Labor of Love
The Changing Face of Hawaii's Unions
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Clark "Skip" Morgan, CEO of Alakai Mechanical,
Clark “Skip” Morgan, the CEO of Alakai Mechanical, was sitting at his desk not long ago, casually discussing his company’s growth, when, without a trace of irony, he said something astonishing: “A big part of our success, of course, is the union.”
To anyone familiar with the tumultuous history of labor relations in Hawaii — a history studded with characters like Jack Hall, Walter Kupau, and Art and Tony Rutledge, men whose names still rankle many in the business community — Morgan’s off-hand remark is a clear indication of the changing relationship between unions and island employers. The unions, themselves, are largely responsible for the change. As island businesses (and island jobs) have become more and more vulnerable to the competition created by new technologies and globalization, unions — particularly trade unions — have shouldered much of the responsibility for keeping up.
A big part is training. To keep up with changing technology, unions have increasingly focused on educating their members. Even a field like sheet metal work, which not too long ago was decidedly low-tech, is now dominated by computers and complex machinery. The success of companies like Alakai Mechanical depends on having an educated work force. “These guys, they may be walking around in dirty T-shirts and jeans, but they really know what they’re doing,” Morgan says. “And that’s because the union training here is outstanding.”
Education is clearly a major focus for Art Tolentino, president of the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 293, which supplies most of the skilled labor for Alakai. For sheet metal apprentices, a five-year member training program, run through Honolulu Community College, covers everything from union history to safety to computer skills. Under Tolentino, the union has invested heavily in the kind of advanced equipment that the sheet metal worker is likely to see on the job: the big plasma cutters, fabrication machines and computer software, which have largely replaced tin shears and the drafting board. “What we studied 20 years ago cannot sustain us,” Tolentino says. “People like Skip [Morgan] at Alakai are big on getting the newest tools that will save labor. Our job is to train our members.”
Education is just one example of the unions’ growing level of partnership with management. “As far as business is concerned,” Tolentino notes, “we realize that we’re in business together, that there’s a common goal.”
Morgan echoes that sentiment. “I remember the ‘good old days,’ when it got kinda rough,” he says. “But the relationship is much more sophisticated today. Now, everybody realizes we’re in the same boat.”
Kalani Mahoe, district representative of the Operating Engineers Local Union 3, puts it another way. “You can have a company without a union, but you can’t have a union without a company,” he says.
Like Tolentino, Mahoe is committed to education, and he points out that Local 3 runs a 116-acre training facility in Kahuku. “I’ve got just under $11 million in equipment: cranes, loaders, dozers, skids, scrapers, trucks — you name them, I’ve got them all,” he says. Also like Tolentino, Mahoe sees training as the union’s role in a growing partnership with management. It’s an ethic enshrined right in the union’s mission statement, which begins:
“Local 3 is committed to providing our employers and agencies with the highest skilled union members..."
“Ten years ago,” Mahoe says, “the union thought all they were supposed to do was fight — let the employers take care of their profits. But we have a lot of competition now from non-union contractors and I think labor and management need to work much more closely. The relationship needs to develop so it’s like a marriage.”
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