Judge gags CWA at US West/Qwest

A U.S. District Court judge in Colorado has issued a permanent restraining order against Communications Workers of America (CWA), forbidding the union from engaging in any type of job action against US West Communications (now Qwest Communications, which recently acquired the telephone company).

The injunction by Judge John L. Kane Jr. "absolutely prohibits" the union or its members from striking, picketing, boycotting, work slowdowns, handbilling, wearing armbands, buttons or any protest activities concerning labor issues or disputes that might put the company in a bad light, for the remainder of its union contract.

All US West bargaining unit employees must follow a "work now, grieve later" principle. In other words, they must follow a manager's orders no matter how egregious - and file a grievance later. The injunction does not prohibit generic expressions of union support and solidarity, such as basic union hats, buttons or T-shirts.

The restraining order encompasses all CWA local unions and bargaining unit members at Qwest and it remains in effect until the current contract expires Aug. 17, 2001. Failure to comply with the order could result in fines or other penalties imposed by the court.

"I was absolutely outraged" by the judge's ruling ... "I still am outraged," said Madelyn Elder, president of Portland-based CWA Local 7901. "It's a bad precedent for the entire labor movement, not just CWA. There could be a lot of ramifications from this."

Elder said this year alone her union has filed 268 grievances - many of them since Qwest acquired US West. "We don't know a lot about Qwest, but in the short time they've been here they've changed a lot of stuff," Elder said.

Grievances have been piling up for so long that some union members are suing their locals for non-representation, when in fact, it is the company that is stalling the system, Elder said.

The court injunction stems from the suspension of two shop stewards at a US West facility in Denver more than a year ago. Workers there were upset because management wasn't posting advance work schedules as called for in the collective bargaining agreement.

According to Elder, people would show up for work only to be told they weren't scheduled to work that day, while others who thought they had the day off, were called at home asking why they weren't at work.

"It should have been a simple enough problem to solve," Elder told the Northwest Labor Press. But the problem wasn't corrected and the Denver local was forced to file a grievance.

Some of the employees involved in that grievance later held a pre-work meeting to discuss it with their shop stewards. That meeting apparently ran long, causing some of the employees to be late for work. US West then suspended the two shop stewards for conducting union business on company time and for "work stoppage," Elder said.

Word of the suspensions spread fast, and the following day workers at the garage - and throughout the CWA district, including Portland - wore black armbands in a show of support for the suspended union members. US West took CWA to court and won the injunction, claiming the armbands and protests violated the contract's grievance and arbitration procedure.

CWA is appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, claiming the ruling is in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

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