Every single word in a collective bargaining agreement is important. Most words in a union contract have legal ramifications. This case highlights the importance of knowing the potential effect of each word before agreeing to include it in your company’s contract.
A hospital terminated employee Gwynn Pirnie after receiving a complaint that she did not give prompt attention to a patient seeking emergency room care. Pirnie’s union filed a grievance over the firing, and when the grievance was not resolved in Pirnie’s favor, the union submitted to arbitration the issue of whether the hospital had just cause to terminate Pirnie and if not, the appropriate remedy. Pretty standard stuff, right?
Well, two weeks before the arbitration hearing – and about a year after Pirnie was fired – the union was decertified. With no union, did the parties still have to arbitrate? Unfortunately for the hospital, yes. Double-unfortunately for the hospital because the arbitrator ruled Pirnie should be reinstated with back pay.
The collective bargaining agreement expressly authorized arbitration of “matters which arose prior to the time of expiration.” Further, absent a collective bargaining agreement provision limiting back pay to a period ending with the contract’s expiration, courts will enforce arbitration awards outlasting the contract.
But the contract didn’t expire. The union was decertified, so the contract was voided. Doesn’t matter said the court. Whether through expiration or being voided, the contract allowed for arbitration of matters that arose during the pendency of the contract.
Do you know if your company’s collective bargaining agreement allows for arbitration of matters that arose prior to the time of expiration? Do know if your union contract limits back pay to a period ending with the contract’s expiration? You may want to revisit these concepts in light of this case next time your contract is negotiated.
Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Austin Legal’s Concierge Legal Services program is relied upon by companies to remain compliant and competitive. If you have employees, you need Concierge Legal Services. You can call Matt at (614) 285-5342 or email him at Austin@LaborEmploymentOSHA.com.