WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — A Delaware judge on Thursday declined Verizon's request to hold two union locals in contempt after striking workers damaged the vehicles of non-union replacement workers on Interstate 95.
But Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster also said he would not tolerate more violence or threatening behavior during the strike by 40,000 Verizon workers in several East Coast states.
Laster also directed the two Communications Workers of America locals based in Wilmington and Newark to pay for repairs to the damaged vehicles, and warned that he might hold the unions in criminal contempt and impose "meaningful" financial penalties if strikers engage in future dangerous or threatening activity.
"If they're not willing to take responsibility, I'm going to reconsider my (contempt) ruling," said Laster. He also imposed new restrictions, including an order that strikers stay at least 30 yards away from any vehicle driven by a nonunion worker on a highway.
Union attorney John Bielski suggested that labor leaders had not sanctioned any questionable activity. But the judge said "I think there's sufficient evidence to view the unions as having a causal role."
Verizon claims striking workers have threatened, intimidated and harassed nonunion employees, interfered with business operations and engaged in vandalism, all in violation of the court order issued after their strike began on April 13.
Bielski said these were isolated incidents and no more than "technical violations" of the court order spelling out permissible strike activities.
But Verizon attorneys pointed to an audio recording on a union message board and hotline advising callers about the arrival of "out-of-state scabs."
"It's time to welcome them to Delaware," the recording says. Verizon attorneys suggested this was a call for intimidation and harassment.
"Welcome does not mean bringing tea and cookies," said Verizon attorney John DiNome.
The judge said he was particularly troubled by what happed on I-95. One contract worker reported that she was blocked from leaving her hotel by picketers, who then chased her in her vehicle, tailgating and ramming into her van after she tried to pull onto the shoulder, and causing an accident with a third vehicle. Sheila Carter said the picketers then surrounded her van, pounding on the windows.
"Yes, they were knocking on her window," Bielski said. "For all we know ... they were asking how she was doing."
Another nonunion worker reported that a 4x4 piece of wood was thrown at his vehicle from a car carrying picketers, damaging his transmission.
The judge said he's not picking sides, and that the court supports the union's legitimate rights to strike and to engage in free speech and assembly.
"But I will not allow people to be threatened or be put in danger of being hurt. That's what crosses the line," he said.
At the same time, Laster said he was reluctant to issue a civil contempt order that Verizon might use for public relations purposes to gain an advantage in the labor dispute.