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South Slope workers ratify contract

NORTH LIBERTY– Representatives of South Slope Cooperative Communications and members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) announced Monday the two groups had reached a collective bargaining agreement effective until September 2015.
The CWA and South Slope management had been involved in a contentious dispute over contract terms since Oct. 31, when the workers’ previous contract expired. South Slope locked workers out based on the lack of an approved contract, and the union subsequently voted down a proposed new contract.
Members of the union voted on Saturday, March 15, to approve a contract that includes wage increases, additional flexibility, increased job security, improved vacation time and pension funding.
Since Nov. 3, 2013, collective bargaining employees at South Slope have been working under the contract proposed by the company, while management representatives and CWA representatives continued formal negotiations in the presence of a federal mediator. Deliberations took place amid complaints filed by the CWA to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), claiming unfair labor practices against South Slope, stating that the co-op’s management threatened employees with loss of benefits; unlawfully conducted the 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.
The remaining claims are still under review by the NLRB, and a hearing has been scheduled for May 7, which may result in a settlement or a decision by an administrative law judge after hearing all the facts and law at issue. The NLRB has the authority to continue to investigate the charges or drop them all together, but the CWA is unlikely to request to have the charges dropped, indicated CWA staff representative Kay Pence.
“The fact that we were able to later negotiate an agreement in good faith has no bearing on facts of the prior charges,” Pence wrote in an email Monday.
Approval of the contract means employees are no longer working under imposed contract terms that they had not agreed to, Pence added.
“With all successful contract negotiations there is give and take; neither side gets everything they want. I think it is important that all parties feel their concerns are heard and that in the end they received a fair deal. The bargaining committee unanimously recommended this agreement and the union members approved it,” Pence wrote.
Monday’s collaborative press release announcing the ratified agreement focused on the positive.
“Our mutual goal is to ensure South Slope’s financial stability while continuing to offer quality jobs in our community. We remain focused on providing cutting edge telecommunications delivered with superior service to the Cooperative members,” the release said.
Initially, it was a proposed two-tier wage system that CWA opposed most strongly, wherein new employees would be hired at a lower wage than existing employees in the same positions, and employees who voluntarily transferred to a lower-paying position within the company would not be guaranteed the same wage.
CWA argued 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 CEO Justyn Miller said the negotiation teams were able to find new approaches to end the previous impasse.
“By making changes to the method of dues deductions and modifying the two-tier wage scale for some jobs, we feel these efforts ultimately led to the acceptance of the agreement,” Miller said in an email Monday.
The bargaining unit employees received a one percent age increase, bonuses, added vacation based on years of service, an additional paid holiday, a fully-funded pension and an option for severance pay if laid off from the company.
The newly-ratified contract is effective for the next 18 months, during which time Miller said South Slope plans to review its healthcare plan to look for comparable benefits at a cost savings.
The changes made to the contract throughout the negotiation process were “fair and promote a bright future for our employees and the Cooperative,” Miller wrote. “Our efforts will allow for increased workplace efficiencies, improved customer care, and the financial viability of the Cooperative. The agreement benefits all parties and will allow us to continue working together to provide technology advancements for Internet, television, and telephone services to the communities we serve.”