Dismissal for some, suspension for others after sit-in during strike

Workers fired after chaining doors of workplace in sit-in

The Ontario Arbitration Board has upheld the firings of two employees who staged a sit-in at their employer’s workplace during a lengthy strike.

Employees of FirstOntario Credit Union in southern Ontario went on strike on Oct. 19, 2006. Six months later, the strike was still on. FirstOntario and the union were unable to resolve their differences, but they reached an agreement that stipulated picketers outside the credit union’s branches would “conduct themselves peacefully and with respect towards others” as well as not trespass on or damage FirstOntario’s property.

On April 18, 2007, several striking union members entered a Hamilton branch to perform a “bankathon” and penny deposits. The bankathon involved small transactions and asking questions that would slow down banking operations. Penny deposits were deposits of small amounts of coins to also slow things down and were often done during the strike.

However, when the branch closed at 3 p.m., eight striking workers refused to leave. It was announced there was going to be a sit-in and union officials chained the doors, trapping the non-union employees inside. Management told them they couldn’t do that and the union officials told them they could leave, though the doors were already locked.

Management was concerned as there had been a shooting at a U.S. university a few days earlier and one of the employees trapped inside the branch was a diabetic who needed medication. The police arrived and tried to cut the chain on the door but the union officials prevented them from doing so. Eventually, the police broke a window to get in and the workers were arrested.

On May 16, the seven workers were fired for just cause for violating FirstOntario policies on ethical conduct, breaching the agreement, harassment and intimidation, and the forcible confinement of FirstOntario staff. The workers grieved their terminations, though three of them later reached settlements.

The union argued the misconduct was during a lawful strike and just cause didn’t apply. It also said the employees did not plan to be involved in a sit-in and were drawn in when the union officials chained the door. They all claimed to regret the decision to stay.

The board found the misconduct was more serious than incidents on a picket line. It occurred on the company’s premises and involved removing the freedom of others to leave. The extra security considerations of a financial institution added to the seriousness, said the board.

The board found termination was too harsh for two of the workers who were passive during the situation and were caught up in events without previous knowledge of what was going to happen. Since they expressed remorse and regret, the board found termination was too harsh and a three-month suspension was more appropriate.

The other two workers, however, were more actively involved in events and deserved harsher treatment, said the board. One participated in the chaining of the doors and the other was in a physical confrontation with the branch manager during the sit-in. This was more serious misconduct that, along with what the board felt was a less-than-sincere expression of remorse, made it unlikely the employment relationship could be repaired. It upheld the terminations of these two workers. See FirstOntario Credit Union v. C.O.P.E., Local 343, 2009 CarswellOnt 8656 (Ont. Arb. Bd.).

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