What It Means to be HGEA Strong
HGEA is fighting back against attacks on public workers and the services we provide. The attacks are relentless and will continue, yet we remain HGEA Strong. As we have found through worksite visits and meaningful conversations, there are countless members among us with stories to share – how labor unions sustained their families, how they brought solidarity to their workplace and how being on the "other side" changed their attitudes about unionism. These members understand the value and benefits of union membership and help us in the fight for all workers. Let’s all stand together. We are HGEA Strong!
HGEA helped get my career back
Many people in the tight-knit community of Hilo know Pat Nakamoto either from growing up together or through her long-time career with the County of Hawaii at the elections office. For more than two decades she dedicated her professional expertise to the elections division after starting out in an entry-level temporary position back in the late 1980s. Through the years, with dedication and diligence, she rose through the ranks to elections administrator, the highest civil service position in her department.
But in 2012 her world was turned upside down when she was wrongly accused of allowing employees to store private equipment and alcohol on county property. After years of exemplary service she was suddenly under investigation as accusations flew during a tumultuous political year.
The situation was hitting the local newspapers, and as a high-profile county employee, she was eventually fired. “It was a hard time. I was feeling all kinds of emotions,” said Nakamoto.
For an entire year, Nakamoto and her family had to see her name and reputation being pummeled in the papers. “It was embarrassing because of course people believe what they read in the newspapers, and being a private person and not wanting to fuel the stories, I never publicly told my side,” she said.
As the situation deteriorated from an investigation to termination, Nakamoto for the first time turned to her union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, for help. Union Agent Earl Hatada remembers when she came to see him. “She was very worried. There was an investigation going on, and she really wanted to take care of it on her own. But it had gotten to a point where she needed help,” said Hatada.
At first, Hatada and HGEA Hawaii Island Division Chief Ian Takashiba listened to her explain the situation and what had happened. They quickly realized that she hadn’t violated any rules and that the union had a good case to fight for her. As they continued their investigation, they also educated Nakamoto on the grievance process and what events were likely to lie ahead. The situation and the process was understandably an emotional one for Nakamoto and the entire Hawaii Island Division team as she was left with so much uncertainty of her future.
And as time went by, the situation didn’t improve immediately. When Hatada and Takashiba filed their first grievances, they were denied. Nakamoto was left worrying about how she would get by and pay her bills and if she would be able to get another job.
Because she had no job, she had to get her own health insurance and pay exorbitant premiums. Additionally, she had been denied unemployment benefits. It was a very difficult, stressful time for her. The union was the one constant positive during this time, providing advocacy and fighting for her when she did not have any income and her future was uncertain. Hatada remembers that Nakamoto was deeply concerned, but she remained stoic and sincere as they dealt with the situation.
Nakamoto was your typical HGEA member who worked hard, did her job and didn’t have any worksite problems. She never thought she would need to call on the union for assistance.
“I realized after being a union member for all these years and not being involved, how very important the union really is,” said Nakamoto. “HGEA was there for me when I needed them. It really is like an insurance policy — we pay our dues and may never need the help, but then something devastating happens. You don’t know how much your dues are worth until something happens to you.”
Under the guidance of Takashiba, the HGEA Hawaii Island Division continued to work through the proper channels of the procedures that have been put in place by the union through negotiations with the employer — this allows for an unbiased review of the complaints on both sides to come up with a fair resolution.
These hard-fought and bargained for contractual rights and benefits give the union the ability to fight for our members. They’re there to protect all HGEA members.
Eventually, after about a year, Nakamoto was reinstated.
“I am very happy that I am a union member,” said Nakamoto. “Without HGEA, I wouldn’t have gotten my job back.”
These days Nakamoto’s professional life is much happier. She is back in her position as elections administrator, doing the job she loves and working with a great staff. And she became an HGEA steward of her department, promoting the importance of being in a union — and grateful for the union that helped get her career back.
My HGEA medical benefits saved my life
At 48, Allan Almeida got a wake-up call that changed his life. One day he wasn’t feeling well so he went to the doctor, took a stress test and found his heartbeat was irregular – and he was immediately flown to Honolulu for more testing. The specialists at Kaiser Permanente told him he was lucky to have had the foresight to go for a check-up or the result could have been fatal.
