Public Teachers Racing To Where?

Hawaii’s public schoolteachers, who are part of the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA), voted, electronically and by phone, all last week on a contract they unanimously rejected earlier this year. This time, if they reject the offer, it will be an authorization to call a strike. The union says it’s asking members to look at the contract again to prevent the state from losing $75 million in Race to the Top funds.

It sure sounds urgent for HSTA to make such a radical request of its membership. The state warned HSTA that the agreement is no longer valid and that they will have to start over the negotiations from scratch.

Meanwhile, on the management side, there appeared to be no urgency at all. For a while, the state’s two top executives were out of town. Gov. Neil Abercrombie was on personal leave in New York visiting family members. Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz was in charge for a couple of days and then took off on a trip to Taiwan and Korea to promote tourism in Hawaii. That left the Attorney General David Louie as acting governor until Abercrombie returned late last week.

This seems as if there is some high-level bluffing going on here. It is apparent from reliable research that there are cultural differences in attitudes toward ethically ambiguous tactics in negotiation. Research shows that Americans and Asians are significantly more prone to bluffing, and Eastern Europeans are less likely to do so. But it is clearly hazardous and wrong to assume that because a researcher can find a cultural trend in a sample of many individuals that any one individual would actually behave in a certain way. When you try to figure out what’s going on between management and the teachers, the complications involved in understanding the ethics of cross-cultural negotiations are impossible. First, all of the people involved in the negotiation are from Hawaii (never mind that half of the negotiation team was in New York and Korea). There is no way to predict a person’s predisposition to behave unethically. Second, bluffing is not against the law. Aggressive people in power bluff each other all the time.

Finally – and it is not surprising – individuals are more likely to lie to someone they consider a competitor. Could it be that’s what is going on between these two negotiators? Do HSTA members want to strike? That would end the Race to the Top concern instantly. This negotiation doesn’t sound like a race to anywhere.