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Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Honolulu Council Special Election: Mel Kahele, Waimanalo Gulch, and other baggage
By Andrew Walden @ 11:53 PM :: 10281 Views :: Honolulu County, Ethics, Labor, Politicians

by Andrew Walden

With campaign cash from political powerbroker George Paris of the Ironworkers Stabilization Fund, Mel Kahele should have a leg up in the quick December 1-29 mail-in Special Election race for Todd Apo’s District 1 Ewa-Leeward Council seat.  In the formally non-partisan winner-take-all race, Kahele, a Democrat, will face former GOP State Rep Bob McDermott, and Democrats Matthew LoPresti and Christopher Lewis.  But Kahele’s chances may hinge on voters, media, and opposing campaigns not having time to do research.  Kahele carries a lot of baggage, including a metaphorical steamer trunk loaded with the fragrant burden of Waimanalo Gulch. 

Testifying before the State Land Use Commission February 21, 2008, Kahele joined Paris and another Ironworker official, Lincoln Naiwi, in a successful effort to win a two-year extension for the Special Use Permit which allows Waimanalo Gulch to stay open.  According to the LUC minutes:

Mr. Kahele stated that his primary concern was the disposal of the MSW (municipal solid waste) should the Waimanalo Gulch landfill close….  Mr. Kahele asked that the LUC approve the 2-year extension (of the Waimanalo Gulch landfill special use permit) and have the City resolve where they will put the MSW in the future.   

Kahele and the Ironworkers are big proponents of rail transit.  As Midweek Columnist Larry Price pointed out in an April 5, 2006 column:

There is a good possibility that the appropriate government agency should already be contemplating a negotiating strategy to handle union demands that are sure to surface once construction begins.

The public can rest assured that Mel Kahele, president of the Teamsters, is not going to miss out on the opportunity to participate in the building of the rail system for Oahu.

But Kahele’s rail dreams were rudely interrupted when disgruntled Teamsters ousted him from the Presidency of Teamster’s Local 996 in November of that year.  As the Star-Bulletin November 5, 2006 explained:       

Kahele had won three previous elections, although in 2000 by just 15 votes.

In the last election, Kahele's opponent, Anson "Slim" Ilae, was initially ruled ineligible to run. But then three days before the election the union allowed Ilae to run after he presented information that he had paid his dues on time.

Kahele won by 118 votes in 2003 and acknowledged that the bus strike had cost him some support.

A small group of union members celebrated the victory yesterday at the union headquarters in Kalihi.

Daniel Lalosin, 36, a warehouseman with the union for 15 years, said he was relieved by Kahele's defeat.

"He wasn't representing employees to the fullest. It was either this or start looking for another job because I'm getting tired of it," he said….

(The winners, Ron) Kozuma and his team, ran on a platform … promising to respect and consider all ideas from members.

The Honolulu Advertiser pointed out:

Kozuma said one of his priorities will be to restore Teamster unity after an election campaign that he said included a lot of negative campaigning.

"We made a commitment not to bad mouth anyone, and I think the members responded to that," said Kozuma, who has been secretary-treasurer of Local 996 since 1996.

Kahele…is best known by the public for leading two prominent strikes here, one by city bus drivers and mechanics that paralyzed public transportation in Honolulu for 34 days in 2003, and another by concrete workers that crippled the construction industry for 43 days in 2004.

Negative campaigning?  That sounds familiar.  And in fact there is a close connection between Kahele and failed Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann.  One negotiator tied a 2000 transit strike threat by Kahele to an election-year ploy designed to help Hannemann’s unsuccessful bid to unseat then-Mayor Jeremy Harris.  The Star-Bulletin, September 22, 2000:

James Cowen, president and general manager of OTS, said he believes the strike notice was connected to the upcoming election but declined to elaborate. "I am really getting wary trying to figure out (the union leadership's) mentality."

The Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996, which represents the 1,300 drivers and other employees of TheBus, endorsed former City Councilman Mufi Hannemann for mayor.

Some believe Hannemann’s political aspirations also factor into a unsuccessful 2006 move by then-Teamster Kahele to set up what some saw as a rival to the AFL-CIO.  Midweek, January 25, 2006, explains:

…these days the umbrella union is not the force it could be, according to Mel Kahele, president of the Teamsters Local 996, which is currently not part of the state AFL-CIO.

