Earlier this month, members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association participated in a public action to draw attention to stalled negotiation. Teachers across the state held sign-waving events on their campuses before walking in together as a sign of unity.

The negotiation still remains halted.

This is the second time I have been involved in a contract dispute as an educator. Five years ago, the state and HTSA were able to hammer out a deal to replace the 2011 “last, best, final offer” that was forced upon teachers.

Tensions were high and teachers felt the weight of the uncertainty as marches were organized, as well as a “Work to the Rule” campaign of sign-waving and teach-ins designed to display the difficulty of teacher work days. I can remember the ever-present whispers: “strike.”

Those whispers are back.

HSTA Teacher march to Hawaii State Capitol in the Rotunda. 13 feb 2017
Teachers marched to the Hawaii State Capitol in February. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There has not been a teacher strike in Hawaii since 2001. After going for two years without a contract, the union called a strike on April 5, 2001. Teachers picketed across the state, aided by a simultaneous strike held by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

I decided to speak to educators who were teaching in 2001. This negotiation feels much more heated than the 2013 round, with more demonstrations and calls to action from HSTA. Are these the forerunners of the ultimate action?

The first person I spoke to was Jerry Oishi. Oishi is the current technology coordinator at James Campbell High School, but in 2001, he was teaching English.

“The economic climate was totally different,” he recalls. “There had been no contract for two years and the community knew we were being shafted.”

He cited community support being the key difference between now and then.

Oishi also commented on the lessons he learned from striking: “I want to tell all the young teachers who want to go for it how much it is going to cost. It took us 10 years to recover. And what did we get out of it?”

He makes a zero with his hands. “Look at where we are today.”

When asked if he would strike again, he sighed. “I would go out again, but I would feel differently about the people crossing. If anyone says to me: ‘Hey, I got a mortgage …’ you got to do what you got to do.”

I then sought out Ligaya Ricafrente, a Social Studies teacher and English Language Learner coordinator. Ricafrente is also an on-campus coordinator for HSTA.

She felt things were a little darker. “I just donʻt understand how (Gov. David) Ige can do the same thing again. I cannot say he is worse than (former Gov. Ben) Cayetano, because I do not know how this will play out. But we helped to elect him, and now he is passing off this onto his team. He is not handling this personally.”

Ricafrente also dwelled on the financial costs a strike would bring. “I cannot afford to strike, but if we do I will be joining out of principal. A lot of teachers will leave, I have heard it, they do not want to go on strike. They canʻt afford. I have three mortgages.”

Lonra Baniaga-Lee teaches freshman English and is the head of induction and mentoring of new teachers. For her, the key difference in watching negotiations unfurl is how experience has tempered her view.

“I donʻt want to react too soon to the process only because this is what they are supposed to do,” she said. “I’ve seen it before because the other side doesn’t immediately give up what they want. I’m not initially going to get angry.”

Asked if this is just how negotiations are, she commented, “That’s the sad part. But, we have more organization now, it is the loudest we’ve been.”

The lessons gained from the 2001 strike are still evident in those who participated. What was most striking to me was the pain I saw on each of their faces when the topic of the strike was brought up. That look alone was enough to convey how terrible the prospect of going on strike can be.

But for now, we can only sit and watch while negotiations move into arbitration.

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