HGEA was started by Honolulu Board of Water Supply managerial employees in 1934 in response to a 10 percent pay cut. Initially non-partisan and non-political, it found it needed to be active in the political arena to survive. HGEA became a key player in the "Democratic Revolution of 1954," and held a close alignment with the movers and shakers of Hawaii politics during the 1960s.
Gradually, the union came to realize that no amount of political muscle could guarantee government workers favorable treatment at the legislature. That led HGEA to strongly support collective bargaining in the public sector. HGEA led the fight to change the Hawaii State Constitution during the 1968 Constitutional Convention to give collective bargaining rights to public employees.
In 1970, the state legislature passed the Hawaii Public Employment Collective Bargaining Law. Representative elections were held for the public sector's 13 bargaining units, with HGEA ultimately winning the right to represent seven units.
In 1971, HGEA affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents 1.6 million public employees nationwide.
For a more detailed history, click on the arrows in the timeline below:
Birth of a Union
Times were tough for public workers in the early 1930s. Hawaii was limping its way through the Great Depression, pro-business Republicans ruled the Territorial Legislature with a grip of iron, and workers who still had a job worked six days a week.
To make matter worse, the Legislature cut public employees' salaries by 10 percent in 1932, and passed a law allowing another 10 percent reduction in 1933. Then they piled insult on injury, eliminating 229 jobs - about one-tenth of the entire public work force.
Workers could stomach only so much abuse.
Fed up and frustrated, two Board of Water Supply workers, Daniel Ainoa and Edward Morgan, discussed organizing BWS employees. When coworkers responded enthusiastically, the young men gathered up their courage and approached their boss, Frederick Ohrt, general manager of the BWS.
"You can imagine the nerve it took for these two young upstarts to bring this matter to the attention of Mr. Ohrt and to inform him of what they were planning to do," wrote Charles Kendall in a report of those times. "However, they were in for a rude awakening."
Rather than dismissing them, Ohrt welcomed the idea and suggested they expand it to include all government workers. As it turned out, he'd been considering organizing his employees to ensure the department's survival and integrity.
Unknowingly, Morgan and Ainoa had come to a politically wise leader who could help them realize their dream.
Ohrt contacted other department heads about bringing their employees into the fold. The managers of the Planning Division, Fire Department, Territorial Tax Office, Parks Board and other departments sent representatives to an organizational meeting at the Library of Hawaii in 1934.
They appointed Charles "Colonel Bob" Welsh as the constitutional chairman, and he named a committee to draft the new organization's constitution. Early in 1935, representatives met again, adopted the constitution and the name, Hawaiian Government Employees Association. And a union was born.
Although forming a union may not appear earthshaking today, back then it seemed a radical notion. Many local residents thought it immoral and probably illegal to organize public employees, which helps explain why the first members initially kept their association behind closed doors.
Nevertheless, concerned over pay cuts and the threat of more to come, these men (mostly supervisors) banded together to defend their livelihoods. And the struggle began.
Almost from the start, HGEA suffered an identity crisis over its mission. Was it a pressure group formed to fight the Legislature for workers' rights or a cooperative organization designed to serve its members? This question would shape HGEA's soul.
The association dove into political action from the start. It successfully lobbied the Territorial Legislature in 1935 to reverse 1932's 10 percent pay cut. In 1937-38, HGEA President Charles Kendall and Frederick Ohrt pushed for classification and civil service laws to ensure fair pay and a job system based on merit, not political favoritism.
Yet by 1939, the association had written into its constitution a ban on members engaging in partisan, activist politics. The reason? They didn't want to alienate the Legislature or the public.
Through it all, HGEA continued to grow. Its ranks swelled to over 700 members by 1937, and the group hired its first staffer and moved into its first office. Slowly at first, Neighbor Island workers began joining. Dues at that time were 50 cents per month.
As the '30s ended, HGEA's lobbying efforts resulted in the passage of the Civil Service Act. 1939 should have been a victory year for the association, but anger over Kendall's opposition to five-day work-week legislation pushed many members to resign.
