If your organization operates in a union environment, much of the discipline you impose will be controlled by a collective bargaining agreement. But that doesn’t always mean that you will be able to avoid court battles over discrimination claims. Unless the agreement contains explicit language indicating that the sole remedy for discrimination is the process outlined in the agreement, employees can sue in court.
Recent case: The Ohio Turnpike Commission fired Bennie Haynes, who is over age 50, from his job as a roadway maintenance employee. The commission said Haynes left the scene of an accident during a work shift.
Haynes belonged to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which had a collective bargaining agreement with the Ohio Turnpike Commission. The contract promised that “neither the commission nor the union shall unlawfully discriminate … on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, age….” The agreement provided for arbitration of any contract claim, with the decision of the arbitrator being “final and binding.”
Haynes sued in state court for alleged age discrimination. The commission argued that Haynes’ sole remedy was in the contract—binding arbitration.
But the Court of Appeals of Ohio disagreed. It said without a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate statutory claims, a collective bargaining agreement does not govern. Merely mentioning in the agreement that the employer promises not to discriminate was not enough. The case can continue. (Haynes v. Ohio Turnpike Commission, et al., No. 89342, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 8th Appellate District, 2008)
Advice: Enlist an experienced labor attorney to help you with union contract negotiations. Qualified legal counsel can help you prioritize negotiation goals and alert you to problems with the current or proposed contract. If it’s important to your organization to resolve all employment-related claims at the arbitration stage, you must make certain that is spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement.