Exclusive: National may split with HSTA teachers' union in U.S. Senate race

Exclusive: National may split with HSTA teachers' union in U.S. Senate race

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii's second largest union may split with its national organization in deciding which candidate to back in next year's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.

Outside of McKinley High School Monday, State Rep. Mark Takai won the endorsement of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, in his race for the Democratic nomination for Oahu's 1st Congressional seat.

"Teachers will be working hard to get out the vote this coming election.  And I truly appreciate this endorsement, because I know that their voices and their votes matter," Takai said, with his family, supporters and public school teachers at his side.

But the 13,500-member public school teachers union -- the state's second largest -- may be in for a more complicated situation deciding between incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz or his challenger, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

HSTA's local executive board has voted unanimously to support Hanabusa.

"We have always supported Colleen in every one of her races," said Wil Okabe, HSTA's president.

But sources said HSTA's national union, the 2.2 million-member National Education Association, may split with HSTA and back Schatz instead.

Okabe says that decision won't be made until early February.

"There's always a possibility for something like that because it is another recommendation process," Okabe said.

Okabe said he'd make his case to the national board, made up of each state's president, but the final vote will be weighted by population of each state, meaning the vote of California's teachers' union chief will have much more weight in the final vote than Hawaii's, for example.

HPU Communication Professor John Hart said some unions may want to cover their bases.

"In many cases it might be a strategy for some unions to say 'Let's let the national go way, let the local go the other way.  No matter who wins, we have a claim,'" Hart said.

That's what happened with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national of the state's largest union the Hawaii Government Employees Association, representing state and county white- and pink-collar employees. AFSCME also is the national group for the United Public Workers, which represents garbage collectors, prison guards and other blue-collar workers in Hawaii.

UPW backed Hanabusa but HGEA supported Schatz.

In a letter about the HGEA endorsement of Schatz earlier this fall,      AFSCME President Lee Saunders said, "Both candidates have been close friends and supporters of our union in their state roles and in Congress."

But Saunders said HGEA was endorsing Schatz because, "His continuation in office and resulting seniority are critical to our members in Hawaii and the rest of the country."

"Where we see tension is where a local union in Hawaii goes against a national union recommendation," said Hart, the HPU communication professor. "This is going to be a very tough call for labor."

National union leaders tend to favor incumbents because they often have the re-election advantage.

If the HSTA splits with its national the national union would be able to give the Schatz campaign money, Okabe said. But the local union could provide Hanabusa with grassroots support like sign wavers and phone banking volunteers.

"We are going to put every effort in organizing our members to ensure that our candidate is successful," Okabe said.

The candidates face off in the primary election Aug. 9, 2014.