Labor Unions

Disciplining Union Employees

Employers have the right to discipline employees for misconduct or poor job performance. But when it comes to disciplining union employees, special circumstances and conditions may