If your organization just became a union shop, chances are you will soon be knee-deep in contract negotiations.
Before you sit down and begin drafting language you think is reasonable, consider this: From now on, interpretation of workplace rules will probably be out of your hands and will rest with an arbitrator. And arbitrators often surprise employers with their rulings, interpreting what seemed like solid pro- language to side with unions.
That’s why it is absolutely essential that you get help from an experienced labor attorney before you agree to contract language.
Recent case: When the Kroger grocery store chain negotiated a labor agreement with its employees, the contract called for the company to pay for white uniform jackets.
A clause in the contract allowed the grocer to switch meat department employees to “burgundy drip coats.” The contract went on to state, “Where drip-dry uniforms are provided, the employee shall be responsible to maintain and launder.”
Kroger switched meat department employees to the easy-care coats and expected them to wash and hang them to dry. But instead, the union filed a grievance, demanding to be paid for the time spent washing and hanging the coats.
The arbitrator hearing the case rejected Kroger’s logical interpretation of the clause, and instead pulled another sentence out from elsewhere in the contract. That clause stated that “employees shall be paid for all time spent in the service of the employer.” Washing the clothes should be paid time, the arbitrator said. He ordered the grocer to create a set of rules to track time spent on the task.
Kroger appealed, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to interfere. It said the arbitrator’s decision was an arguable interpretation of the contract language. (Kroger v. United Food and Commercial Workers Union, No. 07-2228, 6th Cir., 2008)
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