Alberta ironworkers grieve after classifications change in new contract

Union representative didn’t respond to employer’s email

During bargaining for a 2015-to-2018 collective agreement for workers at Empire Iron Works in Edmonton, the union wanted detailed job classifications to be written into the new deal.
The Shopmen’s Local 805 union of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers wanted to enshrine proper job descriptions because it was concerned that when employees in the past were bumped up to a higher job class solely for the purpose of giving them a raise in pay, these employees were not always qualified to be placed into the new classification.
The employer also wanted a better way to recognize an employee’s excellent performance, so both parties discussed various ways to achieve the goal with the new collective agreement.
Talks began on Aug. 20, 2015, and both sides met five or six times 
Eventually, the sides agreed to fewer job classifications as a reflection of ongoing business challenges, which brought on layoffs of both management and union members.
On Sept. 21, the union proposed an amendment “that no employee who is working for the company as of the date of ratification of this agreement will have his regular rate of pay reduced as a result of this restructuring of the classification of wage table.” 
As well, the union said it wanted current employees to have their wage levels “grandfathered” into the new contract.
However, Empire didn’t sign off on this proposal and the talks about the wage rates being reduced eventually “fell by the wayside,” according to Bill Mercer, business manager for the union.
On Nov. 14, the collective agreement was ratified.
The following year, on Jan. 8, 2016, Andy Boelee, who was part of the management negotiating team, emailed Mercer with an updated list of employees and their new classifications. 
“If any employee has concerns about where they are classified, or feel they should be classified higher than what we have them at, we can review this on a case-by-case basis. We can set up a committee with peers and management to arbitrate,” wrote Boelee.
Mercer or anyone else in the union didn’t respond to this email.
In April and May 2016, many laid-off workers were recalled and were asked to sign a document that outlined their new rates of pay. 
As word filtered out that many workers were receiving lesser rates, the union filed a grievance and argued that Empire had no right to unilaterally reclassify the employees and pay them less.
The employer argued the employees affected were placed into the proper categories (to address the past practice of bumping employees into improper classes) and, therefore, they were being paid what they were worth.
As well, said Empire, all of the affected employees met with management and signed a paper agreeing to the new rates, before being brought back onboard.
In denying the grievance, arbitrator Francis Price said, “I am satisfied from the evidence that the employer did not unilaterally reclassify any employees. The reclassification of employees was done pursuant to the jointly negotiated, agreed-upon appendices A and B to the new collective agreement… that was jointly recommended to the members of the union, then approved by the majority of members on the second vote, and ultimately ratified as the 2015-2018 collective agreement.”
The blame was placed on the union when it failed to reply to Boelee’s email, according to Price. 
“There was no response by the union to the list of employees and their proposed new classification and hourly wage that Andy Boelee had sent to Bill Mercer on Jan. 8, 2016. And, therefore it is not appropriate to use the grievance process to resolve problems caused by poor negotiation of the collective agreement. The remedy in these circumstances can only be to renegotiate the issue at a future round of collective bargaining.” 
Reference: Empire Iron Works and Shopmen's Local 805 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. Francis Price — arbitrator. Jonathan McCully for the employer. Drew Blaikie for the employees. Nov. 16, 2018. 2018 CarswellAlta 2748

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