June 20, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The complicated affair between labor unions and the Connecticut Convention Center has just gotten more so.
As Mayor Eddie A. Perez tries to broker a deal between the state, the center's operator and two unions on how employees should consider unionizing, another union has entered the game.
The Laborers' International Union signed an agreement with the state and the convention center's operator that allowed the union into the building Monday to speak with employees. The result of the agreement will be a secret-ballot employee vote on whether or not to unionize.
It was unclear Monday how the entry of this new entity would affect efforts to end labor strife that has already driven business away from the year-old convention center.
Last week, Perez brought representatives of the state, the center and the unions Unite Here! and Service Employees International for a meeting that has yet to yield results.
At the same time and with the state's nod, the center's operator, the Waterford Group, sent a letter out to several labor unions - including the two already negotiating with the center. The letter laid out terms of an agreement on a process for organizing employees and invited the unions to sign.
The Laborers' Union apparently took them up on it.
"This is that middle ground that [we have] been talking about from the beginning, trying to create a fair process but still have ... a secret-ballot election," said Michael Cicchetti, a spokesman for the state agency that owns the facility. "It brings the matter to a quick resolution so we can all move forward and get back to building Hartford as a convention destination."
Cicchetti would not identify the union that signed the agreement. But a center employee confirmed that the Laborers' Union met Monday with employees for more than an hour and plans to come back twice later this week for further discussions on convention center grounds.
And Robert Proto, a vice president of Unite Here!, who is based in New Haven and handles inter-union relations, said he is reaching out to the Laborers at all levels of their hierarchy "so we can sit down and talk and figure out what's going on."
No one from the Laborers could be reached for comment
The labor issue at the heart of the dispute is not so much about wages or working conditions, but about the rules that govern the process: How will workers decide whether to unionize?
Unite Here! and the Service Employees International Union believe federal labor laws are insufficient and do not adequately protect workers' rights and are pushing for a "labor peace" agreement. The unions argue that such an agreement would ensure greater protection for workers during an organizing campaign, in exchange for a promise from the union that it would not picket, boycott or protest.
But the Waterford Group and the state have argued that federal labor laws outlining the process for an election are the fairest way for employees to decide whether they should unionize. Waterford has asked for a union election, and has pledged to respect the decision of the employees and to not interfere in the process.
The letter sent to the unions and signed by the Laborers provides for a secret ballot election to be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. But it goes beyond federal standards by requiring both parties to refrain from negatively influencing employee opinion. The union must forgo boycotts, strikes, pickets and other "destructive" activity; the center must not lock out union-sympathizing employees; and both parties must adhere to a process of dispute resolution.
Under the agreement, a union has 60 days to get the required signatures from 30 percent of the employees to force a vote on unionization. If it fails to do so, the union must agree not to try to organize employees for one year, and is not able to boycott.
Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Perez, said that the situation was still unfolding but that the deal signaled progress.
"The fact that there is willingness to put an agreement like this out means that the management of the convention center is open to direct negotiations with the unions," Hennessy said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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