What they didn't know was, Kendall opposed the bill because it would have taken pay from existing members to hire the extra ones needed to work on Saturdays. Clearly, the organization needed better communication.
Kendall favored political neutrality to gain the public's respect and confidence. He wrote, "In my opinion, the competent public employee personally has nothing to gain and everything to lose through participation in partisan politics." Controversy flared among activist members who disagreed. The pot was reaching a boil as the 1941 Legislature convened.
Although a concerted lobbying effort helped beat back a Republican threat to ax Civil Service, the Legislature passed the Hawaiian Standard Classification law, which improved some members' lot and worsened others'.
About half the members resigned over HGEA's support of the classification law.
Those who remained had become almost complacent about their success. "With so many of our goals accomplished, why bother paying dues anymore?" was the attitude. They would learn the hard way, after World War II and the post-war Legislature stripped HGEA members of many rights.
HGEA Bounces Back
If World War II made America reel, it nearly dealt a knock-out punch to HGEA. Martial law clamped down hard on Hawaii. HGEA activities were curtailed and membership plummeted.
A local Associated Federation of Labor representative wrote that HGEA "is more or less inactive except in name only" and that the group had been gradually disintegrating since the "blitz." By 1943, it had shrunk to less than 300 members.
HGEA leaders called for unity among members to face the postwar challenges. In 1942, President Ed Lyons wrote, "We must not lose sight of the fact that HGEA is not a pressure group. Ours is an organization standing for good government, fair play and loyal Americanism."
In 1945, fortune began to smile on HGEA. Employees returning from wartime assignments swelled the membership rolls and Neighbor Island public workers organized chapters, starting with the Big Island and Kauai in 1945, then on Maui in 1946.
Charles Kendall assumed the mantle of executive director in 1946 and led lobbying efforts.
Union rivalries blossomed. Soon, the United Public Workers was fighting with HGEA over members and branding HGEA a "supervisor-led union." This union tug-of-war continued until the early '70s.
But HGEA had worse problems on the horizon.
With growth came more membership dissension. By 1953, the HGEA was split into three factions, each proposing different legislation.
Thinking that public employees lacked strength and unity, the Republican-dominated Legislature reduced vacation and sick leave, downgraded salary rates and froze wages. This was the slap in the face HGEA needed.
In 1954, the General Council reversed itself and repealed HGEA's constitutional ban on partisan politics. The association closed ranks. Battle was joined.
Seeing the 1954 elections as its key to regain political clout, HGEA launched a voter registration drive and threw its support behind the reform-minded Democratic Party. The government salary bill of 1953 emerged as one of the campaign's strongest issues. And the anger it sparked changed the political map of Hawaii.
The Hawaii Times newspaper wrote on Nov. 4 that the "deciding factor in Tuesday's Democratic landslide was the wholesale switch of some 9,200 members of HGEA to the Democratic Party's Reformation Revolution." Politicians heard the news. They now had to reckon with HGEA's political power.
Collective Bargaining or Bust
With Democrats ruling the late '50s Legislature, HGEA could relax a little. But in those days before collective bargaining, the association still had to visit the state capitol every session, hat in hand, seeking pay raises and improved working conditions.
Democrats made good on their election promises in the 1955 Legislature by restoring the holidays and sick leave deleted in 1953. They unfroze public worker salaries, and in 1957 gave public employees the right to have coffee breaks.
It seemed that HGEA's new political activist attitude was paying off.
After Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, HGEA under Charles Kendall's leadership continued to lobby for other worker benefits. 1961's legislative session yielded a bumper crop. Lawmakers created a state-subsidized medical insurance program and the Equal Pay for Equal Work law, designed to make pay scales uniform throughout the state.
With a new decade came a new look for HGEA, as the General Assembly voted to incorporate the organization in 1961. This let HGEA own property, limit its liability and centralize management. The organization began building its new headquarters at 888 Mililani Street in 1964.
A year later, Charles Kendall, tireless lobbyist and fearless fighter for government workers' causes, died at the age of 60. Some of HGEA's momentum went with him.