“I am so grateful to my union for my medical benefits,” says Almeida, an investigator and Unit 13 member with the state Office of the Public Defender on Maui. “Everything just happened so fast. It really was a ‘shake you up, punch you in the face’ kind of experience. I don’t know where I would be without HGEA, my state job and Kaiser.”
Since that sobering event four months ago, he changed his lifestyle for the better. He became a vegan, started exercising more and took medication to help lower his blood pressure. As a result, his heart has stabilized and he lost about 50 pounds. “I’m responsible for three children. To maintain that provision of life, I got healthy,” Almeida states matter-of-factly. With a history of heart disease in his family, he says “my doctors are stoked that I had the ability and the mindset to say enough is enough.”
A proud union member for nearly 20 years, Almeida started his public service career as a corrections officer, was a deputy sheriff for 14 years and has been an investigator since 2013.
Although he admits that he doesn’t always see eye to eye with our union, “I never once grumbled that I had to pay dues.” As an HGEA steward, he understands that with his union membership come numerous benefits like healthcare as well as workplace protection. “I don’t know why people have a problem with dues,” he says, annoyed. “Hey, if something happens, who you going call? Your boss? People get upset, and they don’t want to pay dues. But when something happens to you you’re going to be so happy that somebody’s there covering your back.”
When Almeida heard out about the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, he got riled and started talking to family, friends and co-workers about it. “For those who think that paying dues is not a good thing, let me tell you, it is,” he stresses. “If something happens to you, unless you did something wrong, you need the union representation. That’s why you pay the dues, to help out, offset some of the costs. That’s what our union is here for – to make sure that you’re protected. Without the union, they (the employers) can do whatever they want.”
What Almeida values most about his job, aside from the benefits, is the opportunity to help people who are in crisis and to make sure they get a fair chance in the criminal justice system. He recognizes that, similarly, as a safeguard for fair treatment of employees in the workplace, unions play an important role to ensure policies and procedures are in place to help workers sustain their jobs.
Even while lamenting the high cost of living in Hawaii, he illustrates the simplicity of paying union dues. “If you go to Starbucks and buy three coffees, right there, you’re done. You paid and took care of your dues. For me, it’s not more than $20 a month. You’re taking care of yourself, your family and your livelihood.”
With a medical scare like he had last November, Almeida would gladly give up 20 bucks for the peace of mind. “I know we live in the most expensive state, but our union is insurance,” he says. “The insurance works. Trust me.”
If I fought back, he’d fire me
“It’s sad when your best option is to just leave your job because you’re not safe,” says Cindy, a nurse who previously worked in private practice and now works for the state. “I had no rights, no way to fight back. It wasn’t fair, but that’s how it was before I came here.” (Cindy, not her real name, agreed to share her story of workplace sexual harassment on the condition that we not reveal her identity.) Before becoming an HGEA member, Cindy spent 10 years as a nurse in the private sector before walking off her job, unaware of how she and those like her would impact Hawaii’s history.
“I wasn’t planning to file a complaint,” she says in her usual happy-go-lucky tone. “I just went to collect my retirement money.” After a barrage of questions at the state Department of Labor, Cindy learned that she had been a victim of sexual harassment. “I didn’t even know there was a term for it back then.” After being subjected to inappropriate physical contact and threatening innuendos for almost a decade, she finally couldn’t take it anymore. In efforts to stop this from happening to more people, Cindy agreed to work with the newly formed Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and became part of a groundbreaking movement exposing sexual harassment and discrimination violations in Hawaii.
After years of legal entanglements and the stress of social stigma, Cindy makes it a priority to keep her friends, family and co-workers informed about their union rights and protection. “It’s over now. But I want people to know that their union protects them against stuff like this,” she says confidently.
Like it was yesterday, Cindy remembers walking into her workplace for the first time and being stunned by a poster on the wall outlining sexual harassment, discrimination, and what employees could do about it. “It was almost like a joke,” she says still in disbelief, 30 years later. “You couldn’t miss it. There was this huge orange poster saying that sexual harassment is illegal, and all I could think was ‘wow, how come I didn’t know?’ And then I realized, no one ever told me,” she says. “And this wasn’t a new thing – it can’t have been,” she adds, describing the smattering of thumbtack holes along the poster’s edges.
