The primary election is still nearly five months away and only a handful of candidates have formally filed to run, but Lt. Gov. Josh Green and state Rep. Sylvia Luke are already emerging as two of the biggest beneficiaries in the biennial union endorsement sweepstakes.

Hawaii is the most heavily unionized state in the nation, which means union political endorsements are some of the most important campaign prizes each election cycle. Those endorsements can be a critical factor in Democratic primaries, where union members tend to be more active — and vote more reliably — than the general population.

This year Green, who is the apparent frontrunner for governor, has already been endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, two of the largest public worker unions in the state.

Luke, who is campaigning to replace Green as lieutenant governor, is also being backed by HSTA and HGEA. Those endorsements may be particularly important for her because she is running in a crowded field of Democratic candidates, and she is not particularly well known to the statewide voting public.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is running for governor, accepts the endorsement of the Hawaii State Teachers Association on Friday. Green has been backed by an array of public and private unions, including the ILWU, HGEA and a number of construction trade unions. Screenshot/2022

Green is expected to face former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and former Hawaii first lady Vicky Cayetano in the Democratic primary. U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele is also considering entering that race.

Luke is expected to have a more crowded primary, including former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, former City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President Sherry Menor-MacNamara, and former Hawaii High School Athletics Association Executive Director Keith Amemiya.

Jim Shon, a longtime Democrat who served in the state House for a dozen years, said union endorsements can be a big help to newcomer candidates, or candidates with low name recognition. One obvious advantage of an endorsement is it may help steer the votes of union members who are unfamiliar with the people running.

Some unions also provide campaign muscle in the form of volunteers for phone banking or door-to-door canvasing, and  HGEA and HSTA are known for those activities. Most campaign organizations aren’t large, and the extra union-affiliated bodies who pitch in can make a significant difference.

But union endorsements hardly ensure victory. Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa was backed by an array of unions including HGEA when she challenged Gov. David Ige in the 2018 primary for governor, and she still lost. The most notable endorsements Ige received that year were from HSTA, United Public Workers, and Unite Here Local 5.

And union members don’t march in lock step. “I think increasingly union members are not just saluting and doing whatever their leaders want, or endorse. People are much more independent individually,” Shon said. “It’s a small group that does the endorsement, so I don’t know that I would count on every HGEA member following their endorsement.”

For Green, the recent surge of union endorsements may be helping to create an aura of inevitability. Green is a physician who has been highly visible in a mostly positive way during the pandemic, and he also enjoys a major advantage in fundraising at this stage of the campaign.

In addition to HGEA and HSTA, others backing Green include the Hawaii Firefighters Association, the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the ILWU, three locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Hawaii Masons Union Local 1 and the Hawaii Plumbers & Fitters Local 657.

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira announces HGEA endorsement of LG candidate Sylvia Luke.
State Rep. Sylvia Luke with Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira as the union announced last week it was endorsing her for lieutenant governor. Luke has also been endorsed by the teachers’ union. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The dynamics of union political endorsements are more complex than many people realize. For example, endorsements at times are an acknowledgement of political reality as much as they are an embrace of a candidate.

In Green’s case, “this represents the judgment of all those unions that he’s going to win. It is an endorsement of his likely success,” Shon said. “You don’t necessarily go out and endorse someone that you think is a loser. The prevailing thought is that Josh is way out ahead.”

The fact that so many unions have selected Green also makes it more difficult for opponents such as Caldwell to gain traction. For example, Caldwell was endorsed by HGEA when he successfully ran for Honolulu mayor in 2012 and 2016, but he won’t get that boost to his campaign this year.

Endorsements can be a particularly high stakes business for the public worker unions. HGEA and the teachers bargain with the state and counties for pay and benefits, and they obviously hope to win more generous contracts in each cycle of a collective bargaining process.

That negotiating process is mostly controlled by Hawaii’s governors, and backing the wrong candidate probably won’t help.

Green pointedly raised the issue of teacher pay in his brief speech on Friday as he accepted the HSTA endorsement.

“Attracting and retaining teachers in our public schools is my top priority,” he told his union audience. “This means we have to offer competitive salaries, we have to offer benefits that are in line with what will bring teachers across the ocean, and sometimes just keep them here.”

But the process is not all about money and raises. Another important component of the endorsement process is that it offers an opportunity for the unions to talk policy with politicians and convey the unions’ priorities, said Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of Local 5.

Local 5 represents service sector workers including hotel and restaurant employees, and it is particularly concerned with the health of Hawaii’s tourism industry and Hawaii residents’ attitudes toward that industry.

“We have a hotel industry that is absolutely vital to our economy, but the growth of the industry and its growth into the neighborhoods has turned many of Hawaii’s people against tourism,” Gill said. “We think that’s a real critical problem for our industry and for Hawaii.

“If Hawaii’s people don’t support tourism, then the tourist industry isn’t viable going forward. What we’re selling as a destination is our aloha spirit, our welcoming spirit to our guests,” he said.

If Hawaii’s people turn on the industry, the state could become more like destinations such as Jamaica where the locals and tourists are kept strictly apart, Gill said.

“We think that would be a disaster for Hawaii, so we’re anxious to have that discussion with candidates who want to talk to us, and we want to have that discussion regardless of whether we endorse them or not,” he said. “We’re really trying to get some traction on this.”

Decisions by hotel companies to eliminate services for guests and “basically cheapen down the package” is taking the state in the wrong direction, Gill said. “We need a higher quality of tourist and not as many of them in order to maintain the support of Hawaii’s people.”

Each of the unions is focused on different issues and agendas. The Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters generally advocates for housing, rail and other construction projects to keep their members working, and they have been critically important backers of Green in the past. They are expected to formally endorse him for governor shortly.

HGEA is particularly concerned with avoiding the loss of government jobs through privatization as government comes to rely more heavily on services provided by private nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies, Shon said. “Their point of view is, it should be done in-house,” he said.

The issue of private versus public services has also come up for HSTA as the state attempts to make preschool education more widely available for young children. Hawaii’s preschool network is almost entirely private, but the union has pressed for publicly staffed preschools on state Department of Education campuses.

In the end, the importance of each endorsement will depend on the unions’ level of commitment to back up their words with action, Gill said. Some endorsements are little more than a statement of preference by a union, while others carry more clout.

“The strength of it depends on what the union or organization is willing to put in resources behind that endorsement,” he said. Local 5 picks races where the union leadership believes it can make a difference, Gill said.

“For me as a union leader, I want our endorsement to be meaningful, I want people we endorse to recognize the value of that endorsement,” Gill said. “Obviously, that translates later into our ability to get things done with politicians, if we’re popular with them.”

Local 5 has not yet made endorsements in the races for governor or lieutenant governor.

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