Many unionized employers mistakenly believe that they have no
ability to make workplace changes. The recent arbitration decision
in United Food and Commercial Workers Local 175 and Good Humor-
Breyers, Unilever highlights how a careful reading of
a collective agreement may reveal a host of legitimate changes
available to employers.
Good Humour-Breyers, Unilever (the "Employer")
operates a manufacturing facility in Ontario, where a dispute arose
when the Employer decided to transfer the more limited duties of
the lower-paid light labourers to additional machine operators who
could perform all functions on the particular line. Even though
this required the Employer to hire additional machine operators who
were paid at a higher rate, this change was aimed at creating more
efficiency and economy by minimizing "lost time" during
The Employer's UFCW collective agreement provided that
unionized employees were to be laid off in reverse order of
seniority in the department affected. The collective agreement also
provided that in the event of a permanent reduction of the
workforce, the Employer had expanded rights to "displace the
most junior employee who would have been retained. The [Employer]
will train the remaining employee in his new position."
Dispute and Ruling
The Union grieved the Employer's decision to increase the
numbers of machine operators at the expense of light labourers.
This change allegedly violated the Employer's obligations
regarding staffing at the facility.
The arbitrator hearing the dispute determined that the
jurisprudence supported the Employer's ability to transfer
duties from one role to another because the transfer of duties was
not restricted in the collective agreement. The arbitrator held
that even though the machine operators assumed duties formerly
performed by light labourers, they did not become light labourers
as a result, and the reassignment of duties was the prerogative of
The facts of this case supported the Employer's position that
the changes to the line were made in good faith and for legitimate
business reasons: to increase efficiency by having all members of
the line being capable of completing all the functions on the line
and to limit "lost time". Finally, the arbitrator
determined that the facts did not demonstrate that this
reassignment of duties constituted a permanent reduction in the
Takeaways for Employers
Employers often fail to consider what is omitted from the
collective agreement in addition to what it contains. As United
Food and Commercial Workers Local 175 and Good Humor -
Breyers, Unilever demonstrates, it can be
beneficial to employers when the collective agreement is silent on
a particular right or obligation. Indeed, many collective
agreements confirm that the employer retains broad residual rights
to manage their business and organize the workforce. The manner in
which employers implement changes with respect to unionized
employees contributes to the legitimacy of the end result. This
case demonstrates that bona fide changes are often possible by
reading between the lines of the collective agreement.
The foregoing provides only an overview and does not
constitute legal advice. Readers are cautioned against making any
decisions based on this material alone. Rather, specific legal
advice should be obtained.
Unfortunately, reasonable accommodation for employees in the workplace continues to be the source of significant litigation and even today we continue to see outrageous examples of employers behaving badly.
A former teacher at Bodwell High School has learned a valuable lesson from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal— it is not discriminatory for an employer to offer child-related benefits to only employees with children.
We are now beginning to see reported cases involving charges and subsequent fines laid against employers for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker from workplace violence.
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).