No obligation to follow informal agreement with union indefinitely: Board

Long-time oral agreement for shift schedule was never incorporated into collective agreement

A British Columbia company can change an informal arrangement on shift length and paid lunch breaks it had followed for several years because the terms hadn’t been bargained into the collective agreement, the British Columbia Labour Relations Board has ruled.

Sun Rype Products was a manufacturer of fruit juice and snack products based in Kelowna, B.C., that had a unionized workforce. For many years, Sun Rype employees worked on a three-shift schedule for eight hours per shift. Each shift included a 30 minute paid lunch break and seven-and-one-half hours worked. Before the company implemented the three-shift rotation, employees worked on a one- or two-shift schedule that featured eight-and-one-half-hour shifts consisting of eight hours of work and an unpaid one-half-hour lunch break, according to the collective agreement.

When Sun Rype first implemented the three-shift rotation, it met with union representatives to discuss the new schedule. The company said the new rotation would involve three eight-hour shifts, each with a paid 30 minute break.

When the next round of collective bargaining neared, Sun Rype decided it wanted to return to the old shift length while maintaining the three-shift rotation. It told the union there were “a number of past practices that are either inconsistent with the collective agreement or which do not arise from the language of the agreement,” including eight-hour shifts with a paid lunch. It said it intended to discontinue these practices when the collective agreement was renewed.

The union claimed Sun Rype could not change the practice of eight-hour shifts with a paid lunch break because of the discussions with the company and its agreement. Once they agreed to it, the union said, they couldn’t change it since it was an established practice.

The arbitrator found the language of the collective agreement had not been changed, and still indicated “one receives eight hours pay for eight hours worked” with no distinction between a two-shift or three-shift rotation. This language had not been changed and thus the new practice for the three-shift rotation was not a negotiated term but the employer’s choice. The arbitrator also found at no time had the union referred to the discussions has an agreement.

“Viewed objectively and in context, these discussions essentially involved management informing the union how it was going to be running the three-shift operation,” the arbitrator said. “These were informal meetings that contained no specific promise regarding how shifts would be scheduled in the future, and the substance of the meetings was never reduced to writing.”

The union appealed the decision to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, which upheld the arbitrator’s findings in their entirety. See Sun-Rype Products Ltd. v. Teamsters, Local 213, 2009 CarswellBC 2149 (B.C.L.R.B.).

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