What’s Labor Got To Do With It?

Local pundits will probably argue for years that this election season belonged to the unions, both private and public. In the same breath, these pundits will suggest, as they do every election year, that candidates with the most money to spend on advertising ruled the day.

These are ways to rationalize defeat. For those who lost, it was not about qualifications of the candidate, it was a matter of his or her ability to raise more money than the opposition. It suggests that in local politics, you can buy an election. It’s the “sour grapes” defense.

But let’s take a look at unions and politics in the Islands.

During this election year the unions, both public and private, haven’t been unanimous in selecting which candidate to support. Traditionally, the statewide races have been decided by the number of votes collected on the Big Island, especially in the 1st House District (North Hilo, Hamakua, North Kohala). Many campaigns begin on the Big Island and end there with a unity rally. It is no secret that support was generated by former state Rep. Yoshito Takamine, who also was a top official in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

There is no conclusive evidence that support from a union translates into every member of the union voting for a particular candidate. In order for the members to associate the two actions, the employees have to believe the unions can improve their wages, benefits and treatment. Workers won’t unionize unless they believe that they, through unity, can protect themselves from unilateral management whims.

In practice, low morale, fear of job loss and arbitrary management actions help foster unionization. In some respects, these factors have not changed in years, especially on the Neighbor Islands.

So what do unionized workers want? Basically, two aims stick out: union security and improved benefits for their members. A genuine fear locally is that Hawaii may someday become a “Right to Work” state. Right to Work is a term used to describe state statutory provisions banning the requirement of union membership as a condition of employment (Section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley Act. The law doesn’t ban unions, but inhibits union formation. Twenty-two states have Right to Work legislation. Many of our union leaders feel Hawaii could join the fold.

In Hawaii, once companies are unionized, the labor agreement that follows also gives unions a role in other human resource activities including recruiting, compensation, training and discharging of employees. Also, high-tech entrepreneurs are getting an unexpected lesson in labor relations. Many assumed that jobs like Web designer were immune from union efforts and were startled to find several e-commerce firms, including Amazon.com, were facing vigorous organizing efforts. E-commerce companies like Amazon have to load, unload and store goods to meet customer demand. Even Walmart recently had to agree to let the workers in its stores in China unionize. Any company that thinks it can avoid unionization by shipping jobs overseas may be in for a big surprise.

Will the unions influence the outcome of the general election? Since statehood they always have, and this time will be no exception.

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