Labor Dispute Divides Agency

Staff and Administration AdoptStrongly Adversarial Positions As Decision on Union Nears At Community Services


The Martha's Vineyard Community Services labor dispute took a step closer to resolution during National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearings in Boston this week as Community Services management and the Hospital Workers Union, on behalf of 19 employees from Island Counseling Center, agreed to extend voting privileges to all professional employees of Community Services.

"From the very beginning of the National Labor Relations Board proceedings with the Hospital Workers Union, the board and administration of Martha's Vineyard Community Services have taken the position that it was wrong for the union to attempt to separate one of our programs, Island Counseling Center, from the other four programs that provide care to residents of this community," Community Services executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch said in a press release this week.

"Finally, after more than two days of hearings, on April 15, 2002, the union agreed to abandon this tactic. The union agreed to change its petition for all professional employees of the agency's program," he wrote.

Under the National Labor Relations Law, professional status extends to counselors, therapists and registered nurses of Island Counseling Center (ICC) as well as to registered nurses, physical therapists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists of the Visiting Nurse Service (VNS). Between 25 and 35 of the agency's total staff of 130 workers fall under the new classifications.

"The workers are relieved the hearings are over. It's inevitably up to the people of ICC and VNS. As the dust settles from the legal proceedings, they're excited to have the chance to finally vote," said Rob Witherell, organizing director of the Hospital Workers Union, local 767.

While Community Services management and the union reached the "professional employee" eligibility agreement early in Monday's hearing, the parties continued to debate through Monday and Tuesday whether Island Counseling Center clinical supervisors and graduate interns would be allowed to vote on forming the bargaining unit.

Under the federal labor law, management must be excluded from the union. Community Services administration argues that clinical supervisors are considered management. The union counters that because clinical supervisors have no hiring, firing, promotion or reprimanding powers, they are not technically considered management.

"I have no real authority as defined by the labor law. I provide supervision that focuses on the provision of clinical care," said Jane Dreeben, ICC director of substance abuse services and one of four ICC employees in question because of her status as a clinical supervisor.

The NLRB is expected to rule in the next few weeks on which employees have voting rights. Eligible employees could vote whether to join a union as soon as the end of May.

The NLRB hearings followed the March 15 filing of a petition by 19 employees of Island Counseling Center to the NLRB to form a bargaining unit. The petitioners cite a concern for consistent client care, wage grievances and need for an articulated pay scale as the impetus for joining a union. At hearings held March 27 and 28, Community Services administration argued that all agency employees - excluding management, clerical staff and Thrift Shop employees - should be allowed to vote whether to join a union. Hearings continued Monday and Tuesday because the management and the union reached no agreement on voting eligibility in March.

Exchanges among administration, ICC petitioners, union representatives and lawyers sharpened last week - in clashing positions set forth in letters, memoranda and press releases.

The union admonished Mr. Robinson-Lynch for wasting money on legal fees and for stalling hearings in front of the NLRB.

"Shame on Ned Robinson-Lynch, the MVCS executive director, for not respecting the decision made by a majority of his employees in the Island Counseling Center. For months and months, they have tried to work with management to improve their work environment. Frustrated with an unresponsive management, these petitioners made the decision to form a union for the purposes of collective bargaining," the letter from union officials states.

The letter prompted a response from Community Services administration's attorney Richard Perras of Edwards and Angell.

"The Hospital Workers Union is apparently claiming that Martha's Vineyard Community Services is spending legal fees to delay proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board. The union is wrong. I represent MVCS before the NLRB and am doing so on a pro bono basis," Mr. Perras said.

"The union has grossly maligned Ned Robinson-Lynch. The union has made accusations that are completely untrue and unsupported by the facts," Mr. Perras continued, saying that the union had, in fact, been stalling the hearings.

Letters continued to trickle into the newspaper this week, mostly from ICC employees sharing their grievances and articulating the urgency of unionizing.

"It is about being patronized by an administration that does not appear to value the quality, or the quantity, of the work that we do; to value the dedication and the years of training and experience that we bring to this profession," said Dr. Jane Cleare, an ICC petitioner, in a letter to the editors this week.

"The National Association of Social Workers code of ethics states, ‘The social worker should work to improve the employing agency's policies and procedures, and the effectiveness of its services.' In addition, ‘The social worker should advocate changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions and to promote social justice.' In essence, this is what we, as employees of ICC, are attempting to do. I would encourage any client in a similar financially oppressive work environment to do the same. It is unfortunate that the administration at MVCS refuses to back down as the perpetrator of such social injustice," wote Heidi Spruce, an ICC petitioner, in a letter to the editor this week.

After the agreement reached by management and the union during this week's hearings, the fate of a union vote may hinge on employees of the Visiting Nurse Service.

"I'm very sure of how ICC would vote, but I don't know about VNS. We'll just have to see how it goes," said ICC petitioner Amy Lilavois.

"They can decide for themselves what is right for them and their program. I just want it to be an honest process," Ms. Dreeben said.

In the meantime, both Community Services administrators and union representatives vow to inform employees how union status would affect them.

"Between now and the election, the agency intends to present all the facts to our staff. Once our employees have reviewed and considered all the facts, we are confident that they will determine that this union is not best for them or the community we serve," Mr. Robinson-Lynch concluded in the press release.

The ICC petitioners and union representatives will host a public forum April 29 at 5:30 p.m. in the Oak Bluffs School library.

"Public input is very important as to how a community agency works," Mr. Witherell said.