Home Arbitration/Labour Relations Nova Scotia Court of Appeal restores arbitrator’s ruling in contentious fight between UFCW, Sproule Lumber

Nova Scotia Court of Appeal restores arbitrator’s ruling in contentious fight between UFCW, Sproule Lumber

by HR Law Canada

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has reinstated an arbitrator’s original ruling involving Sproule Lumber and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) after it was overturned by a lower court.

The arbitrator ruled that Sproule Lumber, a division of J.D. Irving Ltd., had breached the recognition provisions of the collective agreement by communicating directly with employees.

The issues revolved around the strained relations between the Union and Sproule Lumber during the term of their collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which spanned from July 26, 2016, to April 15, 2023.

Escalating tensions

Tensions escalated in the fall of 2020 as Sproule Lumber ceased scheduling meetings to discuss grievances and began to criticize union officials in communications sent directly to employees.

One of the letters encouraged employees to inquire into the activities of the senior union representative and decide for themselves if his actions supported positive labour relations between the parties.

The Union accused Sproule Lumber of failing to comply with the CBA, particularly concerning regular meetings and respect for the Union’s role as a bargaining agent.

“To say labour relations between the Union and Sproule Lumber did not go smoothly during the term of the CBA would be an understatement,” the Court of Appeal said. “By the fall of 2020, meetings were no longer taking place to discuss potential grievances, shop steward positions were unfilled and the communications between the parties were becoming strained.”

In December 2020, Sproule Lumber wrote to the Union suggesting it would cease complying with its obligations under the CBA to deduct and remit union membership dues until the Union came into compliance with the CBA and began acting in good faith.

Anti-union video

One allegation related to a video shown at a mandatory employee meeting. It included statements by a corporate vice president concerning plants in the United States which had eliminated the union and become more productive, safer and better workplaces. The other incidents involve comments by corporate managers to employees about the advantages of a non-union operation.

The matter escalated to an arbitration hearing led by Augustus M. Richardson, K.C., who, in his Oct. 7, 2021, award, identified violations of the CBA by Sproule Lumber, notably in its direct communications with employees that undermined the Union’s authority.

However, the arbitrator found no breach regarding Sproule Lumber’s failure to attend meetings due to the Union’s insufficient information on discussion topics.

Sproule Lumber challenges award

Sproule Lumber challenged this arbitration award, leading to a judicial review by Justice Darlene Jamieson of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. The reviewing judge quashed the arbitrator’s decision, and remitted it for review to a different arbitrator, prompting the Union to appeal, arguing that the principles of judicial review were misapplied.

The Court of Appeal said, on its face, the arbitrator’s original ruling “bears the hallmarks of reasonableness.”

“The reasoning path is intelligible and transparent. A reader is able to understand what the arbitrator decided and why. There are no apparent gaps in the analysis. The arbitrator’s explanation for why he felt the conduct of Sproule Lumber was so egregious undoubtedly drew on his experience in labour relations,” it said.

It said the submissions made by Sproule Lumber to the lower court “have no merit.”

“The reviewing judge conducted a thorough review of the law relating to union representation rights and unfair labour practice complaints,” the Court of Appeal said. “Her error, flowing from the submissions of Sproule Lumber, is the one described in para. 83 from Vavilov. She started her analysis of the Award by determining the evidentiary standard the arbitrator should have used. Adopting this ‘yardstick’ in her review resulted in the application of a correctness, and not reasonableness, standard.”

The court said the arbitrator’s award was “reasonable” and that it was “an error by the reviewing judge to conclude otherwise.”

It allowed the Union’s appeal, reinstated the arbitrator’s ruling, and awarded costs payable by Sproule Lumber of $4,000 inclusive of disbursements.

For more information, see United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, Local 864 v. Sproule Lumber, 2024 NSCA 27 (CanLII).

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