UH faculty pact 1 year before contract expires raises political questions

UH faculty pact 1 year before contract expires raises political questions
Published: Jun. 27, 2014 at 8:45 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gov. Neil Abercrombie has reached a tentative agreement a year in advance – the earliest in history – with the only major education union that endorsed him this election year.

Abercrombie, the UH president and University of Hawaii Professional Assembly union leaders gathered in the governor's Capitol office Friday morning to announce the deal, which will give university professors four percent raises two years in a row starting July 1, 2015.  The faculty union received three percent raises this year and will get another three percent raise in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014.

For the first time in Hawaii history, a public union has made a deal one full year before its contract expires.

"It's an unprecedented agreement in the fact that it's being concluded so far ahead of time," Abercrombie said. "This is not going to the wire and clashing and confrontation."

UHPA Executive Director JN Musto said negotiations on this contract were carried out "without the general animus that has characterized, perhaps, the last 40 years of bargaining between UHPA and the university administration."

UH President David Lassner said, "For the university, this just provides immense stability in understanding the financial commitments."

The UHPA, which represents 4,000 faculty members at 10 UH campuses, has endorsed Abercrombie, who faces re-election this year.  Abercrombie has close ties to UH, since he was a graduate teaching assistant there 44 years ago and was involved in initial efforts to unionize faculty members.

"Is it good public policy? Probably. Is it good politics? Definitely," said political analyst John Hart, who chairs the Communication Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

"Certainly the timing in an election cycle will raise eyebrows.  But is the decision defensible? Of course it is," Hart added.

Hawaii News Now asked Abercrombie if this is a case of throwing his longtime supporters a political bone and reaching a deal a year early, because he might not be in office next year, if he loses the election.

"Someone might say that, but I'll leave the agreement to speak for itself," Abercrombie said. "I believe that the best politics is always good politics.  If you do good things for good people in a good-faith way, that speaks for itself."

Musto, who plans to retire next summer as executive director of the faculty union after 35 years at the helm, said, "It's not some gift basket."

Musto said he started asking to negotiate more than a year ago, long before the election.

Musto said the raises are in line with those given to other unions, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which endorsed State Sen. David Ige, Abercrombie's opponent in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

"It also happens to fall within the range of the settlements that have already been reached by UPW, HGEA and HSTA over the same time period," Musto said.

A campaign spokeswoman for Ige said he was not immediately available for comment Friday.

An electronic ratification vote of faculty union members is being conducted through Aug. 25, the first day of UH's fall semester.

If it's ratified, the agreement would cost $32 million over two years, a cost that needs to be approved by the Legislature.

Lassner said student tuition funds won't be used to cover the cost of the salary hikes. Lassner said if state lawmakers do not OK general funds for the agreement, the contract will not take effect.

In recent years, some Legislative leaders have been reluctant to use general fund money to cover salary increases. Instead, lawmakers told UH to use tuition, which has been increasing each year, to pay for raises and other rising UH expenses.

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