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Court: Union contract limits arbitrator’s role

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in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

In a union workplace, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) outlines rights for both employees and the employer. It also defines the powers an arbitrator may have if called on to interpret the contract. If the arbitrator goes too far, a court can reverse his or her decision.

Recent case: Ruben’s union job at a Corpus Christi door manufacturer required him to operate a tool that, if misused, could cause serious injuries. It was equipped with a guard to protect employees’ hands from harm.

The company had a progressive discipline system that allowed management to skip steps if employees violated serious safety rules. The CBA didn’t define “serious.”

Ruben was caught reaching around the guard. He admitted he regularly did so, even though he knew it was against safety rules. Ruben’s employer fired him, skipping several steps in the progressive discipline system because it considered his violation so serious.

The union took the case to arbitration, where the arbitrator concluded that Ruben broke the safety rules, and that his violations were indeed serious.

But then the arbitrator went further. He compared the violation to other violations and concluded management hadn’t fired everyone who broke serious safety rules. He ordered reinstatement.

The company immediately appealed. It won when the court concluded the arbitrator wasn’t authorized to do anything other than decide whether the rule in question dealt with a serious safety hazard and whether the employee broke the rule. Any­­thing else was outside his authority. Man­­age­­ment had the exclusive right to decide what the punishment should be. (Horton Auto­­matics v. The Indus­­trial Division of the Com­­mu­­ni­­ca­­tions Workers of America, et al., No. c-11-381, SD TX, 2012)

Final note: Labor law isn’t a do-it-yourself project. Get expert legal help when negotiating union contracts. An experienced labor attorney can help you preserve as much management authority as possible.

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