B.C. schools get taught a language lesson

Parties at odds over collective agreement provisions

Schools in british columbia have been taught a lesson in the interpretation of a collective agreement.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), which represents teachers in the province, filed a policy grievance against the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association after they claimed teachers were not being properly reimbursed while on leave for union business.

Up for debate was whether or not the collective agreement’s provisions pertaining to leave for union business required the union to reimburse the employers’ association should a teacher on leave for union business be replaced.

The collective agreements reads as follows:

"Where an (on-call) teacher replaced the member on union leave, the reimbursement costs paid by the local or the BCTF shall be the salary amount paid to the (on-call) teacher. Where a non-certified replacement is used, the reimbursement costs paid by the local or the BCTF shall be the salary amount paid to the replacement."

As the employers’ association saw it, the clause outlines the conditions of granting the union leave requests — but that the employer was to be reimbursed for all costs of the leave, including benefit costs. What is more is that the term ‘salary amount’ is simply a reference to the rate of pay that the reimbursement costs would be based upon if the teacher on union leave was replaced with an on-call teacher.

However, the BCTF disagreed.

The union interpreted ‘salary amount’ in the contract to mean its obligation to reimburse the salary costs when an employee on leave is replaced with an on-call teacher, as the wording suggest. That did not include benefits. Essentially, salary is defined as just that.

In her decision, arbitrator Irene Holden said when looking at a collective agreement, it is imperative to determine the intention of both parties during the negotiating stage.

With that theory in mind, she referenced the mediation notes taken at the bargaining table as evidence of the intent of the specific clause. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was plenty of back and forth between both parties.

However, there was no specific reference as to what would be covered under the umbrella term ‘salary amount.’

Whereas long-term leave would require the union to pay for benefits and salary, there were no specifics under the leave for union business provision. During the hearing, the employer attempted to merge these two provisions and argue for similar terms of reimbursement, the arbitrator said.

Because the employer and the union did not, at any time, discuss the meaning of the clause, Holden based her decision on its literal meaning, and sided with the BCTF.

"This was a case of a unilateral misunderstanding," Holden said. "This is where the issue should remain — at the bargaining table."

Therefore, she ordered the employer reimburse the union if there had been any cases of overpayment based on its interpretation of the collective agreement.

Following the decision, the public school employers’ association proposed new language surrounding the leave for union business clause in the upcoming round of bargaining.

Reference: British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Irene Holden — arbitrator. Delayne M. Sartison for the employer, Craig Bavis for the union. Jan. 29, 2014.

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