VTel confronting labor issues in court

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(Host) Vermont Telephone in Springfield prides itself on being a cutting-edge, 21st century communications company.

But it finds itself confronting what it considers a very 20th century issue: serious disagreements with organized labor.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, the labor-management relationship at VTel is more often conducted in a courtroom than across a negotiating table.

(Sneyd) The complaints have flown between VTel management and the leaders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The National Labor Relations Board has weighed in and U-S District Court judges have been asked to moderate disputes.

(Guite) "I think we’ve had, oh, 150 or 200 legal attacks by the IBEW against us in the last three or four years – just dozens and dozens.  In fact, just for the fun of making this point, I’m going to grab an envelope here that has three more just today. So, let’s see: in front of the USNLRB, Oct. 19, case number ca44253, case number 40… Anyway, on and on and on. It’s just endless."

(Sneyd) That’s Michel Guite. He’s the owner of VTel.

He says he doesn’t really see any end to the legal claims and counterclaims.

The disputes are just about as basic as they can get between a union and a company. Take the case that will be heard Tuesday. The federal court has been asked to decide whether there even is a contract between the two sides.

Mike Spillane is the manager of the IBEW union local. He says he’d rather be working on a new contract, but can’t get past the old disputes.

(Spillane) "I mean the case that we have in court next week doesn’t help us with the contract going forward. That’s all about issues with the 2004-2007. However, if I get a positive result on that we can use as a bargaining chip to launch ourselves into negotiations on the 2008 contract, that’s something we can do. This case is strictly on the old.”

(Sneyd) The contention over the old contract is over whether the two sides agreed to make VTel an "open shop." That’s what management wants: an open shop, where employees can decide whether they want to be a member of the union. The IBEW says it wants VTel to stay as it has been for more than 30 years.The union represents all of employees so all are required to pay dues. That’s a big part of what the two sides will argue in court next week.

Joan Vogel specializes in employment law at Vermont Law School.She’s not involved in the issues at VTel, but she says management across the country has taken a tougher tone with unions for more than a quarter century.

But Vogel says that organized labor has an important place in improving people’s standards of living.

(Vogel) "That’s a very important part of why after the Second World War we had middle class living standards for a lot of people working in major manufacturing in a lot of the industries that are unionized. And that’s why, I think, we don’t have middle class standards we used to have – because of the decline of unionism.”

(Sneyd) One of the few areas where all sides in the VTel situation agree is that the company’s workers at VTel are well paid and have good benefits.

But they part ways on what role the union should continue to have on determining those wages and benefits.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.


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