He’s trying to form another umbrella union, called the Pacific Basin Alliance.

“It is in no way intended to undermine or replace the AFLCIO,” is the first thing Kahele says.

Still, there are those at the AFL-CIO who say the proposed alliance would be an unnecessary duplication of what they already are doing. Kahele disagrees. One of his primary motivations has to do with political endorsements. He wants the unions to throw more support behind political candidates who are strong on labor.

In the last (2004) mayoral election, the AFL-CIO endorsed neither Hannemann nor Bainum because of a marked split in members’ opinions. The way Kahele sees it, that’s a missed opportunity. He wants an organization that would endorse based on a plurality of votes.

When Kahele did go on strike, the results were less than auspicious for his membership.  The Honolulu Advertiser February 8, 2004 underlines this point:  

The biggest and most divisive (strike) against TheBus system ended in a three-year wage freeze and was largely considered a flop. It also generated island-wide resentment toward bus drivers.

It didn’t work out very well for bus riders either. As Kahele’s Teamsters walked out, the August 26, 2003 Star-Bulletin described the effect:   

…the City Council advanced a bill to raise bus fares, which would increase revenues and avert the need for layoffs. The bill will be heard again by the Council next month.

But Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris told reporters afterward that there are not enough funds to support a wage increase for bus drivers.

Kahele also has a long and tumultuous relationship with Unity House right up to the moment IRS agents raided their headquarters, seized records, and placed the $42M union benefit fund in receivership.  The Star-Bulletin, September 16, 2000 sets the scene:

(Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of Local 5 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union); Local 5 President Orlando Soriano; Mel Kahele, president of the Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers, Local 996; and Ronan Kozuma, Local 996 secretary-treasurer are accused of conspiring to disband Unity House and divide its assets between the Local 5 and Local 996. They deny the accusation and have sought a Circuit Court order to prevent their ousters. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3….

Unity House is a nonprofit group that administers assets for union members and supporters. Active and retired members of the Hotel Workers and Teamsters unions comprise the vast majority of its membership.

(Unity House spokesman Jim) Boersema said the organization was established in the 1950s with union loans that were invested in Waikiki real estate that has greatly increased in value. The loans were long since repaid, he said, adding that Unity House had no contractual obligation to either Local 5 or Local 996.

But Gill countered that Rutledge and his allies were trying to oust him and the others because they objected to the way Unity House's money was spent. He said Rutledge refused to open the books even to Soriano, the board treasurer.

"I'm not saying that all of that money belongs to the union or its members, but I'm not going to stipulate that none of it does," said Gill.

Kahele handled the situation with panache.  The result is described in an April 28, 2001 Star-Bulletin article titled “Teamsters Leader hit with restraining order:”   

Unity House employee has petitioned Honolulu District Court for a temporary restraining order against Teamsters Local 996 President Mel Kahele, claiming she was harassed by him and a group of associates during an April 12 teachers rally at the State Capitol.

In a complaint filed April 17, Theresa Anne Kong Kee, a Unity House program director, said she was setting up a Unity House tent at the rally to provide soft drinks for teachers when she was approached by Kahele, Teamster employee Candida "Candy" Yamato and approximately 10 other individuals who began to take sodas from her cooler.

Kong Kee said she explained to Kahele that the sodas were for the teachers and asked him to put them back in the cooler

Kong Kee said Kahele became belligerent, asking one of his associates to take a picture of him being "denied his Unity House benefits."

Kong Kee said she asked Kahele and his group to leave and obscenities were then exchanged. Kong Kee said Yamato subsequently charged at her, threatening bodily injury. Kong Kee claims she was then pushed by Yamato.

Kong Kee said her co-workers then intervened to prevent further altercation.

In her petition for the restraining order, Kong Kee said Kahele and his associates have become increasingly hostile toward Unity House workers since he and others were removed from the Unity House Board of Directors. In her petition, Kong Kee said she fears further confrontations could occur….

Kahele, at one time a member of the Unity House board, was one of four high-ranking union officials accused of plotting to "steal" Unity House assets and split them between two unions. The four were subsequently ousted from the board in October.

But when the end came, Kahele acted as if he were just an innocent bystander.  The Honolulu Advertiser December 15, 2004 reports on the IRS raid: 

(Federal Judge Samuel King’s) order cited evidence "of an on-going scheme to defraud the members and beneficiaries" of Unity House as justification for the government's takeover of the organization.

