Was CBC interview grounds for suspension?

Was a two-day suspension without pay justified or should the employer used a lesser penalty?

This issue of “You Make the Call” puts the spotlight on a case involving a veteran correctional officer in Edmonton who gave two interviews that were broadcast by CBC radio. The guard, who was also a union chair, was suspended for two days without pay.

Michael Rennich talked to CBC on April 22, 2003, and again on April 23 about a report that gang members in the prison had forced other inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre (ERC) to go on a hunger strike to protest a restriction of movement following a fight in the prison.

The ERC responded with a letter of discipline on May 8. It alleged that Rennich had disclosed internal security-related information and gave inaccurate statements to the media. It said Rennich’s actions had caused further unrest among the prisoners and that such public statements are only to be issued to the media by designated government spokespersons.

It said Rennich violated the “oath of confidentiality” he took when he started his job. It states that an employee shall not communicate with, express opinions to or otherwise convey or pass information directly or indirectly to agents of the news media in respect to any policy, incident, condition or circumstances which relate to functions performed by Correctional Services Division. The policy states that it is “immaterial whether the information was previously communicated by others or whether it was passed on (with) the sincere understanding that it was in the best interests of the service. The prohibition is equivocal and without qualification.”

The employer recognized that, as a union rep, Rennich had the right to make statements to the media and enjoyed a certain degree of immunity from discipline stemming from such media comments. But it said that Rennich’s comments, including a claim that the ERC director had a total lack of respect for the staff, were over the top, untrue and increased staff danger.

When first confronted about the interview, Rennich originally denied giving them. While he may have been facetious, given the absolute absurdity of denying something so publicly manifest, the fact remained that he had been dishonest with his employer.

The union said the employer had not proven the statements made by Rennich were knowingly or recklessly false. It conceded Rennich might have used some hyperbole in his interviews, but that was not grounds for discipline. It wanted the two-day suspension rescinded.

You make the call
Was the suspension without pay justified? OR Should the employer have used a lesser form of punishment?

If you said the two-day unpaid suspension was not justified, you’re right. The Alberta Arbitration Board said it is widely recognized in arbitration, labour board and court decisions that public statements made by an employee that might otherwise breach a duty of fidelity are given greater latitude when uttered by a union official carrying out his role as long as the statements are not knowingly or recklessly false.

The arbitrator said most of the statements made by Rennich fall into this category and are not subject to discipline.

While some of the statements made by Rennich in the April 23 interview crossed the line, a two-day suspension without pay was too harsh a penalty. The arbitrator substituted a letter of warning and ordered the employer to compensate Rennich for the two days of lost wages.

For more information see:

Alberta v. A.U.P.E., 2005 CarswellAlta 2097, [2005] L.V.I. 3532-2 (Alta. Arb. Bd.)

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