The board of directors of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the faculty union, voted to end its 39-year relationship with the National Education Association effective September 1 without discussing faculty opposition expressed in a straw-poll.
The directors narrowly split with 13 votes in favor of disaffiliation with the national organization, 10 opposed, with a single abstention. Apparently two board members were not present for the vote.
The board apparently disregarded relatively strong faculty support for continuing the affiliation with NEA. A straw-poll of faculty conducted by the board earlier this month found half of those voting (49.4%) said UPHA should continue its NEA affiliation, while just over a third (35.4%) supported cutting its national ties. The remaining 15.3% expressed no preference.
Over 40 percent of all faculty across the UH system voted, the second-highest response rate for any internal poll UHPA.
According to an email to faculty from UHPA President Adrienne Valdez following the disaffiliation vote, board proceeded to a vote on the issue without discussion of the straw poll results or feedback from a February 9 “Faculty Forum,” which brings together faculty representatives from all campuses.
According to a summary statement favoring cutting ties to NEA, which was distributed prior to the Faculty Forum, disaffiliation has been pressed by the union’s longtime executive director, J.N. Musto, with one central issue–money.
UHPA paid $680,831.34 in dues to NEA during the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to this statement.
We are uncomfortable taking money from our bargaining unit that cannot be directly tied to our purpose as a public sector union in the state of Hawai‘i. We believe that emerging challenges here at home have a stronger claim on our resources. Retirement and medical benefits are under attack. This is very much a local issue, requiring local expertise and local relationships, and UHPA has proved its effectiveness in the realm of local politics. As we have seen from recent events with our sister union, and NEA state affiliate, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, there is no substitution for local expertise, especially when it comes to collective bargaining. Affiliation with the NEA is not necessary for UHPA to effectively carry out its responsibilities as the exclusive representative of the UH faculty. This is what our mission requires. This is where our attention and resources should be focused.
In other words, our money should stay here. Why should we pay to maintain a national organization?
Those supporting continued ties to the NEA saw the situation very differently.
We firmly believe that disaffiliating from NEA and becoming an independent union is not the right course for UHPA. Being independent demonstrates the opposite of what unions are all about – collective action, standing together in solidarity and being part of the national movement speaking on behalf of organized labor, especially the education sector. There is never a right time to be an independent union. That is especially true now, with public sector unions being the target of so many state governments. It would be a huge mistake to insulate ourselves and go it alone.
There are strong, strategic, well organized and well-funded forces working against unions and we are not immune to their impact. Unions in Wisconsin and Michigan have both suffered crippling setbacks in their ability to represent their members. If it can happen in other strong union states, it can happen here.
NEA supporters ticked off a list of faculty benefits provided by the national union, ranging from several types of insurance to leadership development and ongoing access to the NEA national network for consultation and advice.
They also highlighted the larger political context.
UHPA sets aside $60/member annually for local political activities and endorsements because it is so crucial that UHPA be engaged in the Hawaii political arena. The same is true at the national level. UHPA’s voice needs to be part of the national conversation. Our affiliation with the NEA is the key for making that happen.
NEA provides vigorous and comprehensive lobbying at the federal level to protect worker rights, Social Security, Medicare, access to healthcare, and advocate for legislation that supports and protects public education, including higher education. These intangible benefits in the legislative arena directly impact us in Hawaii. NEA fights these battles on our behalf every day on Capitol Hill. While we have access to the Hawaii congressional delegation, NEA lobbies all 50 congressional delegations.
The position paper opposing disaffiliation (i.e., supporting continued ties to NEA) included three current UHPA officers (President Valdez, Treasurer Catherine Bye, Secretary Brent Sipes, and two other members of the UPHA executive committee, Sally Pestana and Martha Crosby. Former UHPA officers Paulette Feeney and Dennis Vanairsdale also took part in preparing the statement.
Authors of the anti-NEA position were not identified.
Other factors besides money also appear to have been involved.
First, UHPA leaders have long been unhappy that they play second-fiddle to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which is the primary NEA affiliate in Hawaii.
This problem has been exacerbated in recent years by a series of clashes between UHPA and HSTA. Back in mid-2011, for example, an UHPA email to its membership, it “accused HSTA leaders of taking ‘ignoring the consequences of their actions’ by taking legal actions that ‘jeopardize the rights of all public sector unions, including the right to strike.’”
The charges stemmed from the approach taken by HSTA during a challenge to state bargaining tactics being heard by the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
UHPA’s request to intervene in the proceedings before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board “to preserve the right to strike” was approved over HSTA’s objections. HSTA also tried to bar HGEA’s legal counsel from taking part in the proceedings, according to UHPA.
HSTA’s actions have “alienated virtually everyone who has a relationship with HSTA,” UHPA charged. The UH union said HSTA has subpoenaed more than 88 individuals, including representatives of UHPA, HGEA, and UPW, in order to question them about an alleged “conspiracy.”
“The notion of a conspiracy is an insult,” UHPA said.
Later, I noted the link between the HSTA-UHPA dispute and HSTA’s attempt to obtain special health benefits for its members, and some of the questionable history surrounding the issue (“UHPA again highlights challenge to HSTA, health benefits controversy“).
UHPA has also clashed with HSTA and NEA over political endorsements. Last year, in the most high profile example, UHPA endorsed Ed Case in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate, while HSTA/NEA backed then-Rep. Mazie Hirono.
Documents provided to members relating to the issue of NEA affiliation shows UHPA formally complained about the NEA’s endorsement decisions. The NEA quickly responded by changing its endorsement process to add a mechanism for dealing with disagreements between local affiliates.
A final factor may be undue deference by board members to staff recommendations and pressure, in this case the push to disaffiliate. This is hinted at by President Valdez in an October 2012 memo to the UHPA board. After citing several key benefits of NEA affiliation, Valdez called attention to the Senate hearings investigating the Stevie Wonder concert fiasco at UH.
Valdez said “one of my most important take aways” from the hours of testimony was criticism of the Board of Regents for relying too heavily on the advice of “UH General Council, outside attorneys and UH administrators,” and failing to step up to challenge decisions that appeared contrary to policy or just didn’t seem right.
The reason the Regents’ testimony made such an impact on me was that their answers validated that the way we run our UHPA Board meetings is correct and necessary. Of course we also seek counsel and opinions from our attorneys and professional staff, but then we as a Board are responsible for understanding the issues and making the decisions. It was painful to hear the Regents on multiple occasions have to answer “Legal Counsel said it was okay” or Legal Council told me to” when Senator Kim asked how they had arrived at a certain decision.
A veiled reference, I would think, to the board’s perceived deference to “advice” from UHPA’s outside counsel, Tony Gill, and its professional staff, including Musto. I could be reading too much into this comment but, from past experience, I think not.
In any case, a list of college and university faculty groups affiliated with the NEA is available online. You can strike UH from the list.