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Union Leader a No Show at Senate Committee Meeting

Feb. 24, 2006 – Another subpoena was issued Friday for Eugene Irish, regional vice president of the Seafarers International Union, after he failed to appear at a Labor and Agriculture Committee meeting held on St. Croix.
Senator Terrence Nelson, committee chairman, said Irish was repeatedly asked to testify before the Legislature to respond to various concerns from union members. "On top of that, we recently issued a subpoena so he could appear at today's meeting, but he has failed to show up again," Nelson said. "Mr. Irish, I'm sorry it had to come down to this, and I am disgusted that you feel comfortable ignoring the law."
While Nelson threatened to have Irish arrested for failing to respond to the first subpoena, senators instead requested that he appear at another committee meeting scheduled for March 10.
Testifiers at Friday's meeting were also angered by Irish's absence. "The union is obviously lacking representation," said Shalima Joseph, shop steward for the Department of Human Services financial program. "I have tried to contact Mr. Irish several times, both by phone and through correspondence, over the past six months to help us deal with some of the health problems we've been having at our office.
"The air quality on the first floor of the building is poor," she said, "and we were hoping to get him out there for a site visit."
Debbie Guadelupe, shop steward for the Labor Department on St. Croix, said members of the union have been paying dues for years, but do not receive assistance whey they call the union office for help. "Since we do not have a local SIU chapter in the V.I., our money goes to the states where the national office is," she said.
"We want to know where our money is going and how it's being used, since it's obviously not being spent on us," Guadelupe said.
When contacted Friday evening, Sen. Nelson said he is concerned about the structure of the union. "Any union should have a local chapter and a local president," he said.
"I was disturbed to hear that there is no SIU constitution in the territory – that's something that we need to have explained."
During the meeting, other union members expressed concerns about a salary increase recently included in their collective bargaining agreements. "This increase, which amounts to only about $3,000 is not applicable to those members who retire after Oct. 2005," said Daphne Lewis, a government worker.
"I have been working for the government for 33 years now, and I am retiring in two days. Because of this agreement, when I retire, I get nothing," Lewis said. "That's unjust. When I called Mr. Irish to tell him about this, he told me that I have to take it up with the retirement office, and that the government doesn't have to give me an increase in salary. He told me that I should just be happy that I have a job."
Sammy Sierra, shop steward at the Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix, said that union meetings are held sporadically, and that financial reports and collective bargaining information are withheld from union members.
"During the recent negotiations, we were treated as if we didn't exist," Sierra said. "As if we didn't have the right to ask about our collective bargaining agreements, and what benefits we're entitled to."
Another bone of contention for members was how lands owned by the union are being distributed. "This is a major issue," Nelson said after the meeting. "Apparently there was a merger some time ago between the SIU and the St. Croix Labor Union, who had purchased land in the territory between 1915 and the 1970's."
He said, "What we heard today is that the SIU members are not benefiting from the sale of that land; instead, it is being sold to non-union members for a big profit."
While senators had no concrete solutions to the problems discussed by testifiers Friday, many union members offered their own resolutions, which included freezing membership dues until the various issues are addressed, forming a local SIU chapter where members are able to elect their own representatives, and providing training to union officials.
"You guys have a lot of power," Nelson told testifiers during the meeting. "What you need to do is mobilize, hold meetings, campaign. We have to get to the bottom of this corruption, and you can be sure that Mr. Irish hasn't seen or heard the last of me."
Senator Norman Jn Baptiste added, "It's unfortunate that the same person you're having problems with is the only one you can turn to for help. But there's more than one way to skin a cat, so don't worry–we'll get him."
Present at Friday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Jn Baptiste, Nelson and Ronald E. Russell.
Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Neville James and Celestino A. White Sr. were absent.

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