New Era of Labor: Hawaii’s Powerful Teachers Union’s Multi-Front War

In a radically changing political landscape, reform-minded Democrats and rogue teachers made the state’s latest contract fight one to remember

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Kent Nishimura / AP

Hawaii State Teachers Association supporters wave at cars passing by the Hawaii State Capitol in Nov. 2012.

HONOLULU — The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s weekly briefing meeting had turned into a battle-planning session; the conference room became a war room. It was late November. Officials were digging in for a protracted contract fight with the state that would last through April. They were also dealing with an internal problem: A rogue group of frustrated teachers had launched a series of protests without labor leaders’ approval, and the union had to figure out how to respond.

Hawaii has traditionally been one of the most labor-friendly states in the nation. Collective bargaining is in its constitution, and more than a fifth of its workforce belongs to a union. Only New York and Alaska have higher union-membership rates. A 2012 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, ranked the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) as the strongest teachers union in the country.

But by last November, Hawaii’s 13,000 teachers had reached a breaking point. They had been working without a negotiated contract for more than 16 months. The union and state had fought over pay, benefits and a new teacher evaluation plan that tied compensation to student test scores. A federal mediator and a crisis communications consultant had failed to break the logjam. And teacher resentment toward both union officials and Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie was at an all-time high.

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The dramatic showdown in Hawaii demonstrates how radically the nation’s education landscape has changed in recent years. For decades, teacher unions used their political clout to exert near-complete control over school systems in many states, winning increased funding and better compensation. Now, Democrats are embracing policies that are anathema to unions, and Republicans have successfully weakened labor laws in former bastions of union strength. As a new generation of teachers joins the profession and questions the old way of doing things, teachers unions are dealing with dissent within their own ranks. No less than the future of the labor movement is at stake.

In the past few years, education reformers have scored major victories in expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores in dozens of states. In Michigan and Wisconsin, unions spent millions of dollars trying to prevent Republican lawmakers from stripping them of some collective bargaining rights, only to lose.

In 2012, total union membership levels hit their lowest point since the 1930s, with 11.3% of the national workforce belonging to a union, compared to 20.1% three decades earlier. With more than four million members combined, the two main national teacher unions are among the largest labor unions in the country. But the National Education Association (NEA) has lost 100,000 members since 2010.

Unions are also losing a public-relations battle. Approval ratings for labor unions are at a historic low. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47% of Americans believe teacher unions are hurting public schools, while just a quarter of respondents think the unions help.

For every defeat, union officials point to a victory. Last year they were instrumental in overturning legislation in Idaho and South Dakota that would have curbed tenure and established merit pay. In 2011, they were able to repeal a partial ban on collective bargaining in Ohio. The NEA says that political activity is up among current members and the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has managed to keep its numbers steady.

“The last two years were a fight for survival,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said. “We are alive and well.”

Teacher unions will almost certainly survive. But their power is diminishing and adapting to a new labor environment will require major concessions.

The Wednesday after Thanksgiving, a dozen or so teachers trickled in and out of a trailer classroom at Kahuku High & Intermediate School, near Oahu’s North Shore. They’d come to share their feedback on Hawaii’s experimental teacher evaluation system, but conversation about the state’s new proposed contract overshadowed the proceedings.

Union official Jodene Paris warned members that the contract would reduce sick leave from 18 days to 10, increase the time it takes to earn tenure from two to three years, and mandate that student growth play a key role in teacher evaluations. A 5% pay cut that Hawaii teachers took two years before would be offset with a new raise, but proposed future raises were small.

Maya Ross, the crisis communications consultant whom the union brought in to improve both teachers’ and the public’s perception of the organization, sat in the back of the room drafting an official response to a press release sent out by the rogue group of teachers who had launched the protests. The group, based at James Campbell High School, called for the state to make teachers’ salaries competitive and for teachers to be rated on four unannounced classroom visits.

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Two weeks earlier, teachers at Campbell, unhappy with a lack of union action, started a protest known as “work-to-rule.” Every Thursday, participating teachers worked from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the minimum hours required by their contract. Before and after the school day, they lined busy streets holding signs to drum up public support, often accompanied by their students.

Within a few weeks, the Campbell campaign spread to more than 100 schools across the state. Although few sustained the effort for long, the show of solidarity gave the protesters a sense of unity, Campbell teacher Daniel Pecoraro said. At the start, the attitude was “us against the union.” He described the union’s inability to negotiate a favorable contract as “the first time members realized they need to think for themselves.” The group has also organized campaigns to email the Governor and “teach in” days, where teachers bring the work they do on weekends to city hall.