As the '60s drifted to a close, it seemed that HGEA needed vigorous new leadership to take it over its next hurdle, collective bargaining.
David Trask, Jr., was the man for the job.
As new executive director, Trask called for a referendum. After two close votes, members approved a necessary reorganization of HGEA, setting the state for collective bargaining.
HGEA had flirted with the idea of collective bargaining since 1949, when it lobbied to pass an act allowing public employees to choose an organization as their sole bargaining agent.
Now it went all the way. HGEA had to resolve its old problem of being known as a bosses' union. Collective bargaining, with its democratic nature, would give more power to the rank-and-file employees.
At the historic 1970 legislative session, lawmakers submitted 15 bills on public sector collective bargaining. When the dust cleared, collective bargaining was law. And public employees found themselves in a strange, new world.
The Modern Era
Like a forge tempers steel, collective bargaining transformed HGEA from an association into a union. It conferred strength in numbers and the union no longer had to beg the Legislature for each benefit and pay increase, but could negotiate on a more equal basis.
Collective bargaining also posed problems. In creating 13 units of government workers, it offered the possibility of a "union war" among HGEA, the United Public Workers, the Hawaii Education Association and other unions.
With these unions constantly trying to woo HGEA's members away, the organization would have to keep campaigning to retain its members — an expensive prospect. Luckily, a solution waited just around the corner. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had sought affiliation with HGEA since the '30s. This time, HGEA was ready.
Knowing that collective bargaining elections could fragment the HGEA, Executive Director David Trask sought the solidarity that would come with affiliation. After all, sister AFSCME unions couldn't raid HGEA.
The board agreed, and so did 83 percent of the HGEA members who voted. Together with the United Public Workers, HGEA joined the larger union family, gaining protection, increased political clout and the expertise of an international union.
With that foundation, the new union began to build.
In 1971, HGEA organized its first unit - the educational officers of Unit 6. It took two years to win five more units: Units 2, 3, 4, 8 and 13. Unit 9's registered professional nurses joined in 1979, bringing HGEA the strength and breadth of public worker representation it enjoys today.
Continuing the Fight
When David Trask retired in 1981, the board picked Russell Okata to fill the executive director’s chair. Under Okata’s stewardship, the union established a strong financial foundation, built new union offices on the neighbor islands, expanded member benefits and services, improved communications, and increased its standing and influence in the community.
Union solidarity was never more evident than in April 1994, when 16,000 striking members of Units 3, 4 and 13 either shut down or drastically reduced government services throughout Hawaii for 12 days. It was the first and only strike in HGEA’s history.
In 1995, HGEA supported legislation that ended its right to strike. In its place, HGEA gained final and binding arbitration, which settles collective bargaining disputes without disrupting public services.
Also in 1995, HGEA became the first union in Hawaii to offer its own Internet service as an exclusive benefit for its members. The union saw the Internet as a means to improve communication with the membership and public. In 1999, HGEA took another step forward by hosting its own weekly radio show, “Voice of Labor.” Until its end in 2007, the program was an opportunity for HGEA to feature labor leaders and issues affecting unions.
A New Era
Russell Okata retired on Dec. 31, 2007, after a 38-year career with HGEA. He served as executive director since 1981.
Randy Perreira, who had been HGEA’s deputy executive director, became HGEA’s fifth executive director on Jan. 1, 2008.
Perreira, whose HGEA career spans more than two decades, has been involved with key responsibilities that prepared him to lead the organization. He started with the union in 1983, and was a union agent for two years. He left Hawaii and lived on the mainland for a brief period, and returned to HGEA as a union agent in 1986. Perreira was promoted to field services officer in 1990, and became the union’s deputy executive director in 1999.
The 21st century offers new challenges for HGEA, its leaders and members. While technology has changed the way the union does business and advanced its ability to respond to each challenge, HGEA’s heart has not changed. As long as public workers need protection from employers and lawmakers who would limit their rights and benefits, HGEA will be around to provide it.