NORTH LIBERTY– Representatives from South Slope Communications Cooperative and bargaining representatives from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union are communicating with officials from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to settle complaints of unfair labor practices filed against the company.
CWA filed several charges against the North Liberty-based telecommunications cooperative in November and December 2013. The NLRB determined that three allegations merited further investigation: that the co-op’s management threatened employees with loss of benefits; unlawfully conducted an employee lock-out on Nov. 1, 2013; and unlawfully implemented a Last, Best and Final Offer prior to a negotiations impasse. The CWA filed additional charges that were dismissed as being without merit, in cases with statuses now listed as closed, on the NLRB’s website.
As a matter of process, the NLRB regional director made a proposal to settle the claims between the two parties. According to Kay Pence, CWA staff representative, the union agreed to the settlement but had not received a response from the company as of the Friday, Feb. 14, deadline.
“I have never had an employer take the inflexible bargaining positions South Slope did, never had an employer lock their employees out, and never had an employer impose an agreement their employees unanimously rejected,” said Pence in an email communication Monday. “Most contracts are negotiated in good faith to a mutually agreeable settlement which is ratified by the decision makers. In this case the decision makers are the employee union members and the South Slope board of directors.”
South Slope representatives asked for an extension of the NLRB’s settlement offer until Tuesday, Feb. 18 (subsequent to the publication of this newspaper). As of that date, if the matter is not settled, the NLRB regional director could proceed to file a formal complaint against the company.
It is South Slope’s position that the company has always bargained in good faith.
“Since November, the company has met three times with union representatives and a federal mediator,” said South Slope CEO Justyn Miller in an email statement to the media. “An additional meeting is scheduled for February 27. South Slope bargained in good faith at all times and with an open mind. We hope to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution that will keep the cooperative competitive in the future.”
The two sides have been at odds over a contract proposed by South Slope when the previous three-year contract covering its bargaining unit employees expired at midnight on Oct. 31, 2013. Bargaining representatives of both South Slope and CWA met in the presence of a federal mediator on Monday, Oct. 28, when the company made an offer to CWA representatives, but no action was taken until union members who work for South Slope held a ratification vote on Sunday, Nov. 3, three days after the previous contract’s expiration deadline. The lack of an approved contract prompted South Slope management to instigate the employee lockout, but workers were allowed to return to work on Monday, Nov. 4, under the company’s new contract terms.
Union employees disputed the contract because it proposed a two-tier wage system, wherein newly hired employees would come in at lower wages than existing employees in the same positions, and employees who transfer to a lower-paying position within the company would not have wage protection. On Jan. 22, CWA organized a rally and press conference in support of union workers, offering statements that the two-tier wage system would harm employee morale and negatively impact the company’s ability to recruit and retain qualified employees.
South Slope maintains that the new wage proposal is based soundly on comparisons with wage scales across the industry, that the contract contains wage protection for all existing employees, including transfers, unless they voluntarily bid into a lower-paying position, and that the proposal is a step toward future financial soundness for the company.
Though employees returned to work in November, the contract has remained under dispute while bargaining representatives from both sides continued to negotiate its terms.
“The claims have no bearing on current negotiations,” said Miller.
Nor has the NLRB reached a decision the CWA’s claims, said South Slope legal counselors from Simmons Perrine.
“The NLRB has simply communicated to us informally by email that some, but not all, of the charges filed by CWA appear to have merit, and so the process will continue,” the unidentified attorney said in an email on Monday. “To date, there has been no formal commencement by a formal written complaint from the NLRB, no actual hearing or face-to-face confrontation of witnesses by each side; only an investigation by the NLRB investigator and a decision to continue with the process.”
Miller said South Slope “will continue to meet with union representatives at their convenience and work together to ensure the future viability of the cooperative.
“We look forward to sharing our perspective with the NLRB regarding the remaining claims,” Miller concluded.