Smart employers will see unions as tools for improving workplace

Few of us would find it easy to terminate an employee. It's not pleasant to be the one who has to undertake this role -- and nor should it be. Neither is it pleasant to be on the receiving end.

This is someone's livelihood and it's best to proceed with caution and with clear process. That's where unions -- and negotiated collective agreements -- can be a real benefit to an employer, as well as offering real protection to workers.

This issue has come to media attention recently concerning the case of Edmontonian Maia Soukonnik, who was killed by her mentally disturbed adult son in 2008. She had called 911, but the call was lost and the dispatcher may not have followed up. The dispatcher was dismissed and the Edmonton Police Association has filed a grievance against the dismissal. The issue will now go to an arbitration panel.

Any potential job dismissal will likely have boss and worker on edge, acting and reacting emotionally, with feelings sometimes overwhelming logic.

A case with tragic overtones such as this one is a perfect example and will also include outside observers and the public in those sentiments.

This is exactly why unions and employers work so hard to craft precise and clear terms, agreed upon by both sides at a time when heads are clear and emotions are calm. These policies act as a map through a minefield that allows the correct decision to be made.

The usual language in collective agreements concerning dismissal is that it must be for "just cause." It's a simple enough concept. Did the worker do something worthy of losing his job? Is dismissal justified?

A recent article by lawyer Howard Levitt in The Journal's Working section said that the "just-clause" requirement is one way unions erode employer control over the workplace.

This is far from the truth and it is disturbing to see a lawyer practising in the field so misrepresent the principle.

The just-cause element of collective agreements simply spells out the test to ensure that the employer's decision to terminate the worker is justified -- that it is a fair and reasonable response to what has happened. An employer who wants to be fair will welcome this.

If these conditions are met, the employer can relax in the knowledge that a difficult decision has been taken cautiously and that it was the right decision, not one based on anger or fear.

Employees, meanwhile, know that with this kind of process in place, they do not face the prospect of being unjustly fired and that they and their co-workers will be treated fairly.

The rigour applied to the process allows employer and employees to establish what really happened and in certain cases make changes to policy or procedures to avoid similar situations in the future. Instead of a war zone, a calm process allows for a successful resolution.

Unions are stakeholders in the workplace. They make sure that terms and conditions of employment reflect the needs and desires of the workers. They help workers feel secure and appreciated. A happy worker is, after all, a productive worker. A contract that reflects their needs encourages employees to apply and to stay put. Smart employers will recognize this and work with their unions.

Levitt's suggestion, to record all minor workplace errors, even for mistakes that may be fairly common, and his claim that workers would lie and that their unions would encourage such a thing creates a war-zone mentality.

Modern labour-relations policies recognize that these approaches are likely to create a toxic and unproductive workplace atmosphere and make having a union painful for the employer.

Levitt's advice to employers is to make the union and employees their enemy.

Although that might be good for his business, I suggest it isn't good for employers, their employees or their businesses.

Nancy Furlong is secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour and has been a full-time labour-relations professional since 1980. She has spent many years presenting arbitrations on behalf of unions in the Alberta labour relations community.

Edmonton Journal, Wed Jan 19 2011
Byline: Nancy Furlong

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