HSTA tried to offer the protesters support without officially promoting their activities. “I want teachers who are initiating actions, inside or outside of HSTA’s formal structure, to know that I will join them in any legal and constructive action they initiate that will increase public attention and support for our cause of a dignified contract resolution,” HSTA President Wil Okabe said in a statement.

Hawaii’s rogue teachers represent a larger trend of union members voicing dissatisfaction with their leadership. Union officials, now facing attacks from inside and outside the organization, are still figuring out how to best manage their dissenters. Research by Todd DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has found that although teachers and union officials share common ground on many things, labor leaders are much more likely than teachers to believe that union activity and professional activity are compatible, and that a union contract “fosters quality teaching.”

There’s also evidence of a generational gap. Across the country, pockets of teachers are deviating from traditional labor priorities—although not always from unions themselves—and organizing to promote controversial reforms. Many are young graduates from alternative training programs like Teach For America. Others are career-changers bringing ideas from the private sector to their new jobs. Older teachers tend to be more concerned with traditional job protections and benefits, and want unions to behave like they always have. Younger teachers are more likely to want unions to be a vehicle for change.

A 2012 Education Sector survey found that nearly half of teachers who’d been in the classroom for more than 20 years said that being in a union provided them with a sense of pride and solidarity, compared to just 22% of those with under five years of experience. And nine out of 10 new teachers said unions should take a more active role in making it easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, compared to three-quarters of their veteran colleagues.

The research isn’t conclusive. Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, conducted a survey that found teachers under the age of 35 have policy positions similar to their older peers.

To maintain their strength in a new political landscape, teachers unions are focused on appealing to new members. The AFT makes it a point to reach out to new teachers born long after the peak of unionism in the 1950s. “When you don’t grow up in a family where what union meant was retirement security or health security or being able to take a few days off to have a family vacation … you actually have to talk to people about what it means,” the AFT’s Weingarten said.

In Hawaii, the union believed improved communication would bolster member engagement among all ages. Union officials increased their activity on the HSTA’s Facebook page, filling it with updates, photographs and video messages from President Okabe. They also stepped up their efforts to answer complaints and collect feedback from members.

As negotiations continued into the winter, teacher evaluations—and primarily how student test scores will be included in them—remained a main point of contention, but the union made several concessions.

A counterproposal from the HSTA allowed for the use of student scores in teacher evaluations, but stressed the need for multiple measures of achievement and required that the scores count for no more than 10% of a teacher’s rating in the “student growth” subcategory—meaning it’d be a small fraction of a teacher’s overall evaluation. It also called for classroom observations and measurements of a teacher’s growth, omitting the student surveys that the state’s been pushing. The state rejected the offer.

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In late March, the union and the state reached a tentative agreement that increased teacher raises and promised that teachers and union leaders would be a part of decision making about the new evaluation system. Regardless of that negotiation, half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student growth. Union membership voted to ratify the contract in April.

Hawaii’s contract fight was bitter, but in some states, unions have seen the writing on the wall and been proactive about adopting new policies they might have once rejected. Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire were ranked in the middle of the pack in the Fordham Institute’s report on union strength. “It’s not that the union isn’t strong,” said co-author Dara Zeehandelaar, “It’s that the union isn’t fighting.”

In Massachusetts, the union compromised on a new teacher evaluation system so that it didn’t end up as a ballot measure—and, in doing so, it saved hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting a proposal during election season. Education observers have praised New Haven, Conn., for developing a district- and union-approved teacher evaluation system. And Los Angeles teachers recently struck an agreement with their district on how student test score data could be used to evaluate them.

The NEA’s two-year strategic plan calls for the group to “amplify” its members’ voices in the world of education policy. And the nation’s largest union is investing millions of dollars in its own education reforms.
“[The unions] are savvy enough to understand that they can’t keep opposing and opposing,” said Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If the union wants to survive, its role is going to change.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.


