Hawaii Dems battling over jobs in Guam

Sen. Daniel Inouye, the senior Democrat from Hawaii, is seeking to scuttle provisions in the defense policy bill authored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii).

Abercrombie, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee who is running for governor, drafted language in the House version that could lead to new construction jobs for Americans willing to temporarily relocate to Guam, a U.S. territory nearly 4,000 miles from Hawaii. The provisions would more than double the hourly wages while limiting the number of work visas to outsiders.

Inouye, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the language would add significant costs to the military, which has plans to move

Marines from Japan to Guam, and hurt businesses on Guam. He cited his objections to the language in a Sept. 17 letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the leader of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Abercrombie’s spokesman acknowledged that Inouye’s letter could complicate matters.

“That makes it tougher, no question about it,” said Dave Helfert, a spokesman for Abercrombie. “How can it not? He [Inouye] is a senator and legislator of great substance.”

Abercrombie has sought for several years to legislate higher wages for the mammoth military construction project and to restrict the ability of foreign workers to get jobs for that endeavor.

His hope is that Hawaiians, many unemployed skilled construction workers and residents of other states would flock to Guam for the work. Those workers would build housing facilities, dormitories, roads, utilities and warehouses for the more than 8,000 Marines, along with their families and support personnel, slated to relocate from Japan to Guam in the coming years.

The Senate’s version does not have a similar provision and the Pentagon and Guam officials strongly oppose Abercrombie’s efforts.

The two lawmakers have disagreed on several issues in the past, but have “remained good friends and good colleagues,” Helfert said. The most notable parting of ways was when Abercrombie endorsed Barack Obama for president; Inouye backed Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Now Inouye, the most senior Democrat on defense spending, is interjecting into House and Senate negotiations on defense policy.
Inouye called Abercrombie’s legislative efforts “well-intentioned,” but cautioned in his letter to Levin that the provision to pay construction workers Hawaii’s prevailing wage would be “detrimental to Guamanians and significantly increase the price of this move” of Marines from Japan to Guam.

The wage increases, Inouye wrote, would “shut local businesses out of competition” for work. On average, the hourly rate in Guam is about $12 an hour, while in Hawaii is it about $26 across the spectrum of construction jobs, but some hourly wages could be higher. For example, electricians would get about $39 an hour instead of $14.

Inouye argued that the cost of labor alone would increase by $4.7 billion, straining a diplomatic agreement between Japan, which is expected to foot a portion of the costs for the move, and the United States. The cost of the move was negotiated at Guam’s current wage rates, said Inouye, and any cost increase “outside the negotiated agreement will be incurred by the U.S.”

Additionally, Inouye wrote that the provision seeking to cap the visas for foreign workers to be hired for construction and other jobs to 30 percent would ultimately hurt Guam because it would lose out on foreign labor fees, which amount to $1,000 per worker. That money, in turn, is used to train and build up the Guamanian labor force, Inouye said.

Overall, the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation sought by Abercrombie would cost the federal government $10.2 billion more on top of the estimated $10 billion price tag for the military buildup in Guam.

Helfert called the military move to Guam “a monumental undertaking.”

“Something like this has not been done in a long, long time,” he said. “Clearly, this would change the economy of Guam, and [Abercrombie] does not see that as a bad thing.”

Helfert stressed that Abercrombie sees the military buildup on Guam as an important opportunity to build new projects with a skilled American workforce that has seen significant unemployment. “At least 70 percent [of the workers], including Guamanians,” would get a chance to work the new construction jobs, he said.

Abercrombie’s provisions offer the option of “paying more money” but “creating a lot of good-paying jobs for Americans” to build facilities for an island dealing with some difficult climate issues.

Right now, most of the labor is expected to come from Asia, particularly the Philippines, which is much closer to Guam.
Inouye has not yet endorsed Abercrombie for his gubernatorial run, and “is not planning to endorse anyone right now,” said Inouye’s spokeswoman.

Hawaii’s other lawmakers, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D), have not yet made any endorsements. Akaka usually does not endorse anyone in the Democratic primary, said his spokesman. Hirono’s office did not return a request for comment by press time. Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann (D) is also running for governor.

Labor unions have been Abercrombie’s backers for years. For example, building trade unions have contributed more than $580,000 to Abercrombie’s campaign funds in the last 10 years, according to federal election records.