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VIPA Employees Stage Peaceful Lunchtime Protest in Board Meeting

Oct. 22, 2008 — Union members staged a protest during a V.I. Port Authority board meeting Wednesday, with nearly 30 standing silent at one point, protesting the fact that the Port Authority has not renewed their contract since 2006.
More than 20 members of two bargaining units of the United Industrial Workers, who work as maintenance staff at the Port Authority, quietly walked together single file into the board room, some holding small signs. Many wore their blue union shirts, many were in their uniforms, and all stood quietly in a row, in solidarity. For about two hours Wednesday there was always at least one protester in the room.
VIPA employs approximately 320 maintenance, fire, law enforcement and aviation workers. Some of them took action to protest the board's refusal to negotiate with the units, said Eugene Irish, vice president for the Caribbean region of the UIW.
Employees sacrificed their lunch time to protest not receiving a salary increase in three years, though their supervisors had received salary increases, Irish said. In addition, the board has changed the employees' benefits package to reflect an 80-20 split on paying for medical benefits.
"The Port Authority circulated a letter to the union membership advising that Oct. 1 they were going to commence employer-employee sharing relative to the medical plan," Irish said.
The contract expired in October 2006, and the union has filed for action by the Public Employees Relations Board, which held an investigatory hearing Oct. 3. The next action before PERB is a hearing scheduled for Friday.
"The message that we want to send was received by the board and everybody here — which is that we are serious," Irish said.
Apparently the protesters' message was heard, as an announcement read out following the board's executive session referred to employee health cost sharing, but the board declined to provide any details, citing ongoing legal matters.
Irish said it was hard for the employees to listen to board members who were discussing spending $240,000 on a bathroom at Lindberg Bay but were unwilling to spend money on their salary increases.
The calm that accompanied the protest reflected the employees' wishes not to be in a position of being disciplined, Irish said.
"This way, no one gets in trouble and everyone gets an opportunity to be seen," Irish said.
The protest surprised board member Robert O'Connor.
"I didn't know what was going on," he said later. "We are presently in negotiations, and the employees want some assurances. The 80-20 insurance sharing is pretty new, and they were concerned about that based on being able to meet their obligations. The protest was to the point, was respectable and I appreciate their presence and understand their concerns."
The PERB is the only agency that can make a determination in this matter; the union cannot go to court until the PERB takes action. Until that time any PERB decision is binding on both parties, according to Irish.
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