HSTA president responds to anti-union criticism

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee responds to anti-union criticism on Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation program

Friday, December 1, 2017

Host Chris Vandercook: Monday on this program we ran an interview with Robert Alt of the Buckeye Institute, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. In it, Alt claimed that public sector union members are being deprived of the right to choose their leadership and determine the direction their union takes. Mr. Alt framed his message as constructive criticism, with the goal of empowering union members. Here’s a sample of what he said.

Robert Alt (recorded): It’s something where a lot of them don’t recognize that they have the possibility of having a choice, not a choice between unions and a choice as the whether or not they have a union representing them. And in large measure, I think that goes to a number that, when I first heard it, I found it fairly startling. And that’s that 94 percent of unionized workers in this country have never had the opportunity to vote for the union that’s representing them.

Vandercook: Here’s what Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, had to say in response.

Corey Rosenlee: The truth of the matter is this is that they do have a choice and what I’m very proud of is that HSTA has elections every single year. We are a democratic union. We have elections for our chapter leaders, we have elections for our Board of Directors and every three years we have elections for our state leaders. And the interesting comparison is that you look at his (Robert Alt’s) institute, the Buckeye Institute, first off all it is not a democratic organization. And they are primarily funded by the Koch brothers. And so the big difference between the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Buckeye Institute is one, we’re made up of 13,700 members who have the choice whether they want to be in the union or not. Every member has that choice. And what I’m very proud of is that 97.5 percent of the teachers in Hawaii have chosen to be part of the union.

Vandercook: What motivates a think tank, a self-described think tank like this, to take a position like this and, in effect, sound an alarm?

Rosenlee: They have a very clear goal. As they’re sponsored by the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers want to go from billionaires to multi-billionaires. And the best way to do that is to get rid of anyone who is going to protect workers. What we’ve seen in our country is that income inequality has grown. And one of the big reasons for that is we’ve seen a decline in union membership. Across the country, what they’ve done is these right to work rules that they’ve gotten or minimized unions. And it’s very clear what their goal is. They want to reduce worker raises, reduce worker benefits. And this will just help these large corporations and these barons to make even more money and so if they can find any way to minimize unions, that’s exactly what they’re going to try to do.

Vandercook: All of the language of this particular criticism is couched in terms of benefit for people.

Rosenlee: You know, the Buckeye Institute is not trying to both benefit workers, or what the Hawaii State Teachers Association tries to do is benefit our keiki in Hawaii. I’ll take them seriously when they’re out there fighting to make sure our classrooms are air conditioned. I’ll take them seriously when they’re out there trying to make sure our special education students have qualified teachers. They’re not trying to do that at all. And in the states where they’ve done these things, what we’ve seen is the opposite. And I’ll give you the example of Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, they basically weakened unions completely. And recently, a CNN article pointed out what happened because of this. Wages decreased. Member benefits reduced by about 19 percent and what happened, of course? Teachers started to leave. And what they’ve seen is a great reduction in the number of qualified teachers that they have in Wisconsin. So the idea of weaken actually not only hurts the members of the union, but also hurts the students and the teachers in those states.

Vandercook: So why do it?

Rosenlee: Well, it’s very clear. We’ve always been having this battle ever since the Industrial Revolution. And there are people that are not content with having billions of dollars. They’re trying to have billions and billions of dollars, like the Koch brothers. And the biggest opposition to them are the unions. We stand for workers’ rights. We try to make sure that we have qualified teachers in every classroom. So this has been a constant battle going on for 150 years in this country and what Robert Alt does, the Buckeye Institute does is they try to find creative ways of attacking the union and making it sound good. But basically, they have the same argument: they just want to get rid of unions.

Vandercook: Since you mentioned the history of unions, let’s go back not quite 150, let’s go back maybe 100 years and talk about the social changes that unions brought about in America, which were what?

Rosenlee: First of all, and we’re very proud, I’m a social studies teacher. We have to go back and look at our history. Look at what unions have done in this country. We used to have children as young as five working in sweat shops. We had seven-day work weeks. There was 12-hour work days. There were no benefits for workers. There was no paid overtime. There was nothing such as vacation time. There was nothing such as sick leave. And the unions have fought and fought to make sure that we have worker protections in this country and the thing is this. Research has shown that unions benefit not only the workers, but also in cases when you compare states where they have strong unions compared to right-to-work states, what you find is that educational outcomes are much better in the states with stronger unions. And the same thing happens not just in the United States, but in Europe as well.

Vandercook: Have you seen an anti-union trend, the pendulum swinging away from support of unions in America?

Rosenlee: When Robert Alt comes on the show, he tries to say that ‘Oh, unions aren’t democratic.’ And the problem is, is that propaganda may sound good. And that’s why it’s so important. When I heard that conversation, I said, ‘We’ve got to respond to this.’ Because the propaganda tries to attack unions in really fake ways and false ways. We are democratic. Not only democratic, we are out there for the benefit of the keiki of Hawaii. That is what the Hawaii State Teachers Association does. And so this weakening of unions that’s happening in this country, what we’ve seen is the income inequality is getting much worse. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And we need to have strong unions to protect those workers’ rights.

Vandercook: Why would anti-union rhetoric, it’s often been quite effective, right? What is it that resonates?

Rosenlee: First they go after certain problems. And the most common problem we often hear something like this. ‘Well, unions protect bad teachers.’ And first of all they never look to see the root causes of why we have a teacher shortage here in Hawaii. The problem is we just can’t recruit enough teachers. And a lot of times, it’s because Hawaii teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the nation when you factor in cost of living. That’s the question. How is that going to change? It’s going to take collective bargaining. It’s going to take the collective work of a union to try to improve the wages so we can recruit more teachers that will fill our classrooms and be able to do that. But they’re going to just keep on attacking and see what sticks. And when I was listening to his argument, his constant refrain was ‘Shouldn’t people be able to choose their union?’ And the reality is, they do. Every single year, our members can vote, every single year they can choose. We every year we bring 400 teachers from across the state together in what we call a Representative Assembly. And any member can bring up what we call an NBI, which is basically a bill. And they can get that passed and try to get their colleagues involved and try to get it passed our Representative Assembly. And the purpose is, that allows us to be a member-run organization. And so their whole idea is, what they would love to see is a vote to get rid of the union every single year. And they know that if there’s just one time when they vote to get rid of the union, then they don’t have to have a union anymore, there’s no one to stop the Koch brothers and these corporations from just running wild.

Vandercook: You’ve made a number of references to the Koch brothers and opponents with a great deal of money. Far more than you have. How do fight that?

Rosenlee: And that’s why sometimes they win. We don’t have billions of dollars. They’ve done some nasty things. They’ll go to a state and right before Christmas, they’ll send out a flier to every teacher saying ‘What could you do with your union dues? How many gifts could you buy, instead of paying for them?’ And they just keep on chipping away and saying fake and false things. And they try to say, ‘Just don’t pay your union dues. Don’t get involved.’ And the whole idea is is that eventually they start chipping away a small period of time. And they start believing it. And they have all this money to advertise, and have someone like Robert Alt who will go across the country and they’ll poll test certain themes and see if it works and they start confusing people and muddying up the waters.”