South Slope workers allowed back on job
By Lori Lindner
NORTH LIBERTY– Fifty-five contract employees of South Slope Cooperative Communications who were unable to work Friday, Nov. 1., due to an expired contract, were allowed to return to work Monday morning.
The three-year contract between South Slope and the Communications Workers of American (CWA) union expired at midnight on Oct. 31. According to South Slope CEO Justyn Miller, representatives of both South Slope and CWA met in the presence of a federal mediator on Monday, Oct. 28. At that time, Miller said, the company made an offer to CWA representatives, but no action was taken on the offer.
Union members who work for South Slope were scheduled to hold a ratification vote on the offer Sunday, Nov. 3; three days after the previous contract’s expiration deadline.
“CWA has known for three years the contract was set to expire,” said Miller. “The union chose to vote after the contract expired. ”
The union workers did vote on Nov. 3 on South Slope’s new contract terms. Though the union unanimously voted down the offer, the move enabled them to return to work Monday.
All contracted employees who are members of the union must be given an opportunity to vote on the new contract terms. Voting is done by secret ballot, and CWA representative Mary Kay Pence said arrangements were also set up for members who requested to vote by absentee ballot on Nov. 3.
“It is a rather complex process,” said Pence. “It takes awhile to set up the proper voting process, but we have to give every member the opportunity to a legal vote.”
A majority vote in favor of the offer would have brought contract employees back to work as scheduled on Nov. 1 under a new contract. A vote against it now allows workers to strike, or choose to cross a picket line and continue to work under the new contract until a deal satisfactory to both the union and the company could be negotiated.
Initial reports from CWA said South Slope had proposed a 30 percent decrease in pay from existing wages for new hires or existing workers who transfer into new titles.
“The union bargaining committee is concerned the two-tier pay structure will negatively impact employee morale and the ability to attract and retain qualified employees,” the release stated. “Despite the presence of a federal mediator, the talks became contentious as South Slope insisted on forcing its proposals on the workers rather than negotiate fairly.” CWA filed charges against South Slope with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming bad faith bargaining and the unwarranted suspension of a union supporter.
Miller was unable to comment on the terms of the offer or the negotiation process due to legal constraints.
Pence said in the approximately 30 years that South Slope has contracted with union workers, CWA and the company have not experienced contentious bargaining before now. Because the union members did not wish to disrupt service to customers, Pence added, CWA representatives requested additional bargaining meetings, offered to extend the existing contract and offered to work without a contract all together so negotiations could continue without impacting customers.
“Our members take a great deal of pride in our customer service,” said Pence in a telephone interview Friday. “They care about our customers, and they are ready, willing and able to come back to work, with our without a contract.”
Miller offered this statement in an email Monday morning:
“We are pleased that our employees represented by the union will be joining us at work (today). Although South Slope’s proposal was not approved, we will implement our final offer and continue to negotiate in good faith with our union representatives,” Miller stated.
Miller also refuted reports that South Slope planned to lower wages for current employees.
“Contrary to previous reports, South Slope never proposed to lower the hourly wages for current employees in their current positions. We believe the proposed changes to the contract address our competitive industry and regulated telecommunications environment. Our cooperative members are our primary focus and we will continue to provide excellent service.”
Miller also noted 40 of South Slope’s management team kept operations running smoothly at the company last Friday.
“We are making sure our members continue to get service, and we will continue working to make sure that service continues, as we always do,” said Miller. “We are open for business.”