The price of poker just went up in the state House.
The tension in that big square building on Beretania Street is palpable as 51 representatives are being put in a position of choosing which side they are on.
A bombshell of a letter dropped on the desk of House Speaker Scott Saiki on Monday respectfully requested a floor vote today on Senate bills 614 and 676. The letter, which was signed by the top leaders of six prominent labor unions, expressed their extreme dissatisfaction and frustration that up until this point the House has refused to even schedule a public hearing, let alone a vote, on these important measures.
SB614 if passed would exempt unemployment benefits received during 2020 from state income taxes. Hawai‘i is one of only 11 states that have not yet passed some sort of income-tax relief in support of those who have lost their jobs during the past year.
SB676 if passed would increase Hawai‘i’s minimum wage from $10.10 to $12 per hour, effective in July of 2022. Currently, 20 other states have already increased their minimum wage this year. It cost $17 per hour just to survive in Hawai‘i, and legislators themselves will be getting hefty raises this year.
The Hawai‘i Senate has approved and passed both bills over to the House of Representatives. The chair of the House Labor Committee, Rep. Richard Onishi, supported by Saiki, has up until this point blocked both bills from receiving a hearing or a vote.
Now, as the session is winding to a close, Saiki is being asked by a prominent coalition of organized labor, backed up by numerous progress-advocacy groups and an untold number of individuals who are unemployed and/or working at low-wage jobs, to allow a public vote on these two important bills.
Yes, this is what democracy looks like. At least it’s what democracy is supposed to look like.
Of course, all 51 members absolutely should vote publicly so every resident will know their position. To be clear, what the public needs and wants is a “roll-call vote,” where every representative’s name is called and a “aye” or “nay” vote is recorded next to their name in the House journal.
Spoiler alert: When this issue does get to the House floor, you can bet that “House leadership” will fight against a roll-call vote and instead push for simply a “voice vote.” This type of vote results in members simply shouting out “aye” or “nay” and the Speaker deciding who the winner is, with no individual votes being recorded.
On matters this important, a roll-call vote is essential.
While I sincerely hope it’s not the case, it’s possible Saiki will ignore the request to bring these two issues to the floor for a full vote. If that happens, then it’s possible that individual members of the House might attempt to force a floor vote. And if that happens, all 51 members will then be put in the position of not only voting on SB614 and SB676, but also in effect be put in a position of voting for or against the speaker of the House.
As a citizen who cares about the health and viability of our own democracy, especially if you are unemployed and/or working a low-wage job, I encourage you to contact your own district representative and ask them to vote in support of SB614 and SB676. Please ask them also to support a roll-call vote on the floor of the House. You can find out exactly who your representative is and get their contact information by going to “Find Your Legislator” at capitol.hawaii.gov/fyl/ and inputting your address.
Conventional wisdom says that the unemployed and low-wage workers have zero to very little political power and influence. They don’t have the financial muscle of big business and the Chamber of Commerce. Nor do they have full-time lobbyists frequenting the halls and backrooms at the Capitol (pandemic or no pandemic).
We should thank these five labor leaders who recognize the truth of “an injury to one is an injury to all” and are willing to step up and speak out in support of those who at this moment in time need our communities support the most: T. George Paris, Hawai‘i Ironworkers Stabilization Fund; Joseph O’Donnell, business manager/financial secretary/treasurer, Hawaii Iron Workers Local 625; Wayne K.S. Kaulula‘au, president/principal officer Hawai‘i Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996; Tuia‘ana Scanlan, president IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Mixed Local 665; Donna Domingo, president, ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 142; Eric Gill, financial secretary/treasurer, Unite Here! Local 5 (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees); and Pat Loo, president, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 480. Mahalo to all.
“It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today — the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.”
— Barack Obama
Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.