Now, thanks to the courage of Cindy and others like her, sexual harassment and discrimination violations in Hawaii are no longer “swept under the rug.” In fact, many worksites (both private and public) now require sexual harassment/discrimination training for all employees. Cindy credits Hawaii’s unions with protecting their members from unfair treatment, “HGEA plays an important role in making sure the members know their rights. They’re here to keep us safe and make sure we’re treated fairly,” she asserts. Gesturing toward her co-workers down the hall, she continues. ”These guys are lucky they have someone looking out for them, making sure they’re safe when they get to work. Our union is so important, and people just don’t realize that. It’s more than just our contracts and pay raises. They’re the ones making sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
As a 26-year card-carrying HGEA member, Cindy is weary of the newest attack on labor. “I saw the news last week and got scared. They had the hearing already, so now they just have to decide,” she says referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. “You have to understand the whole picture. Larger numbers will have a stronger voice and a greater impact. If we lose our union, we lose our voice. The feeling of going to work and having someone watch over you – you can’t put a price on that kind of security.”
For more information on Hawaii’s sexual harassment laws go to http://labor.hawaii.gov/hcrc/files/2013/01/INFOsh-1.pdf.
“Right-to-work” not beneficial to workers at all
Do you know what it’s really like to work in a right-to-work state? It may sound worker-friendly, but if you ask Unit 9 member Richard Moore, it’s actually unfavorable to workers. He should know – he’s lived and worked in Arkansas and Texas, two states that have had right-to-work-for-less laws in place for years.
“Working in a right-to-work (RTW) state versus a union state is very simple,” says Moore, a registered professional nurse at Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital. “In a RTW state, the employers decide what your pay will be, what benefits you’ll receive. You have no voice in any aspects of your job. With a RTW state you only get what the employer wants to give you. In a union you get multiple voices heard, which gets you contracts with an employer concerning pay, annual raises, health benefits, overtime rates, vacation and so forth. You have the protection of those voices for any grievances concerning your job and a process to protect yourself should your job be endangered unfairly.”
Moore believes if the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case goes against unions, it will create two sides in a business – those with the union and those without – causing friction and a divide between workers that may not be overcome. “This is exactly what the case hopes to accomplish,” he adds.
Moore keeps abreast on union news and is very knowledgeable about the Friedrichs case. “If the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education is overturned by the Supreme Court, it will be another victory for the 1% of this country,” he says. “It will help with the erosion of the middle class and will make it that much easier for Corporate America to own this country. It also may take us back to a time when there were not any labor laws and protections, the protections that were won by union members of this country.”
The former Navy corpsman decided to become a nurse after working in the construction field for 14 years. He has had many great experiences in his career, was able to travel broadly and met a lot of good people in places such as Guam, St. Croix Virgin Islands, California and Hawaii. What he enjoys and values most is the people he meets and works with, and the ability to help people who need it the most.
However, he can’t help but feel uneasy about his job, seeing the layoffs at the state hospitals and having to work with a reduced workforce. He fears what’s happening with the Maui hospitals and its new private management will open the doors to privatization in other areas in the state.
Moore believes it is important to continue to support HGEA in order to protect our benefits during these uncertain times, and he remains actively involved as a union member.
As the 2015-2017 Unit 9 Kauai Island Division chair, he is trying to get people to know the benefits of a strong union and their need to get more involved. “All members in our union must understand that the need for a united front is more important than ever with the attacks on the very foundations that have kept our rights safe.”
I want to make a difference
“I first called our union because of an issue at work,” chuckles Unit 3 member Kehau Makaila. “But when I found out I could be a steward, I wanted to do it. I wanted to make a difference and make our workplace better.”
After attending her first Member Activist Training (MAT) session, the educational assistant at Waimanalo Elementary & Intermediate School realized her passion for helping others understand what’s at stake. “I found it very interesting,” says Makaila. “That initial training explained a lot I didn’t know, and it was eye-opening to see the role the union plays with public sector employees.” As for her continued participation as a MAT volunteer, she jokes, “I started to bounce some ideas off the agents after the training and then I just stuck around.” Now, she’s a fixture at the Oahu MAT trainings, willing to answer questions, assist with the curriculum, or just help make newcomers feel welcome.
