The proposed contract settlement for Hawaii’s public school teachers is being hailed by their union leader as a step toward attracting “the best and the brightest” into the state’s classrooms.

But another victor in the nine months of negotiations between the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association may be Gov. David Ige.

Ige has taken flak for being an uninspiring leader, and some labor groups and other organizations have cast about for a possible challenger to him in 2018.

Should the HSTA’s salary increase of 13.6 percent over the next four years be ratified by a majority of its members Thursday, however, Ige will have achieved a happy ending that eluded his three immediate predecessors.

The HSTA has this photo of two of its members with David Ige, then a candidate for governor, on its website. HSTA

Union President Corey Rosenlee praised the governor by name in announcing the settlement Saturday.

“HSTA members are very grateful to Gov. David Ige for personally taking part in negotiations over several days to help us reach an agreement that’s fair to everyone,” Rosenlee he said in a press release.

Whether Ige can expand this feel-good atmosphere to include members of other public employee unions remains to be seen.

New contracts for 12 other public-sector unions are being negotiated or in arbitration, and some settlements could come this week.

And another public bargaining unit, the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, last week secured raises of more than 2 percent in each of the next two years.

There are nearly 80,000 public employee union members across the state.

That’s a lot of potential voters.

Teachers And Hawaii Politics

Having Hawaii’s teachers at one’s back does not guarantee election. But incurring their wrath appears to have consequences.

In the 2014 Democratic primary, Gov. Neil Abercrombie was defeated by Ige when he was a little-known state senator. 

Early in his term, Abercrombie had imposed a contract on the HSTA that was not to the union’s liking. A lawsuit followed and a settlement was  reached in 2013. The HSTA endorsed Ige a year later and spent money to defeat Abercrombie.

In Gov. Linda Lingle’s last year in office, the Republican introduced Furlough Fridays to save money. That led to students missing 17 school days in the 2009-2010 school year, and ranking Hawaii students last in the nation for days spent in class.

In April 2010, a group of parents, students and supporters occupied Lingle’s fifth floor office at the Capitol for more than a week. She refused to meet with them, and some protesters were cited and arrested. Furlough Fridays was soon ended.

A recent tweet from the Ige campaign:

When Lingle ran against Democrat Mazie Hirono for an open U.S. Senate seat, voters rejected the Republican by a 2-1 ratio, and Lingle has not held public office since.

And Lingle’s predecessor, Democrat Ben Cayetano, clashed with the HSTA over money during his second term. So the union and another labor group, the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, went on strike.

In 2001, the teachers reached an agreement with the state after a 20-day standoff. The UHPA struck for 12 days before reaching its own settlement.

In 2002, the HSTA chose not to endorse Hirono, who was Cayetano’s lieutenant governor and was running to succeed him. The UHPA, meanwhile, backed Lingle, who defeated Hirono and put a Republican in the governor’s post for the first time in 40 years.

Worries Over Rising Premiums

Ige has not had a chief negotiator for the union contracts. James Nishimoto, the governor’s director of the Department of Human Resources Development, is doing double-duty.

(The Legislature’s money committee chairs were not crazy about the idea. On Monday, they struck the salary for the chief negotiator from the budget.)

Ige might have been helped in his labor talks by the fact that his chief of staff, Mike McCartney, is a former HSTA executive director.

HSTA Teacher march to Hawaii State Capitol in the Rotunda. 13 feb 2017
Teachers made their presence felt during a march to the Capitol rotunda in February. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The teachers’ reward comes just days after they failed to persuade the House of Representatives to forward to voters a constitutional amendment to increase funding for schools through tax hikes on expensive investment homes and tourist lodging.

It’s not clear whether the settlement figures for the HFFA and HSTA will be used as baseline amounts for the other 12 units, or whether all unions will be satisfied with the figures.

Some union representatives expressed concern that health insurance premiums have grown significantly, and they wonder whether the government’s contributions will be sufficient.

In the case of the HSTA, it said that the state is paying 9 percent more for teachers’ health premiums while teachers are paying an average of 7 percent more for their health coverage in the coming year.

The teachers’ union said its members will have to pay more in some cases, but it depends on what health plan they choose.

Another factor at play: Paying for union raises will not be cheap.

The administration estimates that a 1 percent across-the-board increase would cost $85 million over a two-year period. The current biennium budget is about $28 billion.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke have set aside money in the budget for the anticipated settlements. Both said earlier this year they were frustrated that the administration had not shared more details with them about how the overall budget (which was approved in conference committee Monday)  would be impacted by union contracts.

But legislators do like the political benefits of supporting public employees.

And union leaders recognize that the state’s economy, while healthy, has dipped a bit this year, and revenues forecasts have tightened. And they are also cognizant that Ige and the Legislature have a plan in place to pay down unfunded liabilities for employee health and pension benefits.

The amount for the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund is around $11.2 billion, while the total for and the Employees’ Retirement System is around $12.4 billion.

The teachers have their deal, so will Ige get the HSTA’s endorsement again in 2018?

The union said it’s way too early to answer that question, explaining that the candidate recommendation process doesn’t begin until next spring.

Still, an endorsement seems more likely than it did before the settlement news broke.

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