Randy Perreira, Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), Executive Director
Last month, Randy Perreira took over as executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), succeeding Russel Okata, who led the 43,000 member union for nearly 30 years. Perreira, a 22-year HGEA union veteran himself, sat down with Hawaii Business to talk about Hilo, labor and important challenges facing his union and the state.
Q: You’re from Hilo, and your father was a labor leader. How did growing up where you did and when you did shape you?
A: One of the things you’ll find is that a lot of the labor leaders here in Hawaii are from the Big Island: Russell Okata, Fred Galdones and Bo Lapenia before him. We weren’t very far removed from the plantation era. For me, my grandfather worked on the plantation as a truck driver and was permanently disabled. For as long as I knew him, he had a severe limp. I grew up learning the difficulties of work life that plantation employees faced and knowing that it was the union movement that upgraded the standard of living for all these people. My dad started as a union agent and became a division chief for the Big Island. I was conscripted. I was a regular around the HGEA office from when I was a little kid. I had to go to Democratic Party rallies in each community every Saturday and Sunday and I hated it. Saturday you could be in Honokaa, Sunday you were in Kohala and invariably my job was to grab the broom and help clean up afterward. By the time I reached college, I was of the mind that after I got my degree in personnel I would go out into the private sector and make millions and have nothing to do with what I had been doing for the last 15 years of my life. Part way through my senior year at [University of] Notre Dame, I realized that what I really wanted to do was live and work in Hawaii. I postponed that decision by going to grad school and then, when I finished, I applied at difference places. Among the places I applied was the HGEA. I think Russell was the only one who offered me a job.
Q: You studied management at Notre Dame and got your master’s degree in personnel at Michigan State. Is book learning or on-the-job training more important in your work?
A: I started as a union agent one, which was entry level. I did that for a couple of years. I was almost resentful at first, since I was involved with HGEA from almost the time that I was born and other people were entering the union at a higher level than me. I had become very familiar with how things worked. My dad had failing eyesight, and he was gradually going blind. He would bring his mail home with him, and I, at a young age, would have to read it to him. So I learned about how the union and the government worked and some of it apparently sunk in. In terms of learning, in this profession you learn by doing. You can be very bright but you need to have the passion for the work and be able to empathize with the people who are struggling with a problem you’re trying to solve. You also have to be creative, so that you can solve that problem to the satisfaction of both parties involved. Believe it or not, when you learn personnel stuff in college, you learn how to keep a union out. Tendencies, ideologies, I was familiar with them, and I thought this would give me some insight into the employers’ motivations, but it isn’t that simple.
Q: How do the challenges you face in 2008 compare with the ones your father did in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
A: Until 1970, Hawaii didn’t have public-sector collective bargaining. HGEA was an association that was fighting other unions for members and since there was no collective bargaining, it was at a distinct disadvantage, because you didn’t have any rules, law or contract on your side. Undoubtedly, it was a time when it was a fight for rights and benefits. People during my father’s time weren’t very far removed from the plantation era and the organizing battles of the ILWU. So the mentality was: “Yeah, we have to be together, and we have to fight for ourselves, because we have to protect our rights.” Today, we are dealing with a much different generation, which does not associate with the plantation era. Unfortunately, absent some education, they have the belief that the employers gave them these benefits, as opposed to someone fighting for and sacrificing to achieve them. [Former HGEA Executive Director] David Trask used to always say that with the stroke of a pen, the rights and benefits of government workers can be taken away. Today, it is all fair game, because routinely you see private-sector employers drop health care coverage for their retirees, because of what they claim to be cost.
Q: Are the concerns of your membership any different from the concerns of working people in general?
A: We compare surveys that we do internally with public-opinion surveys, and we have found that our members’ opinions are remarkably similar to the general public’s. The cost of living, providing enough opportunities for your kids, eldercare, it’s no different. We try to remind the public that we provide vital services and we are part of the community and face the same struggles everyone else does. So when we bargain for a better standard of living, it is no different than what you want, trying to make ends meet. We don’t always trumpet the notion that a rising tide raises all ships, but that is the general philosophy that we believe. And we hear it all the time across the bargaining table. We get pressure from the employers and the business community, because it will force them to raise their wages. But that is what we want.
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