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.

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