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Ronald Taketa, Financial Secretary, Hawaii Carpenter's Union

Ronald Taketa has been an advocate for thousands of working-class men and women in the construction industry for the past decade. Aside from being skilled crafters, his 7,800 members also serve as a kind of barometer for the state’s economy.

Q: What are some of the bigger projects that the union is currently involved with, and what does the immediate future look like?

photo: Olivier Koning

A: We’re still finishing up a lot of the high-end condos in Kakaako and Waikiki. With the slowdown in the private-residential market, most of the residential construction is for the military right now. We’re the only jurisdiction in the nation that has negotiated project-labor agreements that cover all of the privatized residential projects for the three branches of military in Hawaii. Those projects are not affected by the economic downturn, and so we will continue to work on them throughout this slump. We have all of the residential military work for the next 50 years, which is really essential in a cyclical industry like ours. There are tens of thousands of units that will be built, so we anticipate a lot of business.

Q: How has the economic downturn affected the construction industry and your 7,800 members?

A: It’s affected us tremendously. We had almost full employment a year ago, and today, we probably have 20 percent of our members unemployed. On this island alone, we probably have 1,000 unemployed. If you add in maybe 500 unemployed members on the Neighbor Islands, you’re probably looking at about 1,500 to 1,600 unemployed members statewide.

Q: How will the cooling real estate market affect Hawaii’s construction industry?

A: Although we belong to a cyclical industry, this recession is kind of an artificial one. It wasn’t a normal down cycle. It was brought on by the subprime problem caused by financial institutions who made bad loans. And when banks started suffering losses and home sales dropped, our members got laid off first. I think the real tragedy of this whole situation is that the financial institutions that created this recession are really responsible for the human cost of all of this unemployment and the kind of problems it brings to families.

Q: How does a sluggish construction market create a domino effect for other industries and businesses across the state?

A: People don’t fully appreciate the value of the construction industry in Hawaii. Construction is always tied with the military for being the No. 2 economic driver in the state, following tourism. And so, what people need to understand, I think, is that you cannot have a sick construction industry and a healthy Hawaii. You need to have a thriving construction industry because the multiplier effect with construction dollars is much better than any other industry in the state. When construction goes well, retail outlets do well, cars and trucks are bought, people eat in restaurants, people shop for clothes. A number of vital industries in Hawaii really depend on a healthy economy. You need to keep the construction industry healthy in order for all sectors to benefit.

Q: The union has launched aggressive television and radio advertisements endorsing the city’s $4.2 billion rail transit system. What will rail transit mean for Oahu in terms of jobs and economic development?

A: The thing that needs to be clarified is that whenever our union endorses a project such as this, people tend to characterize our involvement as being self-interested only, because we want jobs. I think to some extent, yes, we do represent our members, but I don’t see that as being different from the needs of our community. Yes, we want jobs that pay a living wage with decent benefits, who doesn’t? But I think what they [rail opponents] fail to recognize is the economic potential of the rail system will not only ease traffic congestion and improve our environment because it reduces carbon emission, but it produces the opportunity to build transit-oriented development projects along the 22-mile rail route. The rail project provides the opportunity to build high-density, affordable workforce housing within walking distance of the rail. This way, we take cars off the street, we provide our children with the opportunity to either rent or buy units they would not otherwise be able to have. It will produce employment for 15 to 20 years. We cannot overlook the significant economic, cultural and environmental impacts that the rail will make. And those things are equally important to us as the work we’ll get.

Q: It’s obvious that you care a great deal for your members. What does it mean to you to be an effective leader?

A: I think you have to be yourself. I tend to be, I think, a little bit more inclusive. I like to delegate responsibility. I like to hold people accountable. What’s important to me is to develop leaders under me so that the union has a stronger base of leaders, so if anything happens, it will be in great shape no matter who’s here. That’s my goal,to train the next two generations of leaders who follow me.

Q: I notice that your office door is always wide open and you don’t have a secretary. Why is that?

A: I have people popping their heads in all day long. Dirty boots, hard hats, they’re always welcome. I want our members to know that they can come in and see me whenever they want. They shouldn’t be confronted by a glass door in a building that they own. We depend on them all the time for support, and it’s my job to make them feel [they can depend on us].

Q: What is your life like outside of work?

A: I have a great family. I have 11 people who live in my house: children, grandchildren, friends and hanai grandchildren who live with me. My home life — my private life — focuses on my family. I’m just an average guy. I take out the trash, I wash dishes, I clean my house. I go fishing once in a while, but I spend most of my free time doing family activities. It keeps me young.


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