Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley Electric Association workers who are refusing to pay monthly union dues are in a heated legal battle with their union, and the judge's final decision in the case could mean they will lose their jobs.
The electrical workers' union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 111, is demanding the immediate termination of nine YVEA employees who have withheld their monthly union dues. YVEA's management has refused the union's demand, and now the union is taking them all to court.
YVEA employs approximately 65 people, 40 of whom are represented by the union. A lineman pays approximately $67.50 a month in union dues and a foreman pays $70.
Burt Clements is a YVEA lineman and has worked for the company for nine years. He was the first union member to withdraw his membership and refuse to pay union dues. The union is asking the court to order his immediate termination and require payment of the dues it says Clements owes.
"There's no doubt that this is driving a wedge between employees. I'm obviously concerned about this. I want to get the matter solved one way or the other and we'll live with whichever way it is." Larry Covillo, President and General Manager of Yampa Valley Electric Association
"They don't have the right to ask for my job our contract clearly defines that," Clements said. "I quit paying them because I don't like what they spend our dues on. The union is a bully and I want out."
Clements said he disagrees with collective bargaining and would prefer to earn benefits and wage increases based on his own merit.
The complaint filed by Local 111 in U.S. District Court alleges that YVEA violated its contract with the union and asks the court to override an arbitrator's decision that allowed the employees to continue working for YVEA without paying dues.
Although YVEA employees are not required to be union members, until the current contract they had been required to pay union dues as a condition of their employment.
The nine employees challenged the monthly dues requirement when they withdrew membership from the union, and discontinued the automatic deduction for the dues from their paychecks. The move by the employees was an effort to pull away from the union local that has been their bargaining agent for decades.
"I didn't entice the other employees involved in this to follow me," Clements said. "People followed me on their own .
"If you don't want to belong to the union, which is a private organization, you shouldn't have to. I shouldn't have to buy my job from the union."
During negotiations in November 1998, the language of the union contract with YVEA was changed, making payment of union dues no longer a condition of employment. However, it was unclear whether YVEA was required to terminate employees who refused to pay union dues.
The YVEA employees decided to challenge the union's ability to force them to pay dues to be able retain their jobs.
They began withholding their dues in early 1999. Subsequently, the union asked YVEA President and General Manager Larry Covillo to fire the employees because of non-payment of the dues.
The union then took the case to an arbitrator, Robert Allen, who ruled in March that YVEA was not required to terminate the employees. But Allen stipulated in his decision that the employees were "legally, ethically and morally obligated" to pay dues because the union is bargaining for their wages and benefits with the company.
Because of Allen's ruling, the employees attempted to pay Local 111 the amount they owed, but the union refused the payments because, according to a spokesman, it disagreed with the arbitrator's decision.
If the union had accepted the payments, the men would not become members of the union but would have the right to vote in union elections.
Clements said the union didn't accept their payments because it didn't want them to be able to vote in an upcoming election which could change YVEA from its current mandated union shop to an open shop. If it were an open shop, employees could decide whether to join the union, and if not, whether to pay union dues, or "fees" in lieu of dues.
The union is now asking a District Court judge to set aside Allen's decision and require the employees to pay back dues and YVEA to terminate the group.
"I don't know anything about an open shop vote. We are not required to accept their payments at this time," said Bruce Lawlor, the union's senior assistant business manager. "We want to represent those employees that want to be represented by us. How long do we beg and plead until finally we say enough is enough? We jumped through hoops for months and had already gone through the process of requesting payment. How long would the electric company tolerate monetary delinquency?"
Lawlor said according to the National Labor Relations Act, employees with a collective bargaining agreement (a union) are required to pay dues or fees. The fees for non-union employees are for representational benefits. Because the union has no other way to enforce the payment of the fees, request for termination is its only recourse, he said.
"If we have someone who doesn't want to pay, we can only enforce that with termination," Lawlor said. "We have to enforce the collective bargaining agreement. If non-union members don't pay, it will drive the cost of dues up for the union members and there may be a reduction of benefits. They have a good job and benefits because someone negotiated that for them and the law doesn't require we negotiate for free."
Lawlor accused the management of YVEA of conspiring against the union and he referred to the non-paying employees as "anti-union conspirators." In a letter written to YVEA board members, a union spokesman, Robert Mason, wrote that Covillo had "declared war on its most loyal and productive employees."
"It's ironic, had the employer left the employees to make their own decision, this would have been over a long time ago. I don't believe these employees would have refused to pay. The employer is trying to sway employees away from the union," Lawlor said. "We haven't had any problems like this until Mr. Covillo took over as general manager."
Clements disagreed with Lawlor.
"Larry didn't encourage us to do anything," Clements said. "We went to Larry with the union's threatening letters and he said there was nothing he could do. It was never his intent to encourage us to leave the union. We took it upon ourselves."
Covillo said he has done nothing wrong and has been following the rules of YVEA's contract with Local 111. He said he is not willing to terminate the employees and his decision not to do so has been backed by the arbitrator chosen by both the union and YVEA.
"Declared war? I'm not sure what that means. I'm addressing the grievances and I think I'm defending those loyal employees he (Mason) wrote about," Covillo said. "I'm obligated to defend ourselves too. I have abided by the contract and have been awarded a decision by an arbitrator in accordance with that contract and therefore feel I'm under no obligation to terminate these employees."
Covillo said he has tried to remain neutral in the dispute between the employees and the union. He said he doesn't believe that YVEA has an issue with Local 111, but that Local 111 has an issue with those members and non-members who work for YVEA that no longer want the union to represent them.
"I'm not actively campaigning union or non-union," Covillo said. "Employees have the right to choose who will or will not represent them and they elect that."
In the spring of 1999, YVEA employees voted 21-17 to retain the union's services.
Covillo said the dispute is causing problems among employees who are pro-union and those who are anti-union.
"There's no doubt that this is driving a wedge between employees," he said. "I'm obviously concerned about this. I want to get the matter solved one way or the other and we'll live with whichever way it is. I'm not surprised the union is fighting the arbitrator's decision but hopefully they'll settle with the outcome of the District Court case."
Lawlor said that once the judge has made his decision, the union will evaluate its position and go from there.
Wally Bartyzel has worked for the electric company for 20 years and has paid union dues that entire period.
"The union is doing its best. I don't want to see these people fired but they made their choice and they'll have to live with it," Bartyzel said. "I think it's appropriate to pay the dues because the union has to represent them whether they pay or not and it's not fair to the rest of us that are paying."
Clements said, at this point, the union should give up its closed-shop relationship with YVEA.
"They've lost and they can't stand it," he said. "They should let free people be free people and let us decide if we want them to bargain for us."