Yampa Valley Electric Assoc-iation employees voted 21-17 for an open shop, giving employees a choice whether to belong to the union and guaranteeing that nine employees will keep their jobs.
For the past few months, the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 111 has waged a bitter battle against Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA) over whether employees had the right to refuse to pay their union membership dues.
Nine employees refused and the union demanded their termination. The union took its case to the state and national labor boards and even filed lawsuit in district court.
"I was never worried about being terminated," said Burt Clements, a vocal opponent of the union. "The threats were there, but [the union] didn't have the law behind it."
YVEA filed countercharges saying that the union intimidated employees.
Both suits have been dropped in the wake of the open shop vote. A majority of employees showed they didn't want to be forced to belong to the union.
"We only needed 25 percent to vote in favor and we got more than 60 percent," Clements said. "People are not welcoming the union here. They're tired of their antics and their strongarm tactics."
Employees speculate that the union's attempt to have nine disgruntled employees fired was a political move to stop a successful open shop vote.
"I think [the union] was looking for a list of people they could strike off a vote that was coming up for open shop," YVEA employee Larry Brown said. "It didn't work for them."
Brown was one of the nine employees facing termination.
After a petition was filed with the Colorado State Labor Board requesting an open shop vote, the union filed a grievance with the board asking it to throw the petition out because some of the signatures on it were from employees who had stopped paying union dues and should have been fired.
The union also claimed the petition should be thrown out because "the atmosphere of restraint and coercion created by [YVEA], who commits an unfair labor practice and encourages employees to do the same, destroys the laboratory conditions necessary to permit employees to cast their ballots freely and without restraint or coercion."
Several employees emphatically denied they felt any coercion from YVEA. They said they made the decision to withdraw from the union on their own.
The state found against the union.
Before the open shop vote, all employees were required to be members of the union. A clause in the November 1998 contract allowed employees to refuse to be members of the unions. Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA) General Manager Larry Covillo estimated that a full one-third of the union membership withdrew after the contract was approved.
The labor dispute centered on whether employees who chose not to be represented by the union were still required to pay dues.
A panel of arbitrators found employees were legally, ethically and morally obligated to pay dues, but that the union had no way to force them to do so. It's that decision union officials protested in district court and before two different labor boards. Union officials argued that the threat of termination was the only way it could enforce the payment of dues.
That argument becomes moot in the wake of the open shop vote. Both YVEA and the union dropped their cases, filed in Federal District Court, before the first hearing had even been held.
"With no backing from the National Labor Relations Board and an arbitrator's decision against them, I guess they thought they didn't have much of a case," Covillo said.
Union officials were unavailable for comment.
The conflict is not over yet.
"The dispute is over, but the battle wages on," Covillo said.
The union is still the certified bargaining unit for YVEA, representing all employees even those who choose not to be members but that may not be the case for long.
The next step employees will take will be to vote for decertification. If decertified, YVEA will have no union representation whatsoever.
"Even with an open shop, the union still represents all union-class employees. That's just about everyone below management," Clements said.
A simple majority is needed to decertify. Clements said he expects the decertification vote to occur within the next 30 days.
Employees held a vote in February to decertify the union and lost by two votes. There are no assurances that this vote will be more successful.
"It could go either way," he said. "We have about five temporary employees I'm not sure about."
The National Labor Relations Board found that the union was harassing or intimidating employees for exercising their rights. What punishment will come from that decision is yet to be seen, Covillo said.
YVEA is in the midst of contract negotiations with the union. The current contract expired November 1999. According to Covillo, YVEA has been operating under the existing contract since its expiration. Further negotiations have been cancelled until a union decertification vote is held.