Reach out and bump someone 

It was no surprise—the protracted death watch has been positively ghoulish—when 216 Touch America employees were e-mailed their walking papers by CEO Bob Gannon on Wednesday, June 18. But for those employees and their families—in Butte, in Missoula, in Denver, in Billings and Bozeman and Helena—you can bet it hurt anyway. It hurts the 162 employees who remain, 20 of them in Missoula; they’ve since been given their two-month notice.

Gannon must feel his employees’ pain as well, but e-mail’s no way to communicate empathy, and Gannon’s published dismissal read like boilerplate, with the unexpected exception of one unfamiliar phrase containing one funny word.

“This is to inform you that we are eliminating your position effective immediately. We expect the termination of your employment to be permanent and no bumping rights exist.”

Bumping rights?

What, we wondered, were bumping rights? And how had they gone extinct?

Since we were dealing with ostensible rights, presumably related to people who work, we called Missoula’s Union Club and spoke with Colleen Barclay, who in addition to being a damn fine bartender, is also a card-carrying rank-and-file union member of Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees, H.E.R.E., Local 427.

What does it mean, we asked her.

“That’s a really odd way of putting it,” Barclay replied.

“That would mean that they were laying some people off that are senior people, and that they don’t have rights over another position where somebody may not have seniority. Their seniority doesn’t matter, because their position is terminated. Does that make any sense?”

It might, if born-and-soon-to-be-buried-in-Butte Touch America were a union shop, which—kind of obviously, but sort of surprisingly—it isn’t.

Touch America spokeswoman Linda McGillen can remember maybe four or five unionized field technicians some time back, but she’s pretty sure they didn’t work in Butte, and it’s not like they signaled a trend.

“The entire company was never a union company.”

So, what bumping rights?

“Well, it’s just a term that you often use in these cases, where someone may have been terminated who has been here for six years, and the person sitting next to them, doing essentially the same job, has been there for four years. So the person with six years can’t bump the person with four years. It’s really more of a labor kind of term.”

But there is no labor union?

“I think that it was just because of the situation. Our legal advisors suggested that we needed to make that clear.”

One last question: Can McGillen give us any information regarding the seniority of the employees who were laid off versus the seniority of those who were not?

“I can’t. Honestly, I can tell you that it probably wouldn’t have had any impact anyway.”

We still didn’t quite understand, but the expression in McGillen’s voice made us feel bad for harassing her with trivia while she prepared, inevitably, to lose her job too. So we thanked her for her time and let her go.

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