Union pins blame for mini-strike on employer

Workers refused to return to work without union buttons on uniforms

This instalment of You Make the Call involves unionized hotel workers who wore union buttons on the job.

On Feb. 18, 2009, workers at the Metropolitan Hotel in Toronto decided to show their displeasure regarding a union/management dispute by wearing buttons on their hotel uniforms. The buttons were about the size of a loonie and had the name of the union on them.

At the beginning of the shift, hotel management told employees it wouldn’t allow them to work while wearing the buttons. The employees had planned ahead of time to congregate in the employee cafeteria if this happened. After they gathered in the cafeteria, hotel management told them they could only return to work if they removed the buttons. The employees responded by saying they would only return to work if they could wear the buttons. Several hours later, the two sides agreed to meet and try to resolve the issues that had come to a head in the earlier confrontation. The employees then agreed to remove the buttons and return to work.

The union filed a grievance against the hotel, claiming it committed an unfair management practice by first prohibiting the wearing of buttons and then not paying the employees for the time it didn’t allow them to work because of the buttons. It argued wearing union buttons in the workplace is legal and a “protected union activity” under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, as long as it was not offensive or interfered with the operations and interests of the employer.

Though the collective agreement stipulated the union could not undertake union activity on the employer’s premises, the union said its pin campaign was a lawful freedom of expression permitted under the act. The collective agreement also prohibited either side from starting a strike or lockout while the agreement was in force.

Should the employees have been allowed to wear the buttons and been paid for the time they missed in the dispute?
Were the buttons inappropriate for the workplace?

If you said the employer was not obligated to pay the employees, you’re right. The arbitrator found there was no lockout situation as the employees were free to return to work at any time as long as they weren’t wearing a union button, which they in fact did once an agreement was reached to address their concerns.

The arbitrator found the wearing of union buttons in the workplace was only protected under the act in the context of collective bargaining. Since the sides were not negotiating a new agreement, the dispute was a grievance issue and not appropriate for union members to take into the workplace.

“The ‘pin campaign’ was unquestionably an integral part of the pre-planned job action which took place that day,” said the arbitrator. “It’s declared purpose was to ‘send a message to management’ and it was obviously calculated to escalate the already tense situation, which it obviously did by resulting in a lengthy work stoppage.”

The employees’ actions were planned in advance and was a “concerted work stoppage” that fell within the definition of “strike” in the act. Since the collective agreement was in effect, employees could only refuse work if management did something illegal or something that couldn’t be addressed through a grievance. In this case, the dispute between the union and the hotel, and the hotel’s refusal to allow the buttons, was a normal, “non-collective bargaining situation” that should be handled through the grievance process.

The arbitrator found the hotel did not violate the act because there was no collective bargaining going on with the union and the employees were not entitled to wear union buttons. Even if they were, the arbitrator said, the union should have addressed the problem through a grievance instead of the pre-planned work stoppage. As a result, the employees who refused to work without union buttons were not entitled to payment for the hours they missed. See Metropolitan Hotel v. U.N.I.T.E.-H.E.R.E., Local 75, 2009 CarswellOnt 6766 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

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