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Nov 8, 2002 – In a heated hearing that lasted well into the night, lawmakers heard on Thursday from labor leaders, strikers, a teachers union representative, Economic Development Authority officers and the attorney general. Ultimately, they heard from Innovative Telephone, via a copy of its complaint filed in Territorial Court seeking an injunction telling the Senate committee to mind its own business.
(See "Court asked to halt Senate Innovative probes".)
That wasn't the only document the telephone company had in evidence at the 12-hour meeting of the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee chaired by Sen. Adelbert Bryan.
During the day, Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett, testifying in his capacity as EDA board chair, said he had received a request that morning from Innovative Telephone asking the EDA to waive its requirement that the company maintain an employment level of at least 421 workers. That number of personnel is one of the conditions of the company's continuing to enjoy extensive tax breaks granted five years ago by the Industrial Development Commission, now the Economic Development Commission.
Bryan and Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg maintained that Innovative officials asked for the waiver because they know that, even before the nearly six-week-old strike by some 310 Steelworkers Union employees, the company was in violation of its tax-exemption certificate.
The unionized workers, whose contract expired on Oct. 1, walked out the following day in a dispute mainly about pension benefits. That issue has since been resolved, both parties say, and the only apparent sticking point to agreeing on a new contract now is the fate of some 35 workers Innovative has hired to replace strikers.
Plaskett said the phone company's personnel level waiver request requires a public hearing. If the waiver were to be granted, Bryan asked, "then could ICC let go all the employees and replace them?" "Absolutely not," Plaskett replied. "ICC" refers to Innovative Communication Corp., the parent company of Innovative Telephone and various other V.I. public utility and business holdings.
The telephone company has been running employment advertisements, and Innovative officials say the new hires are permanent, not temporary, employees. Officials of the striking workers' union, the United Steelworkers of America, say all strikers must be returned to their jobs once the job action ends.
More than a hundred of those union members sat in the Senate chambers on Thursday, most of them from about 10:30 a.m. until 10:15 p.m., hoping to learn their fate in the labor dispute. Although, as Innovative's complaint filed in court pointed out, the Legislature is not the venue for resolving such disputes, the workers' side of the matter was thoroughly aired at the hearing.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron told the senators repeatedly throughout the meeting that the strike is between a private company and its employees, and the government has no right to step into the dispute. He noted that the president of the United States has on rare occasions, such as the recent West Coast dock strike, stepped into labor affairs. The V.I. government doesn't have that authority, Stridiron stressed.
Sen. Carlton Dowe said, however, "We must find a way to intervene. We need a cooling-off period, and the government needs to find a way to step in." Stridiron said the only way that could happen would be if the Legislature were to authorize the governor to order the sides to reach an agreement.
Senators' remarks throughout the day in support of the workers' cause were met with praise from the partisan observers, and anything that wasn't going their way triggered moans and groans. Playing before his audience, Bryan on several occasions urged the union members to demand their rights. "Do you have a savings plan?" he asked. "A stock ownership plan?" The workers replied with loud "no's."
The committee had subpoenaed representatives from Innovative Telephone and ICC, but only ICC's vice president for legal affairs, J'Ada Finch-Sheen, showed up. Under questioning about the phone company's EDC benefits, she told the senators that since Innovative is her client, she is bound by client-attorney confidentiality.
Sen. Roosevelt David asked Finch-Sheen if there was hope of talks between the union and the company resuming anytime soon. After a pause, she said, "I cannot speak for the company on that issue."
After a brief break around 8 p.m., the next two hours of the meeting were dedicated to the workers airing their complaints. American Federation of Teachers representative Terrence Joseph expressed sympathy for the strikers and detailed the travails his union had experienced at the bargaining table.
No member of the committee moved to take Stridiron up on the idea of authorizing the governor to intervene in the dispute.
Donastorg and Bryan clashed several times on ICC matters. Donastorg is suing the phone company for defamation of character over its extensive investigation into his life and that of associates, and ICC is countersuing. Bryan grew impatient with Donastorg's recital of his troubles with ICC, which in large part have led to the current investigation of Innovative's benefits. At one point, while Donastorg was commenting on his court case, Bryan turned off Donastorg's microphone. Donastorg promptly walked out of the hearing, not to return.

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