Union owes overpayment of wages

But no breach of contract

A basic principle of law holds that there is no right without a remedy. This is a short way of saying that a right remains only theoretical, and therefore not of much practical value, if there is no way of enforcing it.

Oddly, in a recent labour dispute, a panel of British Columbia’s labour relations board did not agree with this proposition, at least when it came to the employer’s rights.

In order to bid on a non-union job, PCL Constructors Pacific made a special agreement with its unionized employees: so that PCL could land the job, the union agreed to waive certain provisions of its collective agreement.

When PCL won the job, the union dispatched the employees at a rate higher than PCL believed had been negotiated in the special agreement. But in order to proceed with the job smoothly, it paid the workers the higher rate under protest.

It then sought arbitration, and the arbitrator ruled that the collective agreement applied: PCL owed only the lower rates to its employees on the job. However, the arbitrator refused to order the union to reimburse PCL, finding that the wages were paid directly to the employees and that the union did not breach the collective agreement or otherwise act wrongly.

On review, the labour relations board found that this was an overly-strict legal approach and that the arbitrator could have ordered the union to reimburse the overpayment to PCL.

Then, on the union’s application, another panel reconsidered the matter. This “reconsideration panel” held that the arbitrator was entitled to order a monetary remedy only where there was a breach of the collective agreement. In this case, it said, there was no breach, so that no remedy was available to PCL.

PCL then sought court review of the reconsideration panel’s decision. (Obviously, there is a law of diminishing returns in so much wrangling: Not only can it create bad feelings, but you can end up paying more in legal fees and unproductive time than you win in reimbursement of the claim.)

It argued that the first review panel was correct in ordering that reimbursement was payable.

The court partly agreed, and sent the case back to the reconsideration panel. It held that the province’s Labour Relations Code provided the board authority to grant a monetary award even where there was no breach of the collective agreement.

To conclude otherwise, the court noted, would leave the parties without a remedy where the dispute was governed by the Labour Relations Act.

That is, there would be a right without a remedy, even if that same right had a remedy for other parties who were not governed by the province’s labour legislation.

For more information:

PCL Constructors Pacific Inc. v. I.U.O.E., Loc. 115, 2000 BCSC 968, Vancouver registry no. A993344, June 22/00.

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