Growing up as a firefighter’s daughter, Makaila watched her father’s union support him throughout his career. Now, because of that awareness, Makaila’s union involvement stretches far beyond the regular duties of a “shop steward.” She currently sits on the State Elections Committee and Unit 3 negotiating team, and is serving as the Next Wave Statewide Chair. Makaila recognizes the challenges ahead of her, but also welcomes them. “They don’t see how it impacts them,” she says of the younger generation. “They haven’t seen it, so we can’t blame them. We need to educate them about how having a union affects them in the long run. Preserving benefits and protecting jobs is a real thing – and it’s something we all have to be part of.”
During her 15 years as an HGEA member, Makaila has developed an appreciation for politics and the direct influence it has on her livelihood. Once she made that connection, she stepped up and became a Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality (PEOPLE) MVP. “When I first started, I didn’t realize it,” she remembers, “but I see the connection now, you know? Being an MVP and politics, and knowing how it affects your job. If we don’t get the right people in there, something like Wisconsin could happen to us here.”
When speaking with co-workers, Makaila equates union protection to something many of us willingly pay for — insurance. “You guys are our insurance policy,” she relates. “A lot of people don’t use their insurance, but it’s nice to have, you know? It’s a peace of mind kind of deal. I don’t think I could do much about my contract or work environment without the union. “I’d opt-in just to have the reassurance that HGEA will be there to support me when I need it.”
Working together, empowering workers
Unit 4 member Donald K. Lum, superintendent II at the Honolulu Corporation Yard, made so many positive changes at the worksite in less than a year that his employees nominated him for City and County of Honolulu Employee of the Year.
After Lum began working there, “it was as if everything lifted…like in the movie Moses where he got the people out of bondage,” says fellow co-worker and superintendent I Rialrome “Boy” Thornton (Unit 4). “The best thing that ever happened is when Donald came back here.”
Flattered but embarrassed by the unadulterated compliments of the workers he supervises, Lum was named 2015 Employee of the Year for the City & County of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services. He was pleasantly surprised and humbled by the praises his staff bestowed in nominating him for the award.
“I appreciate everything they say. But it’s them and those guys out there who make it work. It’s not one person. It’s everybody,” Lum emphasizes. “We all work together and make things work, including the UPW (United Public Workers) guys. My part is just a little bit of guidance on what to do.”
Lum has been with the City’s Environmental Services department for 28 years, having worked as an automated truck driver, supervisor and superintendent. His current position as superintendent II is the highest non-administrative position in refuse collection.
Lum is a true union guy, as was his late father, a City Department of Facility Maintenance superintendent who had 45-plus years of service and was a UPW member and later an HGEA member. When Lum was a UPW member, he was a union officer and division chief steward. He has a reputation of knowing and sharing the advantages of union representation, along with a history of helping others and talking contract sensibility with everyone. As a UPW member, he played a big role in winning an arbitration case that resulted in an award of almost $1 million in back pay for nearly 100 employees.
Thornton adds that Lum previously worked at the baseyard so he knows the workers and works well with them. “Donald knows how to make decisions. It’s great because we now have someone with a strong union leadership background. He knows how to keep peace and harmony. The men are happy.”
The Honolulu Corporation Yard is the strongest unionized baseyard with the largest number of employees and shop stewards. As an HGEA member, Lum continues to stress to his workers the importance of being in a union and tries to keep a positive environment despite the Oahu refuse constantly being in the news.
And with the future of unions and working people at stake, Lum tells naysayers how important it is to remain united. “The Friedrichs case is all about weakening our ability to bargain effectively for all of us. Imagine the possibility of one day becoming an “at will” worker. We need to remind people what working conditions were like before and how they have enhanced and empowered us today.”
Challenges with the employer are a constant battle, particularly when the administration changes. But Lum empowers his workers, letting the supervisors do their job and having their backs when needed.
“Dad always told me do the right thing,” Lum says. “And I live by that every day."
HGEA forced the state to honor my contract
“I got riffed in 2009,” recalls Unit 13 member Amanda Lowrey. The former state microbiologist had just completed her first two years of government service when she received her reduction-in-force notice. “Because of HGEA, I was able to look for a job outside the department instead of just being laid off.”
