Union warns town after candidate meets workers

HILLSDALE–Just-unionized Hillsdale highway workers recently found themselves in the middle of a political fracas, with the Teamsters Union rushing to their defense.

The situation arose following a telephone call the morning of July 5 from resident and town supervisor hopeful Robina Ward to Highway Superintendent Richard Briggs. Ms. Ward asked where the highway crew was working at that time. Mr. Briggs told her, and she appeared at the job site at 10 a.m. bringing with her, Mr. Briggs said at a subsequent Town Board meeting, “a piece of paper with a list of bullet points.”

One of the workers spoken to by Ms. Ward July 5 was Joe Regina, acting shop steward for the road crew. After the encounter he called Teamsters Local 274 Business Agent Tom Quackenbush and discussed the situation.

In a later email to Mr. Quackenbush with copies to Town Supervisor Art Baer and Mr. Briggs, Mr. Regina said that Mr. Briggs “had earlier asked the unit if we would sign a letter stating that we went union for a variety of issues, not necessarily for protection from Richard himself.”

Last August an investigator with Columbia County Sheriff’s Office charged Mr. Briggs with second degree harassment, a violation, in connection with a complaint by a worker who is no longer with the Highway Department. The charge, which was reviewed by the Greene County District Attorney’s Office, was dismissed in February.

Mr. Regina also said that “Robina Ward showed up at the job site, papers in hand, requesting that we sign documents then and there.”

Ms. Ward remembers it differently, saying in a phone interview last week that her visit to the crew was spurred by an article in another newspaper that she believes inaccurately characterized the reasons why the workers voted to join a union. She said the workers supported Highway Superintendent Briggs and had not unionized to protect themselves from him. She went to see the employees to ask them whether they would be willing to sign a letter in support of Mr. Briggs, but she said she had no such letter with her when she went to see the crew.

After the call from Mr. Regina of the highway crew, the Teamster business agent, Mr. Quackenbush, fired off an e-mail to Mr. Briggs and to Mr. Baer, protesting Ms. Ward’s visit to the workers, writing: “If I find out that one of you have coerced my unit or any member of my unit to sign such a document, I will be filing charges with the Public Employment Relations Board each and every time … and the Town will be faced with costs that will cripple your taxpayers.”

Mr. Baer called a special Town Board meeting the evening of Friday, July 8. This brought another threat, this one from Mr. Briggs, warning that “if the board chooses to discuss the allegations [against me] that have been sealed, I will contact counsel and pursue legal action against the board.”

There was no such discussion. After a lengthy review of the events and correspondence leading up to the meeting, the board agreed that Ms. Ward’s visit constituted an unfair labor practice. Town Attorney Nelson R. Alford was directed to draft a letter to Ms. Ward asking her to cease and desist, for review at the next regular board meeting, which was scheduled for Tuesday, July 19.

Ms. Ward said she did not know about the July 8 special meeting in advance and was not asked to attend. She defended her actions, saying that she is a resident of Hillsdale, not the road crew’s employer. The Town Board is the workers’ employer, she said, and board has “no jurisdiction, no enabling law” to make a determination that she committed unfair labor practices. She said she is a citizen and has the right of free speech.

Ms. Ward also said she had spoken with Mr. Quackenbush after her visit to the work site and she said he told her he had “no issue” with her visit.

She dismissed the Town Board’s action is “politically motivated.”  She said she respects the wishes of the union and did not want to put the crew in the middle of a political tangle.

Toward the end of the July 8 meeting, Councilman Peter Cipkowski and resident Fred Laing both raised the question of making the highway superintendent position appointive rather than elective, with Mr. Laing suggesting that the position might be combined with the sewer and parks into a public works department.

Mr. Alford said the move would require a ballot proposition, and Councilman Carmen Barbato asked him to look into the process.

Mr. Briggs and Ms. Ward had campaigned in a joint mailing for Hillsdale GOP nominations for the positions of highway superintendent and supervisor, respectively. On July 9, Hillsdale Republicans picked their candidates for the 2011 election. Mr. Baer bested Ms. Ward, 36 votes to 15. Ms. Ward, a Democrat, has the Conservative and Independence Party endorsements. Hillsdale Democrats had not yet caucused when the GOP named its choices.

At the Republican Caucus Mr. Briggs, a Democrat, lost to second-generation highway worker Ed Brabender.

Also selected by Republicans at the July 9 caucus were incumbents Carmen Barbato and August Sena for councilman 4 years; incumbent Jill Sims-Elster for councilman 2 years; incumbent Juliette Crill and Ira Halfond for town justice; and Ruth Dodds for town clerk.

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