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First district’s labor practices faulted by state legislators

NORWALK – As contract negotiations proceed with its new union bargaining units, the First Taxing District is being criticized by Norwalk’s five Democratic state legislators for its labor practices.

In a letter dated March 21 to the district’s commissioners, the group says district employees “continue to work in fear of retaliation and termination.”

It says the process for district employees to unionize was “highly contentious,” and claims a complaint filed by the general manager of the district’s Water Department on the vote to unionize “could drag on for years” and result in expensive legal bills that the ratepayers of the First Taxing District would have to pay.

The letter is signed by state Sen. Bob Duff (25th Dist.) and state Representatives Kadeem Roberts (137th Dist.), Travis Simms (140th Dist.), Lucy Dathan (142nd Dist.), and Dominique Johnson (143rd Dist.).

On Feb. 28, two bargaining units of Local 420 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were certified by the state Department of Labor to begin representing supervisory and non-supervisory employees of the district’s Water Department.

Management of the First Water Dept. is overseen by the three commissioners of Norwalk’s First Taxing District, which is an independent entity from the city’s municipal government. It is one of two water suppliers to the city.

Juliet Manalan, communications director of the state Labor Dept., said the complaint referred to by the legislators was filed against the IBEW by the district for alleged campaigning violations and “is still in the early investigatory stages.”

Asked for details about the complaint, Elsa Peterson Obuchowski, chair of the First District’s Board of Commissioners, said in a written statement Wednesday:

“Prior to last month’s union election, several District employees came forward with allegations that their supervisors were trying to pressure them into supporting the Union. Such coercion and interference constituted a clear violation of Connecticut law, and threatened to deny employees their right to a free and fair election. As such, the District had little choice but to file a complaint with the appropriate state agency, which we did on February 15, the day before the election. In doing so, the District did not attempt to delay or postpone the collective bargaining election; rather, the District is determined to hold accountable those rogue individuals who intimidated their co-workers and attempted to undermine the collective bargaining process.

“We explicitly did not seek to contest the election, despite having that option. We simply wanted our employees to understand that we are committed to protecting their right to not be intimidated at work, and that there are other remedies available beside contesting the election. Again, it’s about holding the bad actors accountable, not punishing our employees.”

NancyOnNorwalk was unable to contact anyone at the union local Wednesday afternoon to obtain a response to the allegations of coercion and interference.

In their letter to the District’s commissioners, the legislators say employees were subject to “captive audience meetings,” illegal under Connecticut law.

They also state that the process of gaining union representation resulted in an employee being fired and another being placed on indefinite leave of absence, with “both being led out by the police.”

This has left the District’s water treatment plant in New Canaan without a full-time, licensed operator, “which is required to run the plant,” they claim.

On Wednesday, Obuchoski released the reply she and her fellow commissioners, Thomas J. Cullen and Jalin T. Sead Sr., sent to the legislators March 26, which says that, during the union petition and election process, “the District made every effort to maintain a fact-based, neutral stance and to follow all laws and regulations governing that process.”

The reply says the District offered workers the opportunity to voluntarily attend informational meetings so that they would be “empowered with the knowledge to understand what they are voting on” in the union election.

The commissioners say they “can attest that no personnel disciplinary actions have been taken or will be taken because of an employee’s preference or vote to unionize. Similarly, we have not and would not take any action against an employee because they voiced a concern about any occupational health or safety issue.”

As for required operating personnel, the water treatment plant has, and has at all times had, a properly licensed operator, the reply says.

In reference to the legislators’ concern about legal fees, the commissioners reply that they were chosen by the electorate as fiduciaries who do not, and would not, choose to incur legal fees – or any fees – for unnecessary reasons.

The reply concludes with the commissioners inviting the legislators with meet them “so that this dialogue can continue.”

Besides contending with labor negotiations, the District is also engaged with the state Dept. of Labor in remediating violations of Connecticut’s Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The violations, which resulted in penalties amounting to a little over $2,000, primarily concern the Water Department’s failure to train and equip its employees to handle hazardous materials, controls and machinery.

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