While going through the unprecedented reduction-in-force, Lowrey admits, “I was concerned because we didn’t have enough information and we didn’t know what to expect. It looked like a lot of people were going to be losing their jobs and there was so much uncertainty.” Luckily, her background in biology qualified Lowrey for a position with the State Department of Health, and in an unexpected (but welcome) stroke of luck, she landed a sanitarian position. “The fact that I managed to get a job was huge. HGEA forced the state to honor my contract,” she says, bolstering her confidence in our union.
In a position more commonly referred to as “health inspector,” Lowrey now enjoys working with vendors and facilities ensuring the goods and services provided are safe for public consumption. “I get to see a lot behind the scenes, and that’s pretty cool,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that the person inspecting a restaurant is also inspecting a swimming pool, a mortuary, or even a tattoo parlor.”
Not only did Lowrey hit the ground running, but her resilient attitude and excellent work got her standardized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), earning her the unofficial title of state shellfish specialist. That distinction makes her uniquely qualified to locally enforce rules set forth by the FDA ensuring standardization across the state. “I’m the only one in the state who’s doing this work, so that’s pretty amazing,” she says.
Although she clearly enjoys her work, Lowrey recognizes that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and encourages help from the community. “We can’t be everywhere at once. We can’t see what’s happening all the time, so we rely on the cooperation of the public a lot. We all want be able to go out and feel safe about eating in a restaurant, going swimming or getting a tattoo and not get sick from that.”
Over the past six years, Lowrey has become a driven advocate, emphasizing the importance of union protection. As a second term State Board Director, she remains committed to doing more than just the status quo. “Even when things are good, you still have to fight to hold onto what you have. It can happen in a heartbeat – everything you fought for can vanish. We need to keep fighting to make sure our benefits and retirement aren’t taken away from us,” she adds, fearful of complacency.
Knowing first-hand how quickly things can change, Lowrey takes nothing for granted. “I’m very fortunate to have a boss who completely supports my union involvement. It makes fighting the good fight a little bit easier."
Honoring her mother’s legacy
Peggy Kelley’s mother, the late state Rep. Jane P. Kelley of New Hampshire, cancelled her chemotherapy appointments so she could vote against right-to-work legislation 12 years ago. Fortunately for New Hampshire’s public employees, her tenacity helped to kill the bill, keeping union-busting, right-to-work laws out of the state.
“I’m so proud of my mother,” says Kelley, a Unit 8 member and technology training coordinator for the Office of Continuing Education & Training at Maui College. “She fought for the authentic rights of workers throughout her career. Organized labor was important to her.”
With a staunch labor union supporter for a mother, it’s no surprise Kelley is very pro-union, and understands the significance of unions and all they do for working people. She tells anti-union co-workers that the union is a very vital protection to have. “They don’t realize they could lose their benefits. The security and benefits come from our union. It’s important that we participate and be aware of our rights.”
Although Rep. Kelley herself had never belonged to a union, in tribute to her grandfather, a 50-year member of the pipe fitters union, she became a state legislator in the 1970s to get collective bargaining rights for New Hampshire’s public employees. She remembered as a young girl the countless stories her Grandpa Sullivan told her about the union and the brotherhood, and she grew up with an enormous love and respect for the American labor union movement. At one point in her legislative career, the die-hard Democrat even switched to the Republican party briefly just so she could continue to serve on the House Labor Committee.
Kelley says her mother was revered in their hometown of Hampton, NH. In her final days, when she was too sick to drive, the Hampton firefighters visited and offered to sit with her and take her to appointments. “They said they would come every day if she wanted,” marvels Kelley. “They loved her for getting them binding arbitration. They didn’t forget her for that. I was very struck by that loyalty.”
Just as Rep. Kelley was inspired by her grandfather to go into politics, Kelley wants to honor her mother’s legacy. After years of not being actively involved in HGEA, she recently became a steward to inspire her co-workers, to represent them and to help spread the word about the value and strength of being a union member.
Her mother would be proud.
VIDEO: Click here to watch video clip of Rep. Jane Kelley speaking at the 2003 Teamsters Convention in Las Vegas (speech starts from about 11:00 into video).
