The Martha's Vineyard Community Services labor dispute, now almost three months old, faced the potential of further delays today when management appealed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision to expand the pool of eligible voters for a June 20 union election.
"We believe that the regional director in Boston (one of dozens of NLRB regions across the country) made a mistake in holding that, for example, a person who directs an entire program at the Island Counseling Center is neither a supervisor nor a manager," community services executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch said yesterday.
A May 24 ruling by the NLRB in Boston determined that four clinical supervisors and four graduate interns are eligible to vote whether or not Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Hospital Workers local 767, can represent professional employees of both Island Counseling Center (ICC) and Visiting Nurse Service.
"The appeal is about the structure of ICC, not particular individuals. The regional director held that in all of ICC there is only one supervisory position with any clinical background, the position of director. This makes no sense to us. No prudent management could accept a decision which holds that in the ICC, with over 30 employees carrying out a variety of clinical programs, there can be only one position of an exempt clinical supervisor," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said in a memorandum to staff responding to several pointed questions by ICC petitioners after they learned of the appeal.
If the full NLRB board in Washington chooses to review Community Services's appeal, it may continue with the vote and impound the results until any discrepancy is resolved, or they may postpone the June 20 election. The NLRB also could refuse to review management's appeal.
The regional NLRB director in Boston earlier determined that clinical supervisors, who meet each week with counselors and therapists to discuss case loads and counseling techniques, fulfill an advisory role rather than exercising the "independent judgment" characteristic of managers as described in labor law.
ICC employees - 19 of whom filed a petition to unionize on March 15, citing compensation grievances and unresponsive management - reacted to management's appeal yesterday with a mix of shock and frustration.
"The history of the agency shows it does not allow change - not until people get angry enough to leave. It's a decisive move to have us all walk away. We've all been told already that we're dispensable," ICC petitioner Amy Lilavois said.
"This is not fair for the emotional stability of the staff," she added. "We all like the work we do, so we will just have to stay strong and support each other."
Jane Dreeben, one of the four clinical supervisors in question, said she feels particularly insulted by management's decision to appeal.
"If I'm left out of the voting unit, I'm vulnerable. I'm already financially punished for supervising, but it's something I love to do and know is important for the program. I feel like I'm being punished for the responsibility I have," Ms. Dreeben said, referring to reduced hourly wages paid for time spent supervising clinicians.
The decision to appeal followed a closed-door management and staff meeting Monday evening - prompted by several nurse service staff - to discuss "alternatives to the union." Both sides referred to the meeting as civil and beneficial.
"The Monday night meeting went well. We were free to speak out and ask questions. I'm shocked to discover [Mr. Robinson-Lynch] decided to appeal [after that meeting]," ICC union petitioner Jane Cleare said yesterday. The decision to appeal, in fact, came not just from Mr. Robinson-Lynch but also from a unanimous vote by the board of directors.
In a memorandum to all staff Wednesday, the board said: "The board of directors of Martha's Vineyard Community Services believes the decision of the regional director of the NLRB jeopardizes the integrity of the ICC management structure. Therefore, we unanimously support the recommendation to ask the NLRB in Washington to review the decision of the regional director relative to the four supervisory positions at ICC. The NLRB has established a process and we wish to exercise our due process right."
ICC petitioners said they do not understand why the board is now involved in the labor dispute. Directors remained silent until two weeks ago - despite urgings from the public and employees - when board president Ursula Ferro sent a memorandum to staff. On behalf of the board, Ms. Ferro courteously declined a staff invitation to attend Monday evening's private meeting between working personnel and administrators.
"We support management's response to the NLRB petition and don't think it appropriate for individual board members to participate in any forums, meetings or similar discussions at this time," Ms. Ferro said in the memorandum.
"As board members, our primary responsibility is the long-range financial health and stability of Martha's Vineyard Community Services. If the agency is not financially viable, it cannot exist and services could not be provided to our clients. Within this fiduciary responsibility the board has always cared about all the agency's employees. This commitment remains strong," she continued.
Ms. Dreeben said she does not understand, given Ms. Ferro's explanation of the board role, why the directors voted to appeal the NLRB ruling to include clinical supervisors in the vote.
Mr. Robinson-Lynch said in response: "The board will ratify ultimately any contract approved in negotiations by our lawyers and management. Similarly, the board, after hearing the legal and practical reasons to file an appeal with the NLRB, agreed unanimously.
"One important fact that you should not lose sight of, of course, is that in this appeal we are simply maintaining the position we have maintained all along with the NLRB in Boston. We are not contesting any of the other rulings made by the NLRB and we do not believe this appeal will delay the election. We are simply maintaining the position that we have taken from the very beginning, that in ICC there must be at least a few clearly identified clinical supervisory positions in order for us to manage the ICC programs," Mr. Robinson-Lynch concluded in his response to ICC petitioners.
Unless the full NLRB board directs otherwise, 37 Community Services employees - namely registered nurses, medical social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech pathologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical nurse specialists, mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, social workers and student interns - will vote June 20 to accept or reject union representation at Community Services.
Meanwhile, the campaign continues. ICC petitioners have taken their case to the public, gathering 386 signatures from Island residents supporting the campaign to unionize.
Community Services management remains convinced a union will not adequately address employee concerns.
"Between now and the vote, the agency intends to present fully our side of this story and show why we firmly believe that, while this agency is not perfect, letting in the SEIU is not the answer," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.