Oct. 17, 2002 – Negotiations between the United Steelworkers and Innovative Telephone hit a wall Thursday when company officials refused to back down on their earlier final offer, bringing to a halt two days of talks with federal mediators.
A leader of the striking workers, now into the third week of their job action, said they would be back on the picket lines Friday.
And Attorney General Iver Stridiron said the strike could go on indefinitely, and the local government does not have the authority to intervene.
"The union still demands that the company move from its final offer in order to resolve the current economic strike," Innovative Telephone's chief executive officer, Samuel Ebbesen, said in a release. "Unfortunately, the company has already offered a fair and reasonable final offer. That offer is still available for the union to accept. The company has no intention to move from its final offer."
Steelworkers representative Randolph Allen said the stalemate signifies an ulterior motive on Innovative's part. "They are definitely negotiating in bad faith; they had no intention of reaching an agreement," he said. "They've gotten some other motive — they're probably trying to bust up the union."
Innovative's final offer, which was rejected by the union membership on Oct. 1, included the choice of wage increases of 10 percent over three years and an increase in pension benefits of 3.7 percent, or wage increases of 6 percent over three years and an increase in pension benefits of 7.41 percent.
During Wednesday and Thursday's talks, Allen said, the Steelworkers said they would prefer to take no wage increases over the next three years if the company would put the entire 10 percent that would have gone toward pay hikes into the pension fund.
"We asked them to put it into the pension, but they have a problem with funding our pension," Allen said.
The union's offer did not constitute a move toward resolution, according to Ebbesen. "Although the union will proclaim that they modified their proposal during mediation and the company did not," he said, "movement from one unacceptable proposal to another unacceptable proposal is really no movement at all."
Ebbesen added, "We did not make a pretend final offer at the end of negotiations so we could add to it during mediation. From the time our final offer was presented to the Steelworkers, it was explained that this was our final offer."
Pension fund payments questioned
In a radio interview Thursday after talks broke down, St. Croix Steelworkers representative Frederick Joseph said that Innovative has not made a single payment to its pension plan fund since 1998 — a claim Ebbesen called "incorrect and irresponsible."
"We are disappointed that Mr. Joseph would make these statements," Ebbesen said. "We confirmed to him our appropriate funding of the plan several times during negotiations."
But Allen said the company would not show union members any actuarial figures outlining the details of the pension fund. "They're determined they're not moving their position. We're telling them we don't want a [wage] increase, and it wouldn't cost them more money. But they wouldn't want to touch our pension overall. Apparently there's something wrong with our pension, but we don't know what it is."
Union members also were incensed at a portion of Innovative's proposal that would double the deductible workers and their families would pay for health care and prescription drugs.
Despite the efforts of federal mediator Ken Kowalski and Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services commissioner Carlos Tatte, the 310 Innovative Telephone and Innovative Cable-TV workers will be back on picket lines Friday, Allen said.
"That guy [Kowalski] try to do what he can do," Allen said. "He couldn't make them move; he's just wasting his time. We'll be on the picket line until something comes up."
The strikers are into their third week without pay, but strike benefits will start next week, Allen said. "It's looking pretty bleak now, but a resolution will be made one day," he said.
The last time telephone employees went on strike was in 1977 when the business was called the Virgin Islands Telephone Corp., or Vitelco. That work stoppage spanned seven weeks, and Allen said union members are ready for a similar long haul if necessary.
Government has no authority to intervene
Stridiron said the Organic Act does not give Gov. Charles W. Turnbull the authority to step in and order the employees back to work, in contrast to the situation on the mainland West Coast, where President Bush recently ordered dock workers to return to their jobs during a "cooling-off" period.
The attorney general said he was disappointed the talks broke down. "Mediation has been successful in the Virgin Islands about 95 to 98 percent of the time," he said. "The government really does not have a role to play other than of the facilitator trying to get both sides together."
That role, Stridiron said, was taken by Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin in inviting the federal mediators to the territory. "Unfortunately, this is going to be played out between the company and its workers," he added.
"The governor would be relegated to the role, at some point I assume, of trying to see if he can mediate between the parties if professional mediators fail," Stridiron said.
Meanwhile, as far as Ebbesen is concerned, "The ball is in the union's court at this point."
Since the strike began on Oct. 2, vandalism to phone and cable lines has cut service to well over 5,000 customers. Innovative has hired outside help to make the repairs needed to restore service.
Stridiron and U.S. Attorney David Nissman issued a statement on Wednesday pointing out that tampering with the lines is a federal crime.
"We wanted to alert everyone in the community that we expect that sort of vandalism will cease," Stridiron said. "It has a devastating effect on the elderly and infirm. That is their lifeline to the police, ambulances and outside world as well. We cannot afford to have our telephone lines being sabotaged."
Stridiron said neither his office nor that of the U.S. Attorney has taken a position in the labor-management dispute. He said anyone caught committing such sabotage will be prosecuted, and that the offense carries a prison penalty upwards of five years.
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