How long have Hawaii's teachers been working without successfully negotiating a new contract? 2 years? Good job HSTA, thanks for nothing


@ruble11 HSTA took significant action to reach out to and organize members, which culminated in rallies at the state capitol of 1000 and 5000 members in January and March of 2013. A 4-year tentative agreement was achieved by late March, and was overwhelmingly ratified by teachers in April. The agreement restored the cuts previously made and provided for reasonable, but significant, pay increases through 2017. This was in addition to securing teachers' input on the new evaluation system, as stated in the article. Undoubtedly, there is much yet to do. There is little research to support the 'reforms' promised by the state DOE to the federal government to secure the $75 million Race to the Top grant. Ultimately, it will be up to teachers to save the state's bacon by figuring out a way to implement them in a way that the state can actually afford, and will hopefully serve students. And that will be no small trick. Moreover, due to the high costs of living in Hawaii, teachers in the state are still significantly underpaid relative to mainland US peers, which creates one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the nation. Much still needs to be done to attract and retain the best and brightest to the profession. Fortunately, the new teacher contract also calls for a salary study to be jointly funded by HSTA and the state, as well as a contract re-opener midway through the 4-year deal. While all of this speaks to HSTA's recent moves in the right direction, there are many who remain as skeptical as ruble11 about the Association's overall effectiveness. Nonetheless, facts are facts, and an agreement was reached months ago to settle the dispute.

MegP 1 Like

It is also always interesting that in the public, media offered, considerations of best educational practices, we are not offered an inside look at how high-priced private schools operate - schools with low student/teacher ratio, that don't use standardized tests in the same way if at all.  

I think it's fair to say that *all* (or darn close) Washington legislators who promote a corporatized model of public education and who have children attending school would *never* consider sending their own children to schools they somehow believe appropriate for 'regular' children. (I can't speak with the same confidence re state legislators but it wouldn't surprise me to find a similar difference.)

It might interest and benefit the American public's 'regular' children if their parents and neighbors were given 'compare/contrast' details.

MegP 1 Like

With all due respect to the writer, this article strikes me as coming from thinking largely shaped in the last few decades of the 20thC. As I read, I got the sense that the writer views "progress" in teacher relationship to the economy as one in which the teacher views him/her self as an 'independent agent' who will prove teacher skill and dedication by seeking merit-pay compensation and will plan all units, lessons, and activities toward student success at standardized testing. 

This kind of thinking (IMO) rejects the possibility of teacher capacity and desire to experience both intrinsic reward and fair compensation for educating the 'whole child' including skill in critical thinking, synthesis, and ability to argue to validate any conclusions the student may have made.

It is a popular "corporate management wisdom" (proposed by enthusiasts for the entire society in all its endeavors) that people perform best when under carrot/stick conditions of earning. Research does not back this up at all. 

I am astonished that such attitudes toward education prevail in the broad culture, sometimes with subtle or obvious hostility toward educators. It's worse than ironic that "evidence based" measurement in education has come to depend on testing which research says is not effective in best learning outcomes. (Yes, that means real evidence speaks *against* using standardized testing as it has come be used and even worshiped.)  

Further, real research - again with real evidence - finds that brains work better, learning and creative solution finding are enhanced, when the atmosphere is one of support and cooperation rather than threat of dire consequences should one be assessed as "not measuring up".

I recommend reading Diane Ravitch, among others:

jizzyray 1 Like

songer48 and StevieP make excellent points, most of which I agree with wholeheartedly. One reason the general public has bought into the specious and educationally damaging 'reforms' pushed by NCLB and the corporate-sponsored Ed Reform movement, though, has been the relative silence by teachers and their union representatives on the overemphasis on standardized testing, scapegoating of teachers, etc. It's taken nearly a decade for us to get to this point, and it is high time for teachers to take the initiative on truly transforming public education and explaining what we DO support. Tracking student progress in a systematic way, emphasizing authentic, hands-on learning activities that engage students, and supporting collaboration and planning time for teachers are all supported by peer-reviewed research in ways the the standardized testing craze never was, but educators have not done enough to advocate for positive solutions that work. Instead, teachers have been cast obstructionists, when in fact, the real problem is that most teachers have been going along with bad policies all too willingly.

In Hawaii, there was far more cooperation between the official HSTA and the so-called 'rogue' group of younger teachers cast in the article as 'an internal attack' on the union. Obviously, in a union of over 13,000 members, there will never be unanimity, but the increased willingness of individual teachers to take action bodes well for students, not to mention the union movement overall. Hopefully, even as the HSTA worked to achieve an agreement that provided needed restorations of pay and benefits that had been significantly cut during the recession, it will maintain a cautious stance with respect to the 'reforms' that the Hawaii Department of Education promised the federal government in order to obtain $75 million in Race to the Top grant money. Even to casual observers in Hawaii, it is pretty clear that the promise of needed funds in a recession led the state to its new teacher evaluation system far more than the system's supposed benefits. Indeed, the new system lacks any real research basis, which is a perfect irony, emblematic of the modern Ed Reform movement and its hollow attachment to 'evidence-based' action. In fact, the 'evidence' the movement has largely drawn upon has been the rough equivalent of the kinds of 'studies' used to promote health and beauty supplements on late night infomercials. It would be altogether comical if we weren't talking about the education of our children and billions of dollars wasted nationally on worthless reforms based on good corporate sales pitches.

