By: Amoka Mele
Hawaii leads the nation in unions. 28 percent of Hawaii workers belong to a union. Another 7 percent of Hawaii workers do not belong to the unions but are represented by them. Despite this representation, more than 1 in every 5 Hawaii employees filed for unemployment during 2020. Despite this representation, our schools remained shut to face-to-face learning for one year and our police department is deemed the worst department for employment in the United States. During pandemics, when the community needs essential services, unions have extraordinary influence over the government and the public.
What happens in the future when Hawaii unions shut down essential services? Let’s take a look at an essential service historical strike and the federal government’s response. Following failed efforts to reach a contract agreement, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a union affiliate of the AFL-CIO, polled its members for a strike vote on 31 July 1981. Ninety-five percent of the air traffic controllers voted to strike. On August 5, following the PATCO workers’ refusal to return to work, the Reagan administration fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, and banned them from federal service for life. PATCO was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981.
This week, we have seen news from the state’s police, teacher, and nurses’ unions. The police union supported a declination to indict Honolulu officers after the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old. The teacher’s union is nearing a 2-year contract extension that freezes teachers’ pay until 2023. The Queens Medical Center and the Hawaii Nurses’ Association, returned to the bargaining table to negotiate the current contract for 1,600 nurses runs to the end of the month, and wage issues, left for last in most labor negotiations, aren’t settled yet, but staffing is an equally important issue for nurses. Queens has covered staff gaps with overtime and freelance nurses, called travel nurses, brought in from the mainland. The union proposes that for every travel nurse hired, an entry level also be hired, and trained for the same work. The Hawaii medical system has long been dependent on travel nurses especially during cold and flu season.
Section 213 of the National Labor Relations Act defines essential services as a service, the interruption of which endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population. Therefore, employees working in a sector that is deemed an essential service may not go on strike or engage in any strike action. In the United States, as established in the National Labor Relations Act there is a legally protected right for private sector employees to strike to gain better wages, benefits, or working conditions and they cannot be fired.
Common sense would suggest that Hawaii police officers and nurses are defined as essential services. Nurses and teachers have gone on strike in Hawaii during 1974, 1976, 1984, 1994, 1998, 2001, and 2003. The loophole for nurses exists between government employed and privately employed. Typically nurse strikes occur at privately owned such as Kaiser but there have been some instances at state ran institutions. In a few cases, these strikes lasted for weeks.
If essential services were to go on strike in the future, the Hawaii state government could simply order the workers to return to work and fire them when they refuse. This would only apply to state employees and not to private employees such as nurses employed by Kaiser and other privately owned companies. The problem Hawaii has is that there is no one left in the state with whom to replace fired union workers. The Reagan Administration had the whole country plus the armed forces from which to pull air traffic control replacements. Hawaii only has its national guard, which is small, and only a 1.4 million population. Hawaii will be forced to depend on the federal government for assistance were unions to attempt to hold Hawaii hostage.
Hawaii unions have an unspoken alliance with Democrats running the state. The hostages in this situation are Hawaii’s individual citizens. Unions will demand more wages or to isolate hiring solely to Hawaii. In an attempt to motivate and solidify their base, Democrats will approve the concessions. Democrats will then raise individual taxes to pay for the wages and benefits increases. Consumer goods and services inflate to account for the increased taxes. Higher paid union workers think “Yay! More Money!” It’s smoke and mirrors. Their money after taxes actually purchases the same or even less than before. Because of the alliance, the Democrats who run the state will be reluctant to fire unions workers on strike, even if they are deemed essential. Despite the concession to hire more Hawaiians, the state will remain dependent on travel nurses. The people who will always lose in Hawaii union situations will be the individual tax payer.