There was no class for Oahu students Monday because it was this island’s Institute Day for the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

The purpose of the day is to get every member on each island to one central place to go over union business. The other islands hold their events on subsequent days so union leadership can attend each.

Last year, the Oahu event was accompanied by a march to the Capitol in a show of solidarity for the ongoing contract negotiation.

Consequently, this year was a little underwhelming, despite the current environment being much more dire for organized labor.

HSTA rally State Capitol building. 13 feb 2017
Last year’s Institute Day gathering filled the Capitol rotunda with a sea of red. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Last September, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case of Janus v American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which will quite likely change the way public sector unions operate across the country.

Mark Janus is a child-support specialist working for the state of Illinois. State employees there are represented in collective bargaining by a union, AFSCME. This is similar to how Hawaii teachers are covered by HSTA.

Employees do not have to become members of these unions, but since the contracts they negotiate apply to all workers, the unions collect a “fair-share” fee from all non-member employees.

Janus is challenging this practice, specifically by pointing out that AFSCME also supports political candidates that he does not personally favor and claiming this violates his right to free speech. He no longer wants to pay a fee for a union who would still represent him at the bargaining table.

Despite its potential for being a powerful show of union strength, most teachers do not enjoy the gathering.

Last year the Supreme Court heard the case of Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, where teachers in California sued their union for the same reason. The court did not make a ruling until after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the vote was 4-4, allowing the union to continue collecting fees on non-members due to a lower court ruling.

If the court rules in favor of Janus, as many expect it will with the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the bench, all public employees will get a chance to opt out of paying union fees by not becoming members of the union.

HSTA is already beginning to plan for a worse-case scenario.

Union leadership is pushing a universal membership drive to register non-members. The union’s school level leaders have been reaching out to previously unregistered teachers and getting them to sign up.

Another strategy is the ongoing “Red For Ed” campaign, which requests teachers wear red or HSTA shirts on Tuesdays in a show of solidarity.

A video has been posted on YouTube to tell teachers about the case. HSTA has launched a contest for schools to submit pictures of their faculties wearing red for a chance to win prizes.

Finally, leadership has begun to take hard looks at how the union spends money in an effort to be more cost-effective. One preemptive step is to cut this year’s union convention from a two-day event down to one day.

Which brings us back to Institute Day. Union leaders need to seriously consider the future of this event. If it is to continue, there needs to be a more obvious purpose.

Despite its potential for being a powerful show of union strength, most teachers do not enjoy the gathering at the Neal S. Blaisdell Arena. Waling into the Blaisdell from the free parking provided by McKinley High School, you pass a lot of people walking out, having already signed in.

Teachers from the farther reaches of Oahu seriously question if the rally is even worth the gas money to drive into town.

The morning is essentially a giant pep rally in the arena for leadership to deliver speeches, usually wrapped up by a guest speaker. The afternoon is filled with breakout sessions from vendors on retirement plans and healthcare options. A majority of this information is already relayed via the weekly “Member Matters” emails all teachers receive, so why deliver it again?

As a school level leader for the union, I am annually asked why this event is important. When I pass along this concern, the answer I receive is: “we negotiated for it, so low attendance could risk its future.”

We have also intertwined union elections into the sign-in at Institute Day, but that could be accomplished at individual schools.

With the hazy future our union faces, this may be the best opportunity to re-evaluate Institute Day. What other activities could accomplish the goals of the event, with better buy-in and perhaps at lower cost?

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