It will be interesting to see if the HSTA will continue to invest in its recently improved communications initiatives and attempts to be far-sighted in its approach to education policy and reform. Or, will it fall back into the self-limiting trap of only looking as far down the road as its next contract negotiation? Over the course of the past year, many teachers in Hawaii made the decision to 'stand up.' The question remains as to how long they will stay standing, and if their union leadership will realize the critical importance of this moment. Only if it does will the HSTA truly earn its recent billing as the nation's 'strongest' union, a title that evoked more chuckles than awe among locals in Hawaii when it was bestowed.


@jizzyray Many thanks to you, to songer48, and to StevieP for taking time to lay out what needs to be considered. I hope each of you is continuing to speak/write along these lines as much as possible.

songer48 3 Like

There is, indeed, an educational crisis brewing in the US, but it has little to do with teachers' unions.  A number of storms have converged that will flatten public schooling.  And that is part of the agenda.  The fuel for these storms is profit.  The Common Core State Standards and the standardized tests that will supposedly assess achievement of the standards are nothing more than a means of making huge profits.  Pearson, the international conglomerate that is developing the tests stands to make billions.  And, oddly, Pearson is not a US company.  The tests are hugely expensive.  Add to that expense all of the test preparation materials, the textbooks that Pearson publishes, and the various tech corporations that will supply the software and hardware necessary for the test, and the tax payer bill becomes even bigger.  

Those who have muscled funding out of conventional public schools ithrough charters are also counting on the tests to "prove" that public education does not work.  They will be quick to say that charter schools are public, but that is more slight of hand than truth.  In urban areas, charter schools are gutting not only school funding, but talent.  Hard working teachers who struggle against low parent involvement, poverty, and the distractions of the street have an uphill climb.  Add to that a general lowering of the public's esteem for teaching as a profession and we now have a perfect storm that will wipe away a foundation of American democracy, it's public schools.  

The dangerous eye of this storm is standardized testing, an institution with a deeply troubled past.  Few people seem to understand that standardized testing has always failed to adequately assess achievement.  The process is fraught with defects, not only in the crafting of questions, but in the software used to score the tests.  Hundreds of thousands of tests have been been recalled, yet the public knows little about this.  But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the tests is the way in which they discriminate against minorities, non-English speakers, and special education students. In the 100 years since the first standardized tests were developed (by John Yerkes, a eugenicist), these tests have been used to bar minorities, especially those who live in poverty, from accessing rich educational experiences.  Look in any inner city school and find test preparation worksheets, skill and drill exercises, and other mind-numbingly boring class work that stifles minds and turns children away from education.

And yet, we are going to force teachers to teach to the tests by turning test scores into conditions of employment. 

StevieP 3 Like

What is hurting education is has been since its inception.  As for unions, education is (overall) abysmal in the South where there are no unions.  Come see for yourself how low the bar can go when you visit a  so-called "right to work" state.  

Here are two things, which would hands-down and no-teachers-would-refute-them,  improve the educational landscape in America:

1. no people in educational leadership positions who have never taught themselves - there goes 90% of the problem

 2. if you are going to rely on "test scores" to measure learning (even though they are only one snapshot of learning, not the whole picture), then for God's sake make teachers give a PRETEST at the beginning of their time in class and a POSTTEST at the end.  This takes care of the problem and it is (gasp!) actually a scientific measure. With pretest and posttest scores in hand, you can actually more scientifically measure the amount of growth students have made with that teacher!  Miracle!

No. This is too common-sensical for our lawmakers.  So it is overlooked entirely.  

Instead what we do - we test students at the end of the year with one state test. This is not an indicator of how well a teacher has taught or how well students have learned because it does not take into account where a student was at when she or he first entered the classroom (which Lord knows, could be an at a third grade level when the student is in eleventh grade because they have been socially promoted   - once again - by knuckleheaded administrators who have never taught in a  classroom themselves - bringing us back to point #1). 

Education in this country is at a breaking point.  Common sense needs to be brought back to the classroom.  By simply doing the two things listed above, we could make a lot of progress in the direction of common sense.  Eliminating unions is just one more smoke-and-mirrors ploy by policymakers to avoid the real issues and avoid common-sense solutions.


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