In the nation’s second-most unionized state, support from organized labor can often make or break a candidate for top elected office.

But Gov. David Ige was one of those exceptions last election, defeating then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie with the support of only one major union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Ige has garnered somewhat more union support in his bid for a second four-year term.

But a larger and more formidable list of labor groups would rather see his Democratic primary opponent, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, take the reins.


Hanabusa, a former labor attorney, kick-started her campaign for governor in February with an announcement of support from the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents about 6,500 workers.

She followed that with a string of other endorsements over the next few months, including the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, International Union of Operating Engineers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

And in June, the state’s largest public-worker union — the Hawaii Government Employees Associationendorsed Hanabusa. The union represents 43,000 blue-collar supervisors, white-collar workers, education officers, nurses, law enforcement, lifeguards, scientists and administrative professionals.

“It’s the unions that maintain the middle class in Hawaii,” Hanabusa said.


The Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters endorsed Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa for governor in February. Courtesy: Hanabusa Campaign


There were 129,000 union members last year in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a little more than one out of every five workers — double the national average but down considerably from the state’s peak of 30 percent in 1989. 

Political observers note that union members will still vote for someone other than the endorsed candidate.

But the organization’s endorsement nonetheless carries a lot of weight. They provide campaign cash, as well as volunteers who knock on doors and help get out the vote.   

The Race For Governor

Union members power the state’s largest economic force — tourism — and are building the biggest public works project in Hawaii’s history, the 20-mile, 21-station Honolulu rail line.

Most government workers are unionized, whether they are principals, custodians, nurses or firefighters.

Hawaii Government Employees Association HGEA Headquarters.
Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest union, endorsed Colleen Hanabusa for governor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Not all union support is created equal though, Hanabusa said. It really matters which ones endorse a candidate because of their ability to mobilize voters across four counties, working in different jobs with diverse interests.

“The most important part of that support is it’s a statewide race,” she said. “It’s really critical.”

Aside from its size, HGEA’s endorsement is noteworthy this year because the union does not always back a candidate in the primary. HGEA stayed silent in 2014, declining to back either Ige or Abercrombie.

Executive Director Randy Perreira was traveling and could not be reached for comment for this story. In earlier statements, he praised Hanabusa as a “strong leader,” echoing her campaign theme.

“She will take action on critical issues including affordable housing, wage inequality and infrastructure,” he said in a June 12 statement announcing the endorsement.

Can Teachers Carry Ige To Victory Again?

Ige has again secured the support of HSTA, which represents 13,700 members.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said undecided voters often look to the teachers union’s endorsement because they trust educators.

The endorsement of Ige was never a vote against Hanabusa, who represented the teachers union well as its lawyer, he said.  If she were running for another office, he said they would probably have endorsed her for that race.

“If you had to sum it up, it was one word: loyalty,” Rosenlee said. “Gov. Ige has done good by us.”

UPW endorses Governor David Ige 2018 campaign as supporters from UPW make photographs with their phones.
United Public Workers State Director Dayton Nakanelua, right, held a press conference in June with Gov. David Ige to announce the union’s endorsement of his campaign for re-election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He noted how Ige has helped to alleviate the burden of high-stakes teacher evaluations, installed a new superintendent to lead the statewide school district and generally has a strong understanding of educational matters, in part thanks to his wife Dawn, who was a public school teacher and vice principal.

Ige also negotiated a four-year contract with HSTA last year with 3.5 percent annual raises.

By contrast, HGEA reached an impasse in its contract negotiations with the Ige administration. An arbitrator last year awarded most of HGEA’s bargaining units a similar deal, with a 6 percent to 7 percent pay raise over the course of two years.

“I have to negotiate on behalf of all the people in Hawaii and find fair wage practices that allow us to keep the state in a good financial position,” Ige said.

Each 1 percent pay raise for all of Hawaii’s public-worker unions costs the state an extra $133 million each year, according to a report last year by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

Ige said he was proud of renegotiating contracts for all 14 bargaining units for public workers without threats of strikes or having unions conducting negotiations through the media. Roughly half of those contracts are up for negotiation again.

United Public Workers Headquarters with David Ige campaign banner in the front of the building.
United Public Workers headquarters with David Ige campaign banner in the front of the building. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige has also picked up an important endorsement this election from the United Public Workers, which has 14,000 members who work in non-supervisory blue-collar jobs as well as institutional, health and correctional positions.

“Gov. Ige is the people’s candidate,” UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua said in a statement announcing the endorsement last month.

He was out of the office and could not be reached for comment for this story but has said Ige is a “well-rounded candidate” who can “move Hawaii forward in the 21st Century.”

 The Unite Here Local 5 hospitality and healthcare union backed Ige. They represent 11,000 workers, many in the hotel industry, who have been vocal about liking Ige’s support of a $15 an hour minimum wage as well as his decision to veto a bill that would have let Airbnb collect taxes on behalf of the state for thousands of vacation rentals.

Ige said his father was an ironworker, so he grew up understanding the value of unions not just for the workers, but for the families they support. He said he’s proud of earning the endorsement of the Ironworkers and Plasterers & Cement Masons unions, which together represent 1,850 workers.

He said he worked hard to gain as broad a cross-section of union support as possible. Ige said public education is one of the most important services that government provides and that blue-collar employees are who keeps government working.

“All of us as parents entrust our children to teachers,” he said. “They’re people we believe in.”

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and Gov David Ige at a Gubernatorial Debate held at the Kamehameha Schoos.
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and Gov. David Ige debated a wide range of topics at a forum earlier this month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While Ige said he would have appreciated more labor support, he acknowledged his decision to veto a pro-union bill last year “did not sit well” with some union leaders.

But he said the legislation would have dismantled essential management rights, making it difficult if not impossible for state departments to direct their employees by requiring union consent for items like worker assignments, transfers and discipline.

Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said he would be surprised if a union did not back Ige just because of that veto.

He thinks the unions’ support is more calculated, based on who they think will win and who is more pro-labor overall. Hanabusa led Ige by a 6 percentage point margin in a Civil Beat poll conducted in May. An earlier Star-Advertiser poll had Hanabusa ahead by a much wider margin. 

“In politics it pays to back the winner, especially if you can claim to have helped them win,” he said. “And they probably think they’ll get a better deal from her.”

“This is all incredibly helpful for Hanabusa,” Moore said. “But it’s not going to guarantee her a victory.”

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