LISBON - The Community Action Agency has filed a complaint alleging that a union member threatened to go public with information about the organization unless a board member met with him over stalled labor negotiations.
The allegation was contained in an unfair labor practice complaint filed Friday by the CAA against the United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the Community Action Rural Transit System (CARTS), Columbiana County's public transportation system.
The 41 drivers, dispatchers, mechanics and office staff are scheduled to strike at 9 p.m. Wednesday after the parties were unable to reach an agreement on a new three-year contract. The CAA board, which operates CARTS using federal and state funds, has voted to begin hiring replacements.
The unfair labor practice complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleges a member of the union's negotiating team repeatedly approached a CAA board member to discuss contract talks outside the presence of their attorney and designated bargaining representative.
On another occasion the same union member also "threatened" the same CAA board member that he would "raise issues supposedly damaging to the CAA's reputation in the community if the board member did not agree to meet with him."
The CAA alleges that the union member raised the same issues during a later bargaining session, where he "accused the CAA of fraudulently administering one of its largest transportation contracts."
The union member identified as allegedly committing these violations is Dave Cranmer, a former county commissioner who now works as a CARTS driver. He denied making any such threats or trying to coerce a board member he knows to intervene in negotiations.
Cranmer said he met the board member at a social function and briefly mentioned he thought they might be heading toward a strike. As for the phone conversation with the same board member, Cranmer said the purpose was to question the CAA's operation of a particular program.
In regard to the negotiating session and the fraud allegations, Cranmer said he expressed some concerns, "but I won't get into particulars until the hearing" before the National Labor Relations Board.
Cranmer said CAA officials may have misinterpreted his trademark bluntness. "That's always been my problem. If it's bad of me to try and get at the truth, so be it," he said.
The stalemate between the parties is over wages, with the CAA offering a $1 per hour pay raise over three years, while the union is seeking $1.50. CAA Executive Director Carol Bretz has said the CAA cannot afford a pay raise of that size, given its finances and rising operating costs.
The starting wage for new CARTS drivers is $8.90 an hour, $9.50 for dispatchers and $10.50 for Head Start drivers, who are part of CARTS. Cranmer pointed out the top wage is $13.62 an hour for a driver who has been there 26 years.
"These folks are not asking for the sun, moon and stars. They're just asking for a fair wage," he said.
Cranmer questioned the CAA's figures, noting the last proposal the agency submitted included 16 employees who are no longer with CARTS, as well as some of their replacements, thereby falsely inflating how much the proposed raises would cost.
United Steelworkers representative Joseph Holcomb pointed out the CAA, in hiring a security firm and replacement workers, will spend far in excess of what the raises would have cost, adding that security guards being posted at the CAA offices and CARTS garage will likely be paid $20 an hour.
"I'd like to know why they think it's cheaper to fight us than to sit down and bargain," he said.
Meanwhile, Holcomb said they are preparing to file their own unfair labor practice complaint against the CAA alleging they were also guilty of the provision prohibiting direct dealings by non-designated representatives. He said another violation occurred because the CAA's last pay offer is worse than a previous one.
Holcomb said the CAA, and not the workers, stand to lose the most because of the bad publicity and ill will a strike will engender. "I know the people who ride are very upset with Carol Bretz and the CAA board," he said.
Cranmer said CARTS drivers form a special bond with their customers, many of whom are elderly or handicapped and in wheelchairs, requiring the driver's assistance to get in and out of the mini-bus or van.
"We're not driving Miss Daisy here. We just don't pull up to the curb and pick up or drop someone off and go," he said.
Holcomb convened a meeting of the union members last night in Lisbon to update them on what was going on, to issue strike signs and make plans to picket the CAA offices and CARTS.
"We may even picket at the director's home and the board members'," he added.