Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

Education: take to the streets


A recent letter to the Advertiser (Mr. Johnson, 2/12) criticized my views of schools as "union-centered fiefdoms." In it he erroneously assumed that my target was the Hawaii State Teachers’ Association—HSTA. In fact, I believe the United Public Workers’ Union (UPW) and Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) obstruct education reform far more than HSTA—and certainly far more than most individual teachers.

I believe our teachers are a dedicated, underpaid, selfless group—for the most part. I correspond with many of them and find they are as frustrated as the rest of us at the lack of meaningful education reform.

I agree with Mr. Johnson that HGEA—the principals’ union—is a major obstacle to reform. However, he should not overlook the very powerful role played by UPW which covers the remaining school employees—custodial and maintenance staff for the most part. UPW is not about to allow, for example, real self-governed Charter Schools because they would threaten the size of the union and, therefore, union leaders’ compensation.

Contrary to Mr. Johnson’s assertions, the problems are not complex—they are simple. Parents want reform, most teachers want reform, and employers want reform. It is the various school unions that do not want reform—and they control the Legislature.

Last year John Radcliffe of the UH faculty union explained to his members how unions control elections. He explained that, "Watching a hundred UPW retirees punching holes in 17,000 ‘walking pieces’ and then attaching rubber bands to each one so that a gang (sic) of union members can canvass neighborhoods on behalf of good old whatshisname, definitely puts a lump in a candidate's throat. The HGEA and the UPW still have some political strength. They deliver."

He added that, "The teachers are the best in the state at following a script and carrying out phone banking. And they have no compunction about following the dictates of a plan of action." And, "Ask Brother Walter (Kupau of the Carpenters’ Union) for sign holders and he says ‘How many?’ You say 100. He says, ‘Where and when?’ You tell him and they show up."

Radcliffe said that union members "are continually amazed and dumbfounded that the union has a reasonable knowledge of whether or not they are registered to vote and whether or not, if registered, they did." (1)

These are words that remind us that the public worker unions are, in effect, solely in the business of influencing legislation. It is an absurdity to pretend that their leaders truly ‘bargain’ on jobs and wages with the very elected officials they have just helped re-elect. This so-called ‘bargaining’ would have a far different outcome if there were real flesh-and-blood taxpayers sitting across the table. Instead, we find we have added 1700 state government workers since 1993 despite a severe contraction in our economy and a decline in private sector workers.

Governor Cayetano says, "We need a revolution in education—an absolute revolution." The words are nice but, in reality, nothing is going to change in our failing education system until someone exercises restraint on our public worker unions. It is not going to be Governor Cayetano and it is not going to be this Legislature. They owe too much.

However, if parents were to launch Cayetano’s ‘absolute revolution’ by taking to the streets on this issue—if legislators were then more afraid of their constituents than union officials—then that would change matters totally.



(1) John H. Radcliffe. The Art & Science of Making Political Endorsements. University of Hawaii Professional Assembly. Also available at the UHPA website: