VSEA staff workers cast vote of 'no confidence' in executive director


The board of trustees for the union that represents Vermont's state employees is considering a motion to remove the association's executive director.

Leadership members of the Vermont State Employees' Association (VSEA) tabled a motion to not renew executive director Steve Howard's contract at a meeting Friday. The board will revisit the motion at a meeting in January.

Howard declined comment.

The fissure comes as tensions between the union and the state are running hot over labor costs. Last month, contract negotiations with the administration halted over a disagreement. Early in the year, while the Legislature was working on the fiscal year 2016 budget, the union was battling a proposal that could have resulted in several hundred layoffs.

The board's action followed a vote of no confidence in Howard's leadership from the union that represents VSEA staff, called Staff Alliance.

According to a letter to the VSEA member leadership, the 16 members of the Staff Alliance "voted overwhelmingly to cast a vote of no confidence" in Howard.

The staff union aired concerns about Howard's leadership skills and questioned a number of "closed management meetings."

"Staff Alliance believe the fundamental lack of trust and professional courtesy between VSEA staff and management is not conducive to withstand the serious challenges on the horizon, much less a healthy workplace," Staff Alliance members wrote in the letter.

The letter to the VSEA board "should be received as an opportunity for a new beginning and a plea for protection from any retaliation that might result from the expression of our collective experiences."

The letter continues that staff members would like to improve relations between workers, VSEA membership and management "so we can continue your vision of unleashing VSEA's true potential."

Reached Monday, Staff Alliance president Adam Norton declined to speak about the issue.

"The event you reference is considered 'internal union business' and all parties are working together to resolve issues and concerns," VSEA communications chief Doug Gibson wrote in an email earlier this week.

Howard responded to the Staff Alliance letter in an email to the board Sunday. He wrote that he had not seen the Staff Alliance letter in advance, and was not allowed to hear the presentation Norton made to the board.

According to Howard's email, the closed meetings are a weekly gathering of management staff to informally discuss issues facing the union. Howard wrote that he has been implementing managerial changes with the goal of improving accountability.

"VSEA staff are seeing a transition to a more accountable organization," Howard wrote. "While that transition may be difficult or even threatening to some, it is a necessary change."

Annie Accettella, a former legislative specialist with the VSEA, said she was "a little surprised and disheartened" by the letter from Staff Alliance to the board.

"I think Staff Alliance is not really interested in resolving their conflicts," Accettella said. "I can only assume this is a tactic being used to publicly shame Steve."

Friday's board meeting coincided with Organizing Director Kristin Warner's last day on the job. Warner, who is not a member of Staff Alliance, also sent a letter to VSEA leadership expressing frustration with leadership.

"There is no way that members can build a powerful, effective and engaged membership when comfort and personal reputation trumps direct action and member voices," Warner wrote.

Warner could not be reached for comment for this article.

It's not the first time the VSEA's executive director position has been at the center of controversy. Howard began his tenure in May 2014, after Mark Mitchell left the job.

Almost one year before that, Mitchell was fired after two union attorneys accused him of breaking labor laws. Mitchell was reinstated shortly thereafter, following an investigation that turned up no wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, a labor dispute between VSEA management and Staff Alliance escalated and court action was threatened.

Many of the members of the board of trustees are new to their posts, including VSEA President Dave Bellini, an employee of the Department of Corrections, who was elected in September. Bellini did not return calls for comment.


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