Editor's Notes

Editor’s Note 7-8-2009

The Aloha Airlines shutdown–can you believe that wasn’t even a year-and-a-half ago? It seems like twice that long. When the venerable and beloved carrier ceased operations on March 31, 2008, the Islands went into a state of shock. With day after day of timelines and retrospectives filling in the gaps between heart-wrenching stories of friends and families in crisis, the news coverage suggested something along the lines of the death of a head of state, or a natural disaster. That’s not to pick on the mainstream press. The loss of Aloha was a huge loss and a jarring one.

It was cultural–Aloha was part of many of our lives. But mostly, it was an economic loss, and a personal one. More than 1,900 airline workers lost their jobs that week. As the dailies and the TV stations took us into the living rooms and around the kitchen tables of the unlucky Aloha employees, they became a symbol of a moment–the moment we realized that, unlike in some past recessions, the rest of the country’s problems were going to hit home in the Islands, and hit hard.

People responded. That’s what we do when there’s been a disaster, or when someone has died. The outpouring of aloha–and kala–to former Aloha Airlines employees was swift and moving. There were food drives, fundraisers–one local paper even teamed up with its business partners and started a fund for the out-of-work airline folks. People–both the givers and the receivers–were touched, you could tell. We’re all in this thing together, right? It’s one of our deepest traditions.

Still, it was weird. In a strange yet familiar island way, it felt like we were responding to a crisis while somehow remaining in denial about it at the same time. I remember a friend saying something like “It’s cool and I feel bad for them, but man…I hope when I lose my job, all these people come running to help me.” A number of people said things like that. Doesn’t anybody realize how many more people are going to get laid off, that this is just the beginning? And when all that goes down, are we really still going to be one big ‘ohana?

Here we are again.

The governor’s furlough proposal was the best available short-term solution we’re likely to see to Hawaii’s massive budget shortfall. It wouldn’t eliminate anyone’s job, it wouldn’t grind important (if not “critical”) government services to a halt, and it would share the pain across almost all of the state’s roughly 40,000 employees represented by the HGEA.

Now that furloughs are out, Gov. Linda Lingle says she’s probably going to turn to layoffs. It seems likely that that’s where all this is headed. Various worker advocates have proposed salary cuts on the order of 6 percent, but it’s hard to imagine that the governor will settle for less than half the savings she had originally said were critical. And while it’s easy to assume that Lingle is using the economic crisis as a Trojan Horse in order to achieve her philosophical goal of cutting the size of state government, that analysis misses a critical point: Either way, we are actually in an economic crisis. The money has to come from somewhere.

Lingle has said she may lay off up to 2,500 state employees. That’s 2,500 people who were stressed about a 13 percent pay cut who may lose their jobs instead.

Nobody seems to be talking about this, about potentially thousands of predominantly younger state workers, many with young children at home, being thrown out of work. After all, the $75,000 underworked bureaucrat everyone loves to complain about–that person isn’t going to get laid off. That’s not the way civil service works, as we learned a decade ago, when Ben Cayetano tried to eliminate non-essential, overpaid positions only to find that the affected workers simply “bumped” the next person down on the seniority ladder.

When union leaders fight the furloughs, who are they fighting for, exactly? It’s hard to see how shared sacrifice by everyone isn’t a better answer than telling hundreds or thousands of newer, lower-in-the-pecking-order workers to hit the road.

Of course, it won’t be the union leaders issuing the layoff notices. They will be “Lingle’s layoffs,” just as the furloughs kept being reported as “Lingle’s furloughs.” Fair enough. She’s the governor, she’s done plenty–and left plenty undone–to help us get here, and she deserves her share of blame. At the same time, this is a global economic meltdown. The tourists just aren’t coming. People are losing their jobs all over the state, and those who aren’t are taking big pay cuts. But better the latter than the former. Right?

Is the HGEA leadership thinking along these lines at all? Or is it just going to be lawsuit lawsuit lawsuit and hope Lingle cracks? And if she does crack, what will that look like?

Hopefully those leading, and those cheering, the demise of the furlough plan are ready to come running if 2,000 or more people get thrown out of work altogether. After all, we’re all in this together, right?