Chad Blair: Fresh Interest In Organized Labor May Bode Well For Democrats - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


The headlines caught me by surprise: Is there really a renewed interest from American workers wanting to unionize? Membership in organized labor has been in decline for decades, after all.

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And yet, recent news articles suggest that there is indeed a growing movement in the labor movement. It includes employees at Amazon and Starbucks moving to form unions as well as staffers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“People are successfully unionizing across the economy, from retail to tech, and their wins are leading to even more union interest,” Vox wrote earlier this month. “Petitions for union representation in the first half of 2022 are up nearly 60% from last year.”

The growing interest also comes as the Biden administration, down in the polls and facing a red tide this November, is ramping up its public support for this core Democratic Party constituency.

“With President Biden, it’s not just words. He’s using the power of the presidency to have workers’ backs,” Lee Saunders, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president, told The Hill.

It also comes as Hawaii, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2021, today has the largest percentage — 22.4% — of workers belonging to unions. That translates to 121,000 of the state’s employed population, up 1,000 from 2020.

The figure is even higher — 24.1%, or 131,000 people — when factoring in the total number of employed workers that are represented by unions.

Demonstrators cross the Kalakaua Avenue and Lewers Street intersection near the entrance to the Sheraton Waikiki.
Unionized workers demonstrating along Kalakaua Avenue and Lewers Street to protest wages and benefits at the Sheraton Waikiki. Hawaii has the highest percentage of unionized employees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Only one other state — New York — has more than 20% of its working population belonging to a union. The other top labor-friendly states include Washington, Oregon and New Jersey — yup, all blue states.

To be clear, overall union numbers continue to shrink, including in Hawaii. Last year the number of union members nationwide dropped by 240,000 and average union membership is at a low of 10%, or half what it was in the 1980s.

But public approval of unions is also the highest it’s been since 1965, and union organizing is aided by “a tight labor market, record inequality, and a pro-union administration,” says Vox.

Local labor union leaders concur that the state of the unions is strong.

“Union membership here in Hawaii has been pretty stable as far as we know,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, AFSCME Local 152, AFL-CIO. “We’ve seen some slow growth in some areas — construction — but otherwise the numbers we get at the AFL-CIO are pretty steady over time.”

Democratic Backbone

What this means locally is that labor unions will continue to be central to understanding Hawaii, its governance and politics, even as many in the islands may have forgotten the origins. It also helps explain the difficulty in the local Republican Party gaining much traction.

The rise in labor began in the middle of the 19th century as the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society organized “to protect the interests of the plantation owners and to secure their supply of and control over cheap field labor,” according to a history from the Hawaii Labor History Center for Labor Education and Research at UH West Oahu.

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira announces HGEA endorsement of LG candidate Sylvia Luke.
HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira announcing the endorsement of lieutenant governor candidate Sylvia Luke in March. Unions continue to have a symbiotic relationship with majority Democrats. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The first laborers were Chinese recruited to work the growing plantations, and it was marked by exploitation and racism.

“From the beginning there was a deliberate policy of separation of the races, pitting one against the other as a goal to get more production out of them,” according to the center, which adds, “Even the mildest and most benign attempts to challenge the power of the plantations were quashed.”

Soon, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Germans, Russians, Spaniards and more Chinese were brought in to work the fields. By 1892 the Japanese were “the largest and most aggressive elements” of the plantation labor force, complaining of bad food, unsanitary housing and inhumane treatment they received at the hands of the luna, the plantation overseers.

In 1900 the workers instituted “a rash of strikes,” a pattern that would continue off and on for decades, sometimes resulting in violence — notably, in Hanapepe on Kauai in 1924. Large numbers of Filipinos had already begun to emigrate to the islands, and many joined the Japanese in opposing work conditions.

The emergence of “true labor unions into Hawaiian labor relations,” the center explains, started with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and a landmark federal law known as the Wagner Act.

“Unions now had a federally protected right to organize and employers had a new federally enforceable duty to bargain in good faith with freely elected union representatives,” says the center.

What followed were major strikes on the plantations and the docks and the 1954 election that saw labor-aligned Democrats wrest control of the territorial legislature from Republicans. Fast-forward to the early 1970s, when unionization in Hawaii “reached its zenith” with the passage of the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees. Strikes or threats of strikes still happen, but far less often.

The labor history provided by the center is largely uncritical of labor, and it should be noted that its work is funded in part by the Arthur A. Rutledge Endowment in Labor Studies — named for one of Hawaii’s foremost labor leaders.

But it’s a good chronicle of local labor history and very helpful in understanding why one party still controls the levers of power in these islands.

‘Great Wages’

There are other reasons as well. I asked Perreira, whose HGEA is Hawaii’s largest union with over 39,000 members, why unions are still important here. He replied that they continue to offer “great wages and benefits at a time when employers are struggling to attract and retain capable employees.”

Union employment has also been “relatively stable,” compared with the non-union sector.

I would add that it helps that Hawaii’s governors and legislators have made sure that public-sector unions like HGEA receive near regular pay raises, thanks to the collective bargaining process. And unions contribute generously to Democratic candidates. HGEA, for instance, donated over $50,000 in the 2020 election to top Dems such as Ron Kouchi, Scott Saiki, Sylvia Luke, Gil Keith-Agaran and dozens of others.

(The photo top right is of a Hawaii State Teachers Association rally at the state Capitol in 2017.)

Sen. Michelle Kidani holding a sign provided by the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

But there is a growing resentment against unions and their control — stranglehold, some might say — as evinced by efforts to get rid of the Jones Act that protects labor jobs. Perreira, who has been with HGEA for over half of his 62 years, has no patience for such criticism.

“In a world where all wages are insufficient to provide enough to hedge inflation and the cost of living, I have a deaf ear for employers who complain about higher union wages,” he told me. “Truth is, particularly in Hawaii, most all employees are underpaid relative to the cost of living. This is clearly being validated by even fast-food establishments setting higher wage rates, and even bonuses, to attract and retain workers.”

He concludes: “Such competition is forcing employers to provided better pay and benefits, getting closer to union scale. To me that’s a good thing.”


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

The argument that unions bring better wages and full time employment aside, the issue I have with them dictating the political scene in Hawaii is our biggest problem. For decades unions have decided the fate for the rest of the population by backing their "chosen" candidate for rolls in government. The fact that Green has already been anointed the next governor by union endorsements and money means that 121,000 members have decided who will be elected for the other 1M residents. Now, I may be wrong, but I guess we will see come November.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

...why not check into what the union dues for each union are? This is one way you can determine if unions are beneficial or not.

Engawa808 · 1 month ago

If we’re going to have an honest conversation regarding unions let’s have one that doesn’t present one side or whitewash many unions connection to organized crime. The list of local labor leaders that went to jail is long and gets longer on the mainland. Be honest and present both sides of the story.

tokenhoale · 1 month ago

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