IAM grieves decision after Air Canada denies worker rights to wear union hat

Evidence produced from company ‘sparse; vague’: Arbitrator

Even though they had worn International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)-branded ball caps since 1985, a number of Air Canada employees were told they couldn’t wear such hats while on duty.
During 1985 bargaining, the IAM distributed union-logoed hats to employees as a pressure tactic against the employer. But Air Canada issued a statement that employees working under-the-wing were not allowed to wear non-Air Canada caps, even though their exposure to customers was minimal.
The IAM grieved the decision and won a ruling on Sept. 16, 1987, that said the employer violated the collective agreement by interfering with an employee’s right to choose his own headgear.
However, after Air Canada was removed from creditor protection in 2004, the company again pursued an effort to rebrand the airline with new logos and uniforms. If employees didn’t follow guidelines, that “could interfere with a singular focus on the Air Canada brand,” according to a report written by Peter Rowbotham, manager, airport planning and analysis. 
The employer developed a workwear standards book that detailed what an employee must wear while on duty.
The union grieved the ruling and argued it violated 1.02 of the collective agreement that read: “No employee covered by this agreement will be interfered with, restrained, coerced, or discriminated against by the company, its officers or agents, because of membership in or lawful activity on behalf of the union.”
As well, Air Canada’s actions violated an employee’s freedom of expression, according to IAM.
The company countered and said mandating a company-wide clothing standard was a legitimate exercise of its management rights. All employees, such as the under-the-wing staff, must present a common front and because they are also considered to be “brand ambassadors,” the under-the-wing employees should adhere to the same standards as others who are more customer-forward.
Air Canada relied on surveys that showed employee appearance was rated high in importance by its customers. 
Arbitrator Christine Schmidt disagreed. “The new cap requirement is not reasonable and, as such, the company is in violation of article 1.02 of the collective agreement. The company is directed to remove the requirement in the workwear standard that IAM members must wear only Air Canada-issued caps.”
“Effectively, the new rule eliminates the long-standing entitlement that bargaining unit employees enjoyed to wear IAM caps,” said Schmidt.
The evidence submitted by Air Canada in support of their case “was very general, sparse, and impressionistic, grounded in rather vague customer-experience metrics, in circumstances where the employees impacted by the rule are not engaged in public contact jobs, and are for the most part unseen by customers. I note that the company’s written arbitration brief makes almost no mention of the evidence upon which it relies to support what otherwise seems a sensible desire to achieve consistency and harmony in workplace dress and appearance. The impact of that otherwise rational objective on these below-the-wing employees is the suppression of their desire to continue a decades-old habit of expressing support for their trade union,” said Schmidt.
And although the employer didn’t need to “prove harm to Air Canada’s legitimate business interests, (the evidence) must be more robust than the information relied upon by the company. In my view, the information lacks objectivity and the company has failed to draw a clear and objective link between the new cap requirement for these below-the-wing employees and the company’s business interests,” said Schmidt.
Reference: Air Canada and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District Lodge 140. Christine Schmidt — arbitrator. Christopher Pigott for the employer. Ian Roland for the employee. Jan. 31, 2019.

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