Nov. 7, 2002 – As a Senate committee hearing on the ongoing strike against Innovative Telephone/Cable-TV raged into the night on St. Thomas Thursday, attorneys for the telephone company filed an eight-page complaint against the Legislature in Territorial Court on St. Croix.
The complaint asks the court for "injunctive and declaratory relief" from the committee's continuing probes into both the contract negotiations impasse and Innovative Telephone's tax benefits status on grounds that the Legislature has no authority to act in either case.
The labor-management issue falls under federal mediation law, Innovative said, and the workings of the Economic Development Commission fall under the executive branch of the local government.
The complaint alleges that the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee, chaired by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, and its members violated federal law by interfering in the labor dispute "using threats against Innovative's tax certificates to force Innovative's settlement of a pending labor dispute. . ."
The complaint said an Oct. 18 press release issued by Bryan called for two "emergency meetings" to investigate the circumstances surrounding the strike in response to a letter Bryan had received from a union member.
The release, according to the complaint, gave no other reason for the hearing, but Bryan later tried to make it appear as if the meeting was solely about the Innovative Telephone's Economic Development Commission tax benefits.
Innovative said the effort failed, though, because an EDC official pointed out during the Oct. 31 hearing that only three complaints had been filed against Innovative, and all in recent weeks. She also said she was not at liberty to discuss an ongoing compliance investigation into Innovative's operations.
"The hearing continued for several hours — with further discussions about the labor dispute and ways in which the EDC tax certificate was involved in the labor dispute," the complaint said.
Innovative officials declined to appear for that meeting, and the committee members voted to subpoena them for the follow-up hearing Thursday on St. Thomas which prompted the company to file the complaint.
"The committee is engaged in wholesale interference with the labor dispute process" in violation of the National Labor Management Relations Act, the complaint says, "and without a declaratory judgment of this court, Innovative will continue to have its rights under the NLRA violated."
It also said that without a court injunction, the Legislature will continue to hold "sham" proceedings interfering with the dispute. Samuel Ebbesen, Innovative Telephone president, was subpoenaed but did not appear at the Thursday meeting.
Even before the Oct. 31 hearing, Innovative contends, various senators and Labor Department officials tried to use the pending committee meetings as "leverage" to force a resolution of the strike, which began Oct. 2. Senators reportedly held a series of conferences with the parties, to no avail.
Another charge in the complaint is that the Senate breached separation of powers by involving itself in the EDC's "confidential investigation of compliance with tax certificates." The agency falls under the executive branch and the Legislature has no authority to get involved, it said.
In 1997, Innovative was granted full exemption from property, gross receipts and excise taxes and 90 percent exemption from corporate income taxes in a controversial move of the Schneider administration. The tax exemption certificate was granted on June 30, 1997, and will expire on Sept. 30, 2003.
The company's 412 telephone and cable TV employees went on strike Oct. 2 over a dispute that centers on pensions and other benefits. Attempts two weeks ago by federal mediators to end an impasse in the contract talks failed.
At Thursday's hearing, Sen. Vargrave Richards, the territory's apparent lieutenant governor-elect, said he has discussed the matter with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and has asked the governor to try to assist the parties to come to terms.
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