Hawaii's union participation rate tops 20 percent

Published On: Dec 24 2013 12:09:54 AM HST   Updated On: Sep 03 2013 10:45:23 AM HST

As millions of American workers took time off Monday to celebrate Labor Day, the state of organized labor in Hawaii remains among the strongest in the country.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hawaii's union participation rate of 21.6 percent is bested by only Alaska (22.4 percent) and New York (23.2 percent). Last year, 116,000 workers in Hawaii held union membership out of a workforce that averaged 537,000.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie believes the state's high union participation rate is one of the key reasons why unemployment in The Aloha State is so low at 4.5 percent.

"If we all put our paddle in the water and pull together, it means we can succeed," the governor told KITV4. "Maybe that's a lesson that needs to be learned on the mainland?"

Unions have remained a staple of Hawaii government and politics for the past seven decades, even though their overall influence in the U.S. continues to wane. In 1983 there 17.7 million union members, but last year that number stood at just 14.4 million.
In July, Honolulu city leaders were thrown for a loop when an arbitrator awarded a 16.8 percent pay raise to the State of Hawaii Police Officers Union over the next four fiscal years. The total benefits package for Honolulu's 2,000 police officers is estimated at roughly $200 million, part of the reason why the city is now engaged in a $20 million cost-cutting plan as it grapples with a projected budget deficit of $26 million.

Even strong union supporters like former Gov. John Waihee recognize change will have to occur in the face of fiscal challenges and technological advances.

"I'm not current with what the goings on are, but it would seem to me that we constantly need to look at ways of making things better," said Waihee. "We can't remain stagnant and that's the challenge for everybody -- I mean ourselves, the unions, everybody."

The high point for union membership in Hawaii during the past decade was in 2005, when 141,000 workers participated in organized labor. The low point of 111,000 union workers came in 2010, as Hawaii and the rest of the nation slowly climbed out of the Great Recession.

State Sen. Will Espero believes unions often serve as a scapegoat for the state's financial woes, but he notes other entities can also exert a tremendous amount of influence over lawmakers, whether at the federal, state or county level.

"Just like the unions, businesses and nonprofits also have a strong voice. So collectively, that's our democracy," said Espero. "It's easy to point fingers at individuals or organizations, but at the end of the day it's about all of us working together for the betterment of the total population, and the unions represent a large portion of that population."  
In 2012, North Carolina had the lowest union participation rate in the country at just 2.9 percent. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average of 11.3 percent.


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