are being conducted is a big surprise. They give credence to the worst suspicions regarding big unions, and threaten to undermine the union’s credibility with its rank-and-file for years to come.
On the HSTA website, the organization’s six core values are listed, and we found one particularly memorable. “Integrity,” it piously pronounces. “Uphold high standards of truth and ethics.”
We call on HSTA’s executive director and board of directors to reflect on those words and get honest with its members. The irregularities in this election and the late-breaking reasons that are being offered for them stretch credibility. Okabe acknowledged as much in praising the 21 board members who voted to scrap the election “despite all that they knew was going to be said to vilify them.”
Avoiding such vilification is not so hard, really. But it requires a level of transparency and truthfulness to which this union has not yet risen.