Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reinstatement of teacher who required autistic student to wear sign not contrary to public policy

So held the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 v. Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 Education Association.

The dispute arose from the dismissal of a life skills special education teacher. Several days after a group of students went on a field trip to a petting zoo, the teacher was informed that one of his students, an autistic student with special needs, had repeatedly lured a goat with food and then hit it on the nose.  In an effort to impress upon the student the inappropriateness of his behavior, the teacher hung a sign around the student's neck which read "I abuse animals." The teacher texted a photo of the student with the sign to an associate teacher who had brought the incident to his attention. The student became upset, and the associate teacher and another staff member calmed him and altered the sign to read "I love animals." When the student was returned to the teacher's classroom he created a second sign reading "I abuse animals" and hung it on the student's back. The incident was reported to the school's principal and an investigation was conducted. The teacher was ultimately dismissed for this incident as well as other incidents occurring during previous years. The teachers union filed a grievance and arbitrated the dismissal.

Arbitrator Rochelle Kaplan sustained the grievance in part, converting the dismissal into a 53 day suspension, and conditioning grievant's reinstatement on participation in an improvement plan created by the Employer. The Arbitrator concluded:

The evidence showed that placing the sign on [Student] was not a proper educational technique to use, however, this incident is not the same as a teacher using drugs, accessing porn on a school website or sexually or physically abusing students. There was no evidence to suggest that placing a sign on [Student] violated a morality norm in an educational setting or that it offended the morals of the community.
* * *
[Employer] believes in `positive behavior supports' and prohibits `aversive techniques.' The Grievant was aware of the principle of `positive behavior supports.' However, what those concepts mean in practical terms and implementation appear to be subjective. Thus, in order for Grievant to have willfully violated these policies, there had to be some showing that the Grievant was trained on the principles and was aware that the techniques he was using were in clear derogation of the directives. Thus, [Employer] failed to prove that the Grievant willfully violated the school's directives.
* * * 
The Arbitrator concludes that the Grievant's conduct did not constitute immorality, cruelty, persistent negligence, willful violation of [Employer's] directive, or willful neglect of duties. Thus the dismissal on those grounds cannot stand.

The Arbitrator also concluded that the School District had not established that grievant had used excessive force when dealing with students. 

The School District sought to set aside the award as in excess of the Arbitrator's authority and in violation of public policy. The trial court rejected this effort, and the Commonwealth Court has now affirmed. 

The Court found the Arbitrator's decision was rationally derived from the cba and was within the authority of the Arbitrator. Turning to the public policy issue, the Court determined: 

...under the circumstances presented to Arbitrator, we discern no error in a determination that any public policy regarding aversive techniques was not so well-defined and ascertainable by reference to the laws and legal precedents as to qualify for the narrow exception to the essence test.
In light of the conditions imposed by Arbitrator, which address Employer's concerns in this case, Arbitrator's award does not pose an unacceptable risk to any well-defined or dominant school law or policy.... Accordingly, we reject Employer's contention that the trial court erred in failing to determine Arbitrator's award violates the public policy exception.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

NLRB General Counsel issues Guideline Memo on deferral to arbitration

In its decision in Babcock & Wilcox Construction Co. the NLRB revisited the issue of deferral of unfair labor practice charges to arbitration. In that case it announced a new policy, setting forth standards for when deferral would be appropriate.

In Memorandum GC 15-02 General Counsel Richard Griffin has issued guidelines to the Board's Regional Offices on handling this issue.

The memo summarizes the standards to be followed in deciding whether deferral is appropriate in cases alleging violation of Sections 8(a)1 or (3) of the Act (typically interference or discrimination because of an employee's union or other protected concerted activity).The GC notes that under the new test the applicable cba must explicitly authorize the arbitrator to decide the statutory issue before deferral is appropriate. This authorization can take the form of either language in the cba or through the parties' separate agreement. Given that arbitration is a consensual process, the GC notes that under the Babcock decision:

... a party will retain the option of adjudicating a statutory claim before the Board in the event the arbitrator denies the grievance where the collective-bargaining agreement is silent as to the statutory right and the party refused to authorize arbitration of the claim in the particular case. 

The memo also notes that the Babcock standard now requires that the arbitrator have been presented with and must have "actually considered" the statutory issue to warrant deferral. This is contrary to the previous test which required only that the arbitrator "in some fashion" have considered the facts relevant to both the statutory and contractual claim. Under the new test:

In order to show that the arbitrator actually considered the statutory issue, the Board will require that the arbitrator “identified that issue and at least generally explained why . . . the facts presented either do or do not support the unfair labor practice allegation.”

Upholding a dismissal under a just cause analysis will not, standing alone, be a basis for deferral.

Finally, the arbitrator's award must be "reasonably permitted" under Board law. This is in contrast to the previous test of whether the award was "clearly repugnant" to the Act or was "palpably wrong." While the arbitrator need not rule exactly as the Board might, the award must reach a result a "decision maker reasonably applying the Act could reach."

The memo also addresses the issue of deferral to grievance settlement agreements and notes the timeline for implementing the new standards. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

3M succesfully terminated a past practice but contract language supported grievance

The Steelworkers union represents a unit of production employees at 3M's Cottage Grove, MN facility. The facility is fueled by natural gas and, on January 5th, 2014, 3M was notified by the utility company that because of the severe cold it was curtailing their use of gas. As a result, certain gas-dependent production lines were shut down and, because of the resulting loss of work, the affected employees were temporarily laid off. This gas curtailment continued until the afternoon of January 7th. This was the first time in at least ten years that the gas supply to the facility had been curtailed. Because of continued cold weather gas supply was again curtailed from January 25th through January 29th. Once again, certain employees were temporarily laid off as a result of loss of work caused by the curtailment. The Steelworkers filed grievances claiming in both instances that 3M had breached its cba by laying off employees out of seniority order.

In support of the grievances the Union claimed that the Company had breached an established past practice of providing employees with a 40 hour work week guarantee. It also relied on language in the cba providing that "The principle of Plant Seniority shall be applied in cases of layoff, recall, promotion, demotion, reduction and transfer of employees ...." 3M maintained that even if a past practice had existed it was effectively terminated in the last round of negotiations It also pointed to language in the cba providing that employees reporting for work without prior notice that work was not available would be provided with a minimum of four hours pay "except in cases beyond the control of the Company" as evidence that the layoff language did not apply in this situation.

Arbitrator Mario Bognanno rejected the Union's claim of breach of a binding past practice. He found that 3M had notified the Union during negotiations that it was repudiating certain practices, including "Granting employees work when work is not available." He noted:

It is firmly established in labor law, labor arbitration and industrial relations that an enforceable past practice may not be changed during the term of a CBA, without mutual assent. This is the rule, whether the term of employment is implied (i.e., an enforceable past practice) or expressly stated in CBA language. However, absent mutual assent, implied and expressed terms of employment may be changed during the negotiations of a successor agreement. In the present case, 3M repudiated the practice in question (i.e., it withdrew “mutuality”), during negotiations of the current CBA. At that point, for the practice to have continued, the Union, through negotiations, would had to have the terms of the practice explicitly incorporated into the CBA or to have persuaded the Company to objectively retract its expression of repudiation. The record evidence is that the Parties neither incorporated the referenced practice into the current CBA nor did 3M recant. (Un. Ex. 6) For these reasons, the undersigned rejects the Union’s claim that 3M violated an enforceable past practice when it laid off the Grievants in January 2014.

The Arbitrator then turned to an analysis of the impact of the express language of the cba, ultimately reaching different decisions on the two layoffs. With regard to the first, the Arbitrator concluded:

 Record evidence supports the conclusion that the actual curtailment of gas on January 5th and the resulting need to close down production lines was unprecedented, or nearly so, even though Minnesota’s freezing cold January weather is anything but unprecedented. Thus, even though the gas curtailment in question was a possibility, at least to Mr. Rogers, it is properly and sensibly characterized as a condition that 3M could not have reasonably expected. ...
[A]s the Union accurately pointed out, the CBA does not expressly allow management to disregard Article 8, §8.01 and §8.07’s seniority rules. However, as the Company accurately observed, arbitrators often hold that layoffs may be exempted from the seniority rule when unusual, unexpected, unplanned, even emergency, circumstances dictate same. Mr. Wakefield’s decision to have immediately shut down the FATT production lines at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 5th was a necessity.
The first of 3M’s two (2) January 2014 layoff events was an unforeseen emergency that required 3M to immediately shutdown the FATT production lines unfettered by the seniority rule and its time-consuming procedure. Under these circumstances, to penalize 3M would be unjust and wholly inequitable. Thus, under said circumstances, the undersigned concludes, to penalize 3M would be to impose a remedy that the Parties never intended under Article 8. For these reasons, Grievance #2014-14 is denied.

