Oct. 7, 2002 – Innovative Communication Corp. technical supervisors were working Monday to restore service to telephone and cable-television subscribers on St. Thomas after several incidents of apparent vandalism disrupted their distribution systems.
Throughout the territory, an Innovative release said, some 3,600 phone lines and more than 900 cable TV customers were affected over the weekend by "sabotage of the telephone and cable facilities."
The vandalism took place as a strike by Innovative unionized workers, members of the United Steelworkers Union, moved into its sixth day. On St. Thomas, Innovative Telephone spokesman Thomas J. Dunn said disruptions affected residential and commercial customers in several areas, notably Raphune Hill and Havensight.
"We have numerous complaints of interruption of service. The Innovative team has done an extraordinary job so far," he said Monday.
Meanwhile, a federal mediator was expected to arrive in the territory on Monday to seek to break an impasse between ICC management and the Steelworkers. At a meeting on Friday called by Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin, both sides agreed to bring in a mediator and also to abide by a news blackout while the talks are under way.
Efforts to reach Benjamin on Monday to determine whether the mediator had, in fact, arrived were unsuccessful. So also were attempts to reach the local union leadership.
On Friday, pickets on St. Croix described a Thursday conflict with police at the gate of Innovative's Mount Pleasant site. Trevor Wheeler, an installer/repairman, said what led striking employees to block the gate was the arrival of a local contractor, Rotating Equipment, bringing in workers to replace those on the picket lines.
Dunn has stated in releases and in person that emergency repair work is being carried out by Innovative management personnel.
There had been reports of vandalism Thursday on St. Croix, but Dunn said there have been no further incidents on the island.
On St. Thomas, he said, 90 percent of cable and telephone lines were in operation by mid-day Monday, with phone service having suffered the brunt of the problems.
Both V.I. police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been called in to investigate the vandalism.
"Innovative called Friday afternoon, maybe Saturday," Territorial Police Chief Novelle Francis said on Monday. An investigation is under way, he said, and police are conducting surveillance on key portions of the distribution system.
FBI spokesman Eric Rivera said from the agency's Puerto Rico office that he was not aware of any complaints from the Virgin Islands as of Monday morning, but he noted that telephone problems were affecting the FBI office on Raphune Hill.
Private radio and Internet communications systems also were interrupted over the weekend. Choice Communications Systems, headquartered in Havensight, experienced disruptions on Sunday. And V.I. Taxi Association dispatchers found themselves out of touch with their drivers because of a problem believed to stem from the association's telephone-radio relay system on Flag Hill. George Sebastian, association executive director and chief of radio communications, said, "We're having a problem with our dispatch system. We're calling our technician now to see what the problem is."
Dunn said the taxi organization's problems were "alarming, because someone may have been sabotaging their communications tower, and we have a tower in that area."
According to Dunn, the greatest impact of the telephone disruptions may have been felt by shops and businesses unable to process charge card payments for goods and services. A sign posted in Cost-U-Less at Market Square East told Sunday shoppers the store could not process charge-card sales.
Neither Innovative officials nor investigating authorities have said the acts of vandalism are the work of striking union members. More than 300 workers, including technicians and installers, have stayed out of the workplace, walking picket lines in support of demands by the Steelworkers that the company address pension issues in its current round of contract negotiations.
One union official, asked Friday about company allegations that wire cuts and other acts of vandalism were related to the strike, said it was not unusual for striking workers to take the blame.
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