‘The best of poor options’: Union steward at airline caterer gets damages, but not job back, as arbitrator cites poisoned work environment

A flight attendant serves a meal on an airline. Photo: Canva

A Toronto-based company that provides in-flight meals and products for airlines took a flawed approach to terminating a union chief steward, but the arbitrator stopped short of reinstating him because it ruled he had poisoned the working environment.

The grievor worked for Gate Gourmet Canada. The arbitrator, in a detailed ruling, blasted the worker’s behaviour — and noted that while it awarded damages in lieu of reinstatement, it was irked to do so, stating that it was awarding “appalling behaviour.”

“But it is an approach, in my view, that is the best of poor options,” the arbitrator said.

The individual, referred to as the grievor, was implicated in incidents that included allegations of harassment, misconduct, and abusive behaviour toward colleagues, predominantly females.

Company vs. union: A clash of stances

The company argued that the grievor’s behaviour had a severe impact on the workplace and that the termination was a result of three separate incidents. If the arbitrator ruled termination was too excessive, it sought damages to be awarded instead of reinstatement.

In contrast, the union stated that some of the allegations fell outside the scope of Gate Gourmet policies, viewing them as internal union matters. It wanted him reinstated.

The union also claimed the timing of the discipline appeared intended to interfere with the chief steward’s re-election.

What happened

The arbitrator said the grievor, who had a history of hostility toward management, had violated the company’s code of conduct on several occasions.

Notable among these were a confrontation with a manager over alleged misconduct and multiple allegations of harassment targeted mainly at female colleagues.

Manager confrontation

In one of the incidents, which took place on March 9, 2021, the grievor accused a manager, AF, of performing bargaining unit work. The confrontation escalated, leading to verbal abuse. At one point, as the two men raised their voices, the grievor belittled AF and called him “medically unstable.”

AF’s account was corroborated by a witness, while the grievor’s credibility was challenged due to inconsistencies in his statements. He later accused AF of altering expiration dates on food products — but no supporting evidence was provided.

Call to Air Canada

In another instance of misconduct, the grievor called Air Canada to request free or discounted plane tickets for union members. This action was taken without company authority and contradicted earlier discussions where the company rejected the proposal as inappropriate and against its code of conduct.

Air Canada rejected the request and the president of Gate Gourmet received a complaint from the airline about the ask. The grievor admitted his error in reaching out without authorization, but rationalized that he was not seeking a personal benefit but rather one for his union members.

The company took a dim view of the action, noting that it considered it to be a serious violation that jeopardized its relationship with Air Canada.

The WhatsApp incident

The third incident occurred on March 27, 2021, during ongoing negotiations between the company and the union.

The grievor sent a WhatsApp message to employees implying that a final settlement had been reached, causing confusion and anger among both management and union committees.

The grievor later claimed that his intent was misunderstood due to his English language difficulty and that he was merely trying to assure members that the negotiating committee was working hard. The company placed the grievor on administrative leave while investigating this incident.

“I can only conclude that his intent was to communicate that he had achieved a victory for his members, notwithstanding his knowledge that as the parties inched toward settlement, complete confidentiality was critical,” the arbitrator said.

In both the WhatsApp and Air Canada incidents, the grievor demonstrated a pattern of overstepping boundaries and acting without proper authority.

In April 2021, the company issued a warning letter to him. The warning served as a last opportunity for the grievor to comply with company policies and also revoked a special stipend of $6.10 per hour that had been exclusively negotiated for the grievor.

The stipend was not part of the collective agreement and was known only to a few. The arbitrator voided that warning letter as part of the ruling.

Pattern of harassment

In June 2021, a harassment complaint was filed against the grievor by a co-worker.

The complaint alleged a history of abusive and harassing behaviour, including instances where the grievor publicly demeaned and insulted her. The grievor was accused of saying that the complainant’s role was not appropriate for a woman and that she had no family values.

The complainant’s testimony supported a pattern of harassment, and she expressed fear of retaliation. She also stated that the grievor had coerced her into signing a letter endorsing him for a union leadership award.

The grievor denied all allegations, asserting that he treats all union colleagues with dignity and respect.

During a company investigation into harassment allegations against him, several female shop stewards provided additional testimony detailing a pattern of intimidating, loud, and bullying behaviour.

Witness A, a shop steward for 8 or 9 years, recounted multiple instances where the grievor harassed her, made her cry, and continued such behaviour despite apologies mediated by the union. She did not feel his apologies were sincere.

Witness B testified under subpoena about an unwanted touching incident where the grievor touched her arm three times, despite her explicit instruction not to. She also accused him of public humiliation and described him as a bully who treats women differently than men.

Witness C corroborated Witness B’s account of unwanted touching and added that the grievor shouted down female stewards while representing an all-male group. She also testified that the grievor made derogatory comments about other female employees behind their backs.

Witness D did not witness the touching incident but saw Witness B upset afterwards. She mentioned that the grievor indirectly accused her of leaking negotiation details to her husband.

No formal complaints other than the original one have been filed against the grievor, but the additional testimonies describe a pattern of harassment, particularly targeted towards female shop stewards.

Following the complaint, the grievor was put on administrative leave. After the investigation concluded, the company terminated him on July 20, 2021, the day before he was to stand for reelection as chief steward.

Payment of damages ‘irks’ arbitrator

The arbitrator concluded that while the grievor did commit acts of misconduct, including harassment and violation of the code of conduct, the written warning followed by termination failed to adhere to progressive discipline protocols.

However, the grievor was not reinstated due to the “poisoned” work environment he had created. The arbitrator settled on awarding damages in lieu of reinstatement — but added the “payment of damages in this manner irks. It rewards appalling behaviour.”

It was, though, the best of poor options, the arbitrator said.

Damages were calculated using a formula of 1.25 months for every year of service, with an added 15% for benefits. The arbitrator declined to include an order for payment of Employment Standards Act notice or severance.

“The grievor, I have concluded, committed serious acts of wilful misconduct and is not likely to have been eligible for that statutory entitlement,” the arbitrator said.

It also declined to award interest, calling it an “inappropriate burden to the employer and a windfall for the grievor.”

For more information, see Gate Gourmet Canada Inc. v Teamsters Local Union No. 647, 2023 CanLII 83442 (ON LA)

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