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Internal Conflict In Vermont State Employees Association Could Go To Court

Steve Howard and Peter Shumlin
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
VSEA executive director Steve Howard , shown in this file photo, says he hopes an internal labor conflict will be resolved soon.

The Vermont State Employees Association is accustomed to defending aggrieved government workers against unfair labor practices. But the union has recently become mired in a labor dispute with its own staff, and the conflict has raised tensions between staff and management at the union's headquarters in Montpelier.

The Vermont State Employees Association represents about 6,000 state workers. But the 18 staff members at the VSEA have a union of their own, called Staff Alliance. And it's suddenly at odds with the management team that runs the state workers' union.

"It's a normal disagreement between management and staff and we hope it can be resolved. We're eager to resolve it as soon as we can," says Steve Howard, executive director of the VSEA and head of the eight-person management team that oversees the VSEA staff.

While Howard may be eager to come to a resolution, the case seems more likely headed for court.

Howard says the remedies granted to a VSEA staffer in a recent grievance decision far exceed the scope of management's contract with Staff Alliance. He says the precedent-setting ruling has the potential to inflict harm on all VSEA members.

"So you're exposing the members of the VSEA to possibly thousands of dollars of expense that was never contemplated in the contract that we negotiated with them," Howard says.

"You're exposing the members of the VSEA to possibly thousands of dollars of expense that was never contemplated in the contract that we negotiated with them." - Steve Howard, executive director of the VSEA

Howard sent a memo to state employees on Tuesday, informing them that management has asked a neutral arbitrator to review the decision, made by VSEA Board President Shelley Martin. Howard's attempt to challenge Martin's decision has drawn a sharp rebuke from the VSEA staff.

Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal Goswami reported the story first on Wednesday afternoon.

"I think it's pretty clear contractually and based on VSEA's bylaws that the president is the final authority as far as management is concerned, and it seems not only to violate the letter of our contract but also the principle of union democracy," says Adam Norton, strategic analyst at VSEA, and the president of the Staff Alliance.

Norton says management's decision to seek arbitration is without precedent, and he says it should instead honor the judgment of the VSEA board president that made the decision.

Norton says he doubts that management's concerns are based on union finances.

"My view is if this were actually about money it would already have been resolved," Norton says. "It's more likely to be a fundamental labor management dispute which is power more than money."

Norton says that if management seeks outside arbitration, then Staff Alliance with ask a superior court judge to block the process. Neither side would discuss the specifics of the case that spawned the dispute.

Howard says that Martin was acting as an "independent hearing officer," and not as an agent of the VSEA, when she issued the decision on the grievance. He says management has made several offers to resolve the dispute, all of which have been rejected by the Staff Alliance and the grievant. In the memo to state employees, he called the pending litigation "both unfortunate and avoidable."

Management and staff work alongside each other at the VSEA's modest headquarters on State Street in Montpelier. Norton says the dispute has made things "a little awkward" at work. But both he and Howard say staff and management continue working to advance the cause of state employees.

"For folks who are involved in labor, this is a pretty normal thing. It's not something that creates a lot of tension," Howard says.

The VSEA is in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with the Shumlin administration.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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