The…investigation, centering on Tony and Aaron Rutledge, became public in August of last year, when the two men were indicted on tax fraud charges….King's order did say the charges include mail and wire fraud and tax fraud conspiracy and that the government intends to seize assets from the defendants if they are convicted.   Those assets include "properties and monies" controlled by Unity House, according to yesterday's restraining order....

Mel Kahele of Teamsters Union Local 996, who was elected to the board of directors of Unity House earlier this year, said he only attended one board meeting of the organization, then was "subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury about what happened at the meeting.”

Unity House was not the only source of legal troubles for Kahele.  Sylvia Mano, a Hawaii Teamsters Union staff employee sued after she was terminated and replaced by Kahele’s brother.  An August 17, 2000 ruling of the 9th Circuit Court finds:

Kahele engaged in "extraordinary misconduct," that he "acted with malice or wanton indifference," and that his breach "reflected a willful abuse of duty."

Local 996 employed Kahele's brother to do work previously performed by Mano….The district court properly ruled that this evidence was relevant because the Hawaii Teamsters' employment of Kahele's brother makes it "less probable" that Kahele acted in good faith in discharging Mano.

in 2001, Kahele’s behavior led to a $1M judgment against local 996.  The National Law and Policy center explains:

U.S. Dist. Judge Helen W. Gillmor (D. Haw., Clinton) ordered the Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters Local 996 in Hawaii to pay nearly $1 million to a dry cleaning firm and its owner for union bosses' "reckless disregard" as to the truth of statements they made regarding the firm's financial state during contract bargaining and in advance of a strike vote. Local 996's bosses "acted with malice in making statement...[at a membership meeting] while being aware of the probable falsity of the statements" about the company's resources, said Gillmor.  The firm's owner claimed he was defamed by the union's false and malicious statements that the firm was making money and that he had hidden the money in a separate entity while demanding that employees accept a concessionary contract….

In the course of the bargaining, the firm's owner, Michael Drace, repeatedly tried to provide IBT negotiators with information concerning the firm's deteriorated financial state. Drace offered the firm's financial records in explanation for a wage rollback he proposed in his contract offer.

Evidence and testimony showed that local president Mel Kahele took the financial records but never reviewed them. He also rejected Drace's offer to allow a union accountant to review the books. Kahele said he made a deliberate decision not to have an accountant review the financial records because employees were adamant that they receive a wage increases. At a Sept. 11 membership meeting, Kahele told employees the firm was seeking concessions even though it was profitable. He claimed Drace was "hiding money" in Steam Press Holdings, Inc., a holding company created in 1997 when Drace took over the laundry operation.

Once again finding himself before the 9th Circuit Court, Kahele won a reversal of that defamation ruling, not from any finding of facts different than the District Court, but based on a free speech defense.  In other words, he had the right to lie to his membership while “rallying the troops.” 

Was Kahele just being an effective union leader? National Law and Policy Center outlines the result: 

The case arose out of a collective bargaining dispute in 1998 between Young Laundry & Dry Cleaning and Local 996 that resulted in a 7 month strike, the permanent replacement of striking workers, and ultimately to the decertification of IBT in May 1999

If elected, what could the other eight Honolulu Council members expect from Kahele?  The Honolulu Advertiser February 8, 2004 has some possible answers:

…even when there's little on the bargaining table to discuss, Kahele — president of the Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996 — will schedule back-to-back bargaining sessions anyway and rely on his physical stamina to wear down the other side.

It was a combination of Kahele's philosophies and tactics that contributed to last summer's citywide bus strike. And Perry Confalone, who faced Kahele in marathon bus negotiations, can see shadows of the Kahele approach that led to the current O'ahu concrete workers strike.

"Mr. Kahele is a very strong-willed individual," said Confalone, chief negotiator for the Oahu Transit Service and an attorney specializing in management, labor and employment. "He's very old-school in his approach to collective bargaining, very power oriented. There's not a lot of nuance when you're negotiating with Mel."

And then what? 

When TheBus negotiations ended, Kahele appeared in Confalone's law offices and made a joke about Confalone that the management negotiator would not repeat last week. "It was meant as a joke and that's how I took it," Confalone said.

That’s the kind of class, style, and grace Honolulu just isn’t getting from its current batch of Council members.   

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