~ Company says it’s ‘negotiating in good faith’ ~
PHILIPSBURG–A group of just over 20 Little Switzerland workers from the establishment’s Front Street and Port St. Maarten locations engaged in protest action for about two hours on Monday to send a strong message to management that they would like their Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) to be finalised and signed post haste. Failure of management to take quick action in finalising the CLA will result in workers possibly continuing their action indefinitely, Workers Institute for Organised Labour (WIFOL) President Theophilus Thompson said on Monday.
Little Switzerland’s Vice President of Human Resources Mike Cooney told The Daily Herald from St. Thomas USVI where he is based, that while the company is negotiating in good faith, a resolution to finalising the CLA and addressing the concerns of workers is dependent on both the union and management negotiating in good faith.
The protest action began around 8:30am on Monday and wrapped up around 10:30am at which time the workers returned to their posts. The placard-bearing workers stood outside Little Switzerland’s Front Street store with a representative of their union to draw attention to their concerns. Some of the placards read: “Enough is Enough,” “No more exploitation,” “It’s long overdue, stop intimidate us and appreciate us,” and “Equal rights.”
At the heart of the workers concerns is the lengthy time that management is taking to finalise the CLA, Thompson said. He said parties have been engaged in talks for a new CLA for some three years now and it has not yet been finalised. The company went under new ownership about three years ago, around the same time that the union won a referendum to represent the workers. CLA talks have been going on since then.
According to Thompson the CLA talks are now being mediated by mediator Rafael Boasman and have been at a standstill for the past month as management has yet to respond to some points in the CLA. The company denies this and says there are also points that the union is yet to respond to.
Thompson accused the new management of changing “a lot of things” that were beneficial to the workers without consulting with them. As a result of these changes, the workers’ income and benefits have decreased.
“You can make changes, but it has to be in consultation with the employees because the employees are accustomed to a certain standard of living and you can’t make changes that would decrease this and at the same time bring in new employees and paying them a higher basic salary plus commission. Everyone is involved in the same commission structure, but everyone does not have the same basic salary… This discrimination has to stop,” Thompson contended.
Another area of concern has to do with the wages of employees, which Thompson said has to be properly structured. On the uniform issue, Thompson said in the past the company supplied uniforms to its employees, however, now workers have to purchase their own uniforms and are not reimbursed for this by their employer. Thompson said the protest action was intended to send a message to Little Switzerland owners and to the mediator that the CLA needs to be signed.
It should be noted that after the protest action, Thompson met with a recently appointed locally based manager at the establishment, who informed him Cooney will get in touch with him later in the day.
In the meantime Cooney denied that management is dragging its feet in the negotiations. “After our last meeting at the mediator’s office, it was clearly decided that the Mediator’s office would set a time for an additional meeting to discuss items that were pended by the union and items pended by management. Everything pending wasn’t completely management’s responsibility to respond to and the union never responded to their pended items,” Cooney said. “Resolving these pended items [will – Ed.] take further negotiation between both parties. It was also clear to management and something the union insisted upon, was that only the mediator’s office can set meetings, so we were waiting for the mediator’s office to set a meeting date.”
Cooney said on November 13, management reached out to the mediator’s office asking for next steps and a meeting date, but a date hasn’t been set. “We are not dragging our feet. We had made good headway during mediation and felt we could negotiate the pended items, but instead of reaching out to the mediator’s office like management did, the union decided to strike. We have been negotiating in good faith.”
The Little Switzerland official said there are several items that are pending and need further negotiation. “With the assistance of the Mediator’s office, we had made good headway into several pended items during mediation.”
Regarding the workers concerns that management is not reimbursing them for the funds spent to purchase company uniforms, Cooney said the union made the issue of uniforms as part of the CLA. “They are one of the items under negotiation and part of the CLA, so it will be determined once we get a final agreement.”
Asked what management will do to resolve the concerns of employees and finalise the CLA as the workers plan to continue their protest if the situation remains unchanged, he said: “A resolution is dependent on both the union and management negotiating in good faith. We were making good progress in mediation and have asked the mediator to continue this process. I would suggest that the union return to mediation and cease the protests until a resolution is reached.”