I took my union benefits for granted
“Many good, hard-working people are leaving Wisconsin because of Scott Walker.”
That’s how Wendy Brousseau describes the sad reality of her home state under the regime of Gov. Walker. Once a strong pro-union state with its long history in the labor movement – it was the first in the United States to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees 56 years ago – Wisconsin, the birthplace of AFSCME, is now a ‘right to work’ state that weakens unions, lowers employee wages and benefits and undermines the basic rights of workers.
“I’m ashamed because Wisconsin was one of the states that started unions,” says Brousseau, a behavioral health specialist at Maui High School. “Some of my friends are going to neighboring states to work. A lot of people, especially if they live near the borders of other states, are planning to apply in other states just to keep the benefits of being in a union.”
Brousseau was one of hundreds of employees affected by Walker’s $300 million budget cut to the University of Wisconsin system. After working for 12 years in Hawaii, first as a special education teacher then as a behavioral health specialist, she decided to move back to Wisconsin in 2013 to be with her family and for more job opportunities. She found what she thought was her “dream job” (albeit a term position without benefits) and was thrilled when she was encouraged to apply for a permanent position that was going to be available the next year. However, with cuts to the university’s budget, the permanent position that was considered vacant was eliminated. And she could no longer continue to work in her non-benefits position without heath insurance.
Fortunately Brousseau applied with the Hawaii Department of Education and was offered her current job at Maui High School. She returned to Maui in September 2015. “I was happy to come back here to security and benefits I can rely on. I had really missed that,” she says. “I’ve never been so thankful to get back to a job. They don’t have positions like this in the schools there.”
Having worked without benefits for the first time in her professional career, Brousseau quickly realized how good she had it when she was part of a union in Hawaii. “I was spoiled. I’ve always had my sick and vacation protected, a union rep I could go to if I needed support,” she acknowledges. “I have a whole new appreciation. It’s something that a lot of us take for granted. I was very protected, and I took for granted the benefits that have been fought for. I am much more aware and appreciative of being a union member after my struggles to find consistent work in Wisconsin.”
Even though she felt it was the worst time of her life, she is grateful for the sobering experience. “You take health insurance and all that for granted, and then you don’t have it and you can’t find it, and you’re like ‘oh, that was a really big deal.’ You get complacent. For me, it was a really good wake-up call.”
It saddens Brousseau to see the state she grew up in, and was so proud of, falling apart. It’s no longer the place she believed had much job potential, especially with families and generations leaving for better working conditions. “I’ve been trying to recruit them out here,” Brousseau says half-jokingly. “I tell them, ‘if you’re going to make a new start, come to Hawaii.’”
Unions leveled the playing field for us so we can live decent lives
“Sometimes I don’t agree with the union. But I’m still a union guy,” states Deputy Director Shawn Tsuha.
“My father schooled me about how important unions are for us,” says the 24-year State Department of Public Safety official. “Without unions, we’re nothing.”
Having worked his way up through the departmental ranks, Deputy Director Tsuha, or Shawn, as he prefers, believes standing with our union is critical to the survival of working people, and he strives to instill a sense of solidarity in his sheriffs and law enforcement staff. “We need to protect the middle class. Before unions came along, our aunties and uncles worked on the plantation with no health care, no vacation, no nothing,” he says in disbelief. “Unions leveled the playing field for us so we can live decent lives. If the next generation expects to keep the benefits we have, we all have to be willing to carry our fair share of the load.”
Remembering stories his father told about working without contracts, lunch breaks or even weekends before he became part of a union, Shawn is determined to preserve the middle-class lifestyle and benefits we enjoy because of what unions gave us. “We can’t go back to that. Look outside. That’s not built for us,” he says, pointing toward Kakaako’s sea of luxury high-rises. “This is all backwards. This country runs on the middle class and we’re being wiped out. We can’t afford that. If we keep going down this path, where will we end up?”
Despite the upcoming challenges, Shawn’s passion for his work and standing up for working people continue to go hand-in-hand. “It isn’t just about getting a paycheck,” he says. “It’s about keeping our community safe. It’s about helping each other and working toward a sustainable future, and we’re proud to do that.”
Our benefits were hard fought by our union – we need to continue to support HGEA
Aloha. I have been a proud card-carrying HGEA member since the start of my employment as an investigator with the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Civil Rights Commission almost 17 years ago.
For me the importance of supporting HGEA is two-fold. First, our state and our country are blessed with a thriving middle class because of the efforts of unions over the past approximate 100 years. Without unions we workers would continue to be under the total control of management and the owners of industry. Every benefit and pay increase that workers experience are a direct result of the work unions have done throughout the decades. These benefits and pay increases were not gifts from management but hard fought and bargained for by unions. I want to ensure that the benefits and pay that have been achieved over the years continues to benefit workers now and for decades to come. We need a healthy, vibrant and thriving middle class in order to sustain the democracy that we all have come to enjoy and need strong unions to ensure this.
Secondly, the efforts of the very wealthy owners of industry to diminish the advances of the benefits that unions have fought for workers must be challenged and stopped, not only for the big picture but also for the individual worker like me. I bargained for my state job with the understanding that after 25-plus years of good hard work in service to our Hawaii community that I would be able to receive a fair wage, benefits and retirement. Now those promises that I relied upon are challenged. Who will fight for me and all of us if there is no HGEA to stand up for me, my co-workers and all of us who agreed to take a government job offering lower pay than the private sector for the promise of retirement after a career in government service? We need HGEA to ensure that the promises that were made to us are kept.
Please join me in supporting HGEA to enable HGEA to support all of us. Mahalo.
Our union has my back
“Without our union, no one would have my back,” says Justin Lam, Nurse Consultant with the State Department of Health. “It would just be me versus the employer. And in the private sector, they always find a way to cut jobs, pay or hours. Because of our union, we’ve retained some great benefits and I intend to do whatever I can to keep it that way.”
Prior to becoming an HGEA member, Lam’s experience with public service left him somewhat disenchanted. “I became a nurse to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” he recalls. “I pursued a career with the state because of the diverse opportunities available to public health nurses.” Unfortunately, Lam entered the workforce just before the 2009 furloughs were imposed on all public employees. “With all the talk about pay cuts and strikes, my first impression of unions wasn’t very good,” he remembers. Lam, like others who chose a career in public service, was left furloughed and unable to support those who depended on him.
Having experienced some of the worst attacks on the public sector so early in his career, Lam became a steward to be a voice for the other nurses he works with. “Younger members don’t think about the future too much, and that needs to change,” he says. “While we’re at the start of our careers with civil service, the contract agreements and negotiations between the union and the employer directly impact our future.”
He emphasizes the importance of solidarity. “Each year, public employment loses its luster from what it once was. We need to stand together,” he explains. “It’s our strength in numbers that allows us to receive fair pay, benefits and safe working conditions. Without the union, it would be hard to retain good employees and we wouldn’t be able to do the work we’re proud to do.
Fighting for our union
I’ve always been pro-union, and during a conversation with Kauai-At-Large Director Priscilla Badua, I was asked if I wanted to become more involved with HGEA. I immediately began to think about long-term strategy and how to preserve our benefits.
I have realized that ensuring safe working conditions, establishing salary schedules, and maintaining benefits such as vacation and sick leaves are just some of the examples of what our union fights for through legislation. Once I made that connection, it became clear that contributing to PEOPLE (Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality) is one of the easiest ways to ensure our voice is heard. There are misconceptions about how our dues monies can be utilized and one big thing that it cannot be used for is working on federal campaigns so if we want to have a chance to have our voice heard we must raise the funds ourselves. I’ll happily trade two dollars a week for fair treatment at the workplace and a chance at a better life for my colleagues, my family, and the community as a whole. If we won’t stand up for ourselves there will be no more union to fight for our rights.
There’s no doubt in my mind that without our union’s representation our lives would be drastically different. For that reason, I enjoy talking with my colleagues about the challenges facing our union and what’s at stake if we lose. I never want to leave someone wondering “how can I get more involved?” when the answer is so simple. There are so many ways to get involved, we just have to give someone the opportunity to stand and be heard. Being involved with our union means a better life for the people I sit next to everyday, my family, and our entire community. We need to come together and say “I’ve got your back” if we want to protect our future.