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STRIKE ISSUES: 'MISCONDUCT' CHARGES, NEW HIRING

Oct. 29, 2002 – Despite some progress in recent days regarding wage, pension and insurance issues, representatives of Innovative Telephone/Innovative Cable TV and the United Steelworkers Union walked away from the bargaining table short of a resolution that would end the four-week work stoppage.
Two bones of contention now separate the entities, according to an Innovative Telephone release issued Tuesday:
– Innovative's contention that employees who have "engaged in unlawful strike misconduct," as Innovative Telephone's president, Samuel Ebbesen, put it in the release, face disciplinary action by the company.
– What Innovative described as the union's insistence as a condition of returning to work that "permanent replacement workers" hired by Innovative to maintain operations during the strike be terminated.
Without specifying what constitutes "unlawful strike misconduct," Ebbesen said the company has rejected the Steelworkers' request for amnesty. "Employees must be held accountable for their actions, even during a strike," he said.
At a Steelworkers' meeting Tuesday afternoon on St. Croix, union local leader Fred Joseph said Ebbesen's reference to "misconduct" referred to allegations by company officials that union members heckled Innovative brass from the picket lines and that a union member slashed the tires of an Innovative executive's vehicle.
Joseph said Innovative is demanding that several union members alleged by the company to have taken part in these activities remain off the job on suspension while the rest of the union returns to work. He denied the company's statement that "the Steelworkers asked that the company grant 'amnesty' to their members who engaged in unlawful strike misconduct."
"How could we ask for amnesty for something we never did?" Joseph said. "We don't want amnesty; we want our people back at work."
As to the issue of replacement workers, Joseph said the company has hired 10 to 20 new employees to take the place of striking union members. Innovative Telephone spokesman Thomas J. Dunn declined to comment on the matter last week; he could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening.
For at least two weeks, The Virgin Islands Daily News, which is owned by Innovative Communication Corp., the parent company as well of Innovative Telephone and Innovative Cable TV, has been running blind advertisements for customer service representatives and technicians. When called about the advertisement, a receptionist said the positions were at Innovative.
"The company has the right to hire new employees," Joseph said. "But we have the right to stay out until all our people go back in."
The replacement hires will not be fired, Ebbesen said, making a point of saying that they are Virgin Islanders, as opposed to personnel brought in from off island. "These workers have applied to us for permanent employment; we hired them and we will not fire them," he said in the release.
Joseph again took issue with Innovative's interpretation of the Steelworkers' stand. He said the union does not necessarily want the new hires fired.
But, "What about the 315 people who have worked there — many of them for years?" he said, referring to the strikers. "Don't they have any loyalty to us?"
He said the international level of the Steelworkers union is mounting a "corporate campaign" to look into Innovative's business practices.
Meanwhile, the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee is to take testimony on the strike this week. The committee, chaired by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, is to convene Thursday on St. Croix and Friday on St. Thomas to examine the issues which led to the strike and to consider whether the phone company is in compliance with its 1998 tax benefits certificate from the Industrial (now Economic) Development Commission.
Joseph said union members plan to attend the Senate hearings in force and that those on St. Croix will march to the Legislature building from the Frederiksted post office on Thursday morning.

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