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Police, Corrections Union Members Take to Streets in Protest

Sept. 8, 2006 – Over the last two days, officers from the Bureau of Corrections (BOC) and the V.I. Police Department have taken to the streets, calling for better working conditions and new leadership. During a protest held Friday in front of the Legislature on St. Thomas, corrections officers also asked for the renewal of their collective bargaining agreement (which expired September 2005), better pay and compensation for overtime hours worked.
Corrections officers have been airing their complaints for the last year, while Police union officials say they have been fighting the department's top officials since 2003. Both groups say that their problems have finally "come to a head."
"Primary day is tomorrow, and our vote is going to count," said Corrections shop steward Allen Nibbs during Friday's protest. "We can no longer stand what's going on. It's time for a change."
In particular, Nibbs said officers are seeking to replace BOC's lower management staff, which includes Agnes George, the bureau's acting warden for St. Thomas, and Dale Donovan, the acting territorial warden.
Nibbs said that both officials have "repeatedly" ignored officers' complaints, which range from problems with promotional exams to the need for better equipment.
The Police unions have set their sights a bit higher, however. At a recent meeting held by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union (LESU), members unanimously voted to ask Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to fire Police Commissioner Elton Lewis.
According to detective Maria Peterson, PBA's vice-president on St. Thomas-St. John, the two unions have rallied together because Lewis "has continued to operate the department in an unfair manner."
She said Lewis has failed to meet regularly with union leaders and continues to "disregard" grievances filed by union members.
PBA President Lt. Joseph Gumbs said that once a grievance is filed, Police officials have five days to respond. "Commissioner Lewis has repeatedly failed to respond to the grievances," Gumbs said Friday.
"And as such, he has shown a blatant disregard for our negotiated contractual agreement. By not responding, he has forced many of these issues to be settled through arbitration," Gumbs said.
Petersen added that many of the grievances have been forwarded to the Office of Collective Bargaining, where they have been "for months."
Collective Bargaining chief negotiator Karen Andrews said Friday that her office has been trying to consolidate the complaints. "The grievances have not yet been scheduled for arbitration because our first priority is dealing with terminations or suspensions. However, we have been having numerous discussions with PBA and LESU to see if we could reach a settlement," she said.
Andrews refuted claims made by corrections officers that Andrews has refused to come to the table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
"That assessment is not entirely true," she said, adding that Collective Bargaining initially implemented an "aggressive" negotiation schedule to address all expired union contracts.
However, she said negotiations with the American Federation of Teachers and United Steelworkers of America supervisors took "longer than expected," forcing Collective Bargaining to reprioritize its negotiation schedule.
"Some unions have had expired collective bargaining agreements since 2003," she said. "Negotiations are now based on those that are the farthest behind."
Andrews added that she has submitted a letter to Attorney General Kerry Drue addressing some of Corrections' issues, including back pay owed to officers.
During Friday's protest, Nibbs and other corrections officers said that back pay has been a big issue for the bureau ever since George took over the payroll responsibilities.
"What we need is a proper payroll clerk," Nibbs said. "It's a conflict of interest for the warden to process the payroll. There's never a time where all of our hours are accounted for."
Police union officials said they are in a similar position. "Some officers are owed something like 80 hours worth of back pay," Petersen said.
Another issue brought forth by Police and BOC officers includes problems with promotions and promotional exams. "Recently, four officers on St. Thomas were promoted to the position of corporal," Petersen said. "And on St. Croix, 17 officers were promoted. That really concerns us, because it seems as if Commissioner Lewis favors St. Croix over St. Thomas."
Petersen added that the PBA's counterparts on St. Croix are also concerned. "Some of the individuals that were promoted over there work under the Office of the Commissioner," she said. "And our counterparts on St. Croix have said that these individuals don't have the time or the qualifications, and don't deserve the promotion."
When contacted Friday, Gumbs added: "Lewis' actions have continuously pitted officers working in the two districts against each other."
Police union members organized a protest early Thursday that began at the Richard Callwood Zone A Central Command courtyard and ended in front of Government House. Members subsequently met with Turnbull to air their concerns.
"The governor listened to everything we had to say," Petersen said. "However, he did not make a determination on whether or not the commissioner will be fired, so we're waiting to see what happens."
Gumbs added that concerns about Lewis' actions, which have been building for the last three years, reached a head when Lewis attempted to fire Assistant Commissioner James McCall (See "Police Commissioner Attempts to Terminate his Assistant Commissioner").
"We need some action to be taken immediately," he said. "We can no longer work under the leadership of Commissioner Lewis."
When contacted Friday, Lewis said he had "no comments" on the situation.
Several calls to George were not returned Friday.
Calls to Drue were also not returned.

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