Union rep’s actions during termination were unprofessional, but didn’t warrant suspension

The PUC office in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Photo: Google Streetview

A union rep’s behaviour during a termination meeting at PUC was harsh and unprofessional, but it didn’t warrant a suspension, an arbitrator has ruled.

Jeff Priddle has been an employee of PUC, a utility service company responsible for power and water in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., since 1999. He became the chief steward in 2011, and has no disciplinary record.

On Jan. 18, 2021, the company suspended him for one day for “unprofessional and disrespectful conduct” that took place during a termination meeting for another worker in October 2020.

The company hired a third-party, Investigative Solutions Network, to look into what happened at the termination meeting.

PUC concluded that his behaviour during the Oct. 26, 2020, meeting was “not professional or respectful to the process or the parties present, nor was it helpful to the member you were representing.”

The employer’s view and suspension letter

In the suspension letter, PUC laid out the reasons for arriving at the penalty.

That included the fact Priddle laughed, snickered and made “disruptive and disrespectful comments while management was delivering the termination message to the employee.”

“You made comments such as, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ and ‘“’Tami stop, don’t waste your time. This is unbelievable. We will get in front of an arbitrator we’ll get the fucking truth.’ In addition, as you were leaving the room the meeting was held in, you made comments around management being ‘“’ashamed of themselves’ and ‘“’questioning their ability to sleep at night,”” it said.

PUC said the comments were disruptive and made an already challenging process more difficult.

It also determined that Priddle spoke “disrespectfully and loudly in a public hallway” towards an HR representative about “botching the termination.”

“It is not appropriate to reprimand management at any time, and to worsen matters to do it in a place where other PUC employees could possibly hear. Such behaviour is demeaning, unprofessional and insubordinate,” the letter stated.

Priddle was not initially invited to the meeting, and the company said he approached HR before it started and “demanded” to join it.

“Coming to a meeting you were not invited to attend, where there was a potential conflict and ‘demanding’”’ to be in attendance is not appropriate and unnecessarily created additional tension for those involved,” it said.

“We can appreciate there may be times where you may feel you are better equipped to represent a union member and PUC has no issue with having you participate where it is appropriate and where there is no conflict, and in particular where the employee has requested your presence. Our concern with this matter relates to your approach,” it said.

It concluded Priddle had violated the company’s workplace violence policy.

The arbitrator’s ruling

The arbitrator noted that Priddle, as union steward, was entitled to be at the meeting. The employer, by permitting him to attend, knew that — so any discipline related to “the manner in which he requested to join” was not appropriate.

The worker who was being fired was being let go for making a false allegation of assault against a member of management. In July 2019, she said she had been pushed — and a subsequent investigation by a third party found she had fabricated the allegation.

The union reps in the termination meeting were “extremely upset” when they learned she was being terminated, the arbitrator said.

“They thought, with good reason, the termination was unjust,” it said, noting there was a subsequent arbitration award which involved “very substantial damages” to this worker arising from this termination.

Union reps have leeway

The arbitrator noted that, when representing an employee as a union steward, reps have “considerable leeway” in what they may say at the disciplinary meeting.

“A discharge meeting may be emotionally charged and Mr. Priddle’s reaction to what was happening manifested this,” it said.

The employer saw his behaviour as aggressive, and a violation of its workplace violence policy. It further characterized it as “disrespectful, demeaning, disruptive or insubordinate.”

The arbitrator took issue with calling Priddle’s behaviour disruptive or insubordinate.

“Insubordination typically plays no part in a meeting between management and union; a meeting between equal parties. Insubordination is a concept applicable to employer – employee relations, not to employer – union relations,” it said.

So while the arbitrator called Priddle’s behaviour unprofessional and unnecessarily rude, there is wide latitude given to reps in union-management meetings. Therefore, no discipline for what happened in the meeting itself was warranted.

The hallway behaviour

The arbitrator then looked at what happened outside the room. There was some delay after the meeting because the fired employee was dressed in a wastewater uniform and needed to change into her regular clothing. She had to wait for someone to retrieve her clothes from the locker in the wastewater department.

According to the union, the HR rep was growing impatient by the delay in getting the clothing — and she indicated it was disrespectful towards management.

Priddle asked the HR rep how she could say the union was being disrespectful to management when “you botched this termination and her (the fired worker) wait while you get her clothes.”

The HR rep said Priddle’s tone was loud and aggressive. The union’s view was that it was “not exactly quiet but not yelling either.”

The arbitrator had harsher words for this behaviour outside the meeting room.

“That was a mixed situation. It was partly an extension of the disciplinary meeting, but it was also an exchange that took place after the meeting had concluded,” it said. “The employer is correct that doing so in public place is not appropriate.”

But, while the exchange was harsh and unprofessional, it did not rise to the level requiring discipline in context of these facts, it said.

“The comments were made directly following, and in the context of the disciplinary meeting, with no-one else present,” it said.

The suspension was struck down.

For more information see PUC Services Inc. v Power Workers’ Union, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1000, 2023 CanLII 189 (ON LA)


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