Thursday, January 7, 2021

HSTA celebrates 50th anniversary

The union has spent five decades advocating for public educators and their students

The Hawaii State Teachers Association celebrated its golden anniversary this month, 50 years after its formal incorporation on Jan. 1, 1971. 

In 2019, HSTA began planning an in-person anniversary celebration, which we had to postpone because of the pandemic. We plan to reschedule an anniversary event once we are assured that it’s safe for everyone to attend in person.

Some of the union’s earliest leaders reflected on initial efforts to create the association that became the leading advocate for public education in Hawaii.

Odetta Fujimori served as HSTA’s first president in those early days, and she said she hesitantly “decided to go ahead and pick up the mantle” when she was a teacher at Pauoa Elementary School.

Fujimori said a friend told her, “‘You know Odetta, you really need to get involved and you should run for president for this new group because you’re the only one who’s been politically active as a teacher and you know what is going on in the system.’

“It was not easy. We had to recruit staff. We had to convince teachers that we were serious about the business of changing education and taking it in a different direction, and that we wanted to assist teachers in helping them have better opportunities within the schools,” recalled Fujimori, who is now retired after a 29-year teaching career.

“Many of our teachers were daughters and sons of labor union members, whose parents worked on the plantations, were very keen on organizing this union,” she said. “So together we were able to put together a negotiating team that could reflect concerns of our young teachers and also those teachers who were sons and daughters of the labor movement.

“Those days were very, very tough. We had to take on the governor. We had to take on the state bureaucracy, the Department of Education,” Fujimori said.

Click here to watch this video on YouTube.

Before HSTA’s creation, teachers suffered under the following conditions which vastly improved in the years since its founding in 1971:

  • No duty-free lunch period,
  • An extremely limited holiday schedule,
  • Open-ended workdays,
  • Faculty meetings outside the regular day,
  • Expectation to schedule all parent-teacher conferences outside the regular school day,
  • Requirement to monitor classroom and bathroom cleaning, and
  • Mandates to work under conditions that were considered too hazardous for their students.

“It was a time where you had to do everything within the classroom. We had no support from outside. The students also had to help us. They were responsible for cleaning the room, clapping the erasers, mopping the floor, closing the windows, and so on. Sometimes they forgot, so we’d have to end up doing it,” Fujimori remembered.  “I learned that if I did not stand up for better working conditions, then these people (principals and administrators) would continue to take advantage of me.”

Fujimori said HSTA advocated for improvements to the lives of educators and their students.

“It was so awesome to see all these teachers coming together and standing up for better schools and better working conditions for themselves,” she recalled.

Fujimori said she was proud that HSTA got politically active in those early days to effect change inside and outside the classroom.

“Between myself and several other teachers and former presidents, we were able to encourage teachers to join the political parties, get their names out there, run for office, do things that would shake up the bureaucracy and do things that would make a difference for education,” she said.

Read a detailed history of HSTA

Husted: At first, power brokers dismissed us as ‘little old ladies in tennis shoes’

Joan Husted moved to Oahu from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1966, and became a counselor at King Intermediate School, later serving as a district resource teacher for Windward Oahu.

In 1971, she served as chair of HSTA’s Negotiations Committee. She became a staff member in July 1973, first as director of field services. Husted later became HSTA’s chief negotiator, deputy executive director, and executive director, retiring from that position in 2007.

She said the men in charge of state government at the time felt “there are too many women in the public schools. They won’t be a union,” during the debate about passing Hawaii’s collective bargaining law in 1968 and 1969.

“HSTA gave credibility to teachers,” Husted said, noting that people used to dismiss them as “little old ladies in tennis shoes. ‘We don’t have to worry about them.’ And then we became a force. Teachers, because of their willingness to stand up for what they believe in, bring credibility, and we stopped hearing about little old ladies in tennis shoes.

“We were the most consistent advocates for the kids. We used to say good teaching conditions are good learning conditions for students. Whether it was closing the schools because of the asbestos or (advocating for smaller) class size, going after early childhood education, we were consistently at every hearing, talking to everybody who would listen,” added Husted.

“My best advice is stay together,” said Husted. “There is power in unity, and we have demonstrated that all throughout HSTA’s existence. When people said it couldn’t be done, we went and did it.

“Old-timers like myself have to have our ears open and our eyes open so we can hear the new things that the younger teachers want to have accomplished,” Husted added. “The best decision-makers at the school are the people who work at the school, not the people who work in the Liliuokalani Building (the Department of Education headquarters). So stay together.”

Lee Loy: Don’t just say, ‘Oh well somebody else is going to worry about it’

Click here to watch this video on YouTube.

Pilialoha Lee Loy was a teacher for 46 years at Aliamanu Intermediate School, which became Aliamanu Middle during her time there.

Lee Loy began serving as an HSTA school representative in the early 1970s and joined the HSTA board in 1973. She was later appointed to the state Commission on the Status of Women and, after retiring, served as the chair of the Employees Retirement System board.

“For me, HSTA was a real leadership training program. It wasn’t just, you know, because we’re getting a pay increase. Also at the school level, you’re helping people,” Lee Loy said. “I remember very clearly that we had a problem with staff reduction at our school and what was happening was that the principal was misinterpreting the contract. So even though we have UniServ people and field reps, a lot of the activities at the very beginning had to fall on the school-level people to understand the contract, and I think that’s what HSTA does, is that it enables people to get into leadership roles.

“Today, teachers need to realize that benefits can always be taken away, and it’s sort of like how a lot of women don’t realize the changes that came about because of the civil rights movement or even people of color. They don’t realize there’s been a lot of changes,” she said.

“Unless people take the time to really support their union, it doesn’t take much,” Lee Loy added.  “Just going to attend the convention or even going to your local organization meeting or even helping out on the school level by putting things into the boxes. Really become aware of what the union is fighting for.

“A lot of times you just sort of take it for granted that a pay increase is going to come,” she said, noting that she endured two teachers’ strikes during her career.

“I’m glad that we did what we did because we were united, and that’s something teachers needed to be sure. Especially when you’re a brand new teacher, you get to meet so many other colleagues by being active with the union, instead of just paying your dues, saying ‘Oh well. Somebody else is going to worry about it.’ But you need to worry about it as well,” Lee Loy said.

Corey Rosenlee, HSTA’s current president, was born a year after HSTA. His mother was a proud member of the union. 

“On behalf of all the members of HSTA, we have to appreciate the work of all the union members who have paved the way for us to continue to advocate for better working conditions for teachers and better public schools for our keiki,” Rosenlee said.

HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck said, “We’re so proud to have leaders like Joan, Odetta, and Pili who started this organization. We are going to do everything we can to continue the fight that they started.”

Fujimori, HSTA’s first president, said, “I can’t believe that it’s been 50 years, but HSTA, its teachers, and its members just have to remain strong. I mean, you’ve got to get involved. You can’t say, ‘Let the other person do it.’ You have to step in and be willing to help serve, from being a school representative to running for chapter office to getting involved with HSTA at its state level and national level too. We depend on teachers to do the work that needs to be done and it’s only you that, going forward, can help the organization be strong and continue to fight for your rights and your freedom, and your willingness to work as professionals in your field.

“It’s not easy. Today’s expectations of teachers are great. But I know that with HSTA, they will survive and be able to face the 22nd century and be proud of being a member of HSTA,” Fujimori concluded.

Read a detailed history of HSTA

Author: Keoki Kerr