With regard to the second shutdown, however, Arbitrator Bognanno concluded that the Company was now on notice that a shutdown was a possibility, and the Union's grievance made it clear that the Union would be seeking to enforce the seniority provisions of the cba. He sustained the grievances regarding the second layoff, noting:

... it cannot be concluded that on January 26th 3M was confronted by an unforeseen emergency situation. Such an event either was or should have been reasonably anticipated. The record evidence does not credibly explain why 3M did not, as a contingency matter, execute Article 8’s bidding/bumping process among employees working in production operations that most likely would be affected by a gas curtailment. At a minimum, it should have done so during the week of January 19th.In effect, in a contract-compliant way, 3M should have pre-determined who to layoff in the event MERC again cut off its supply of gas. Under the circumstances that prevailed on January 26th, Article 8’s seniority rights would have no meaning whatsoever unless, facing layoff, the affected senior employees were given the opportunity to bid jobs held by junior employees, jobs that they were qualified to work. 

Arbitrator Bognanno's award can be found here.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Last chance agreement doesn't bar arbitration when union is not a party

An employee of Southwestern Bell Telephone Company represented by the Communication Workers of America filed a grievance over her termination. At the initial step of the grievance process the Company, in the presence of a local Union representative, presented the grievant with a last chance agreement. Pursuant to the terms of the LCA, grievant would be reinstated but, for a period of 24 months, should grievant be suspended or terminated for conduct contrary to the Agreement "any grievance relating in any way to such suspension or dismissal will not be subject to arbitration." The grievant signed the agreement, but the Union did not.

Approximately three months later the employee was dismissed for poor work performance. A grievance was filed and pursued without resolution.  CWA demanded arbitration and the parties selected an arbitrator and scheduled a hearing date. At the hearing the Company, for the first time, refused to arbitrate the dispute. It claimed that the right to arbitration had been waived by the LCA. CWA filed suit to compel arbitration, and the District Court for the Western District of Missouri has granted the Union's request.

The Court described the issue before it as:

 whether the LCA entered into between [grievant] and SWBT supersedes the rights of CWA under the CBA with regard to the arbitrability of grievances. Specifically, Plaintiff contends [grievant's] termination, for alleged just cause, should be subject to arbitration pursuant to Article IV. Defendant claims the right to arbitrate under the CBA was waived when [grievant] voluntarily signed the LCA.

Rejecting the Company's contention that the right to arbitrate the dispute had been waived by the LCA, the Court concluded that the Union's absence as a party to the agreement rendered the agreement essentially unenforceable. The Court noted that the Eighth Circuit had previously held (in Coca-Cola Bottling Company of St. Louis v. Teamsters Local Union No. 688) that a last chance agreement between a Company and Union could effectively modify a cba and bar arbitration of the just cause issue in a subsequent dispute. It noted further, however, that the Eighth Circuit had more recently cautioned against too broad a reading of its decision. In Associated Electric Coop. Inc v. IBEW Local No. 53 the Court refused to bar arbitration where the Union was not a party to the LCA. The District Court also observed that in both cases resolution of the impact of the LCA took place after the arbitrator had issued an award. 

The Court agreed with CWA that:

CWA cannot be estopped from pursuing its right to arbitrate under the terms of the CBA in a contract between only SWBT and an employee. The terms of the CBA covering arbitration are between SWBT and CWA. Article IV references the Union and the Company's right to arbitrate. The CBA contains no provision which empowers an individual employee to waive CWA's rights under the CBA.

The Court's decision in Communication Workers of America v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. can be found here. Other issues arising under last chance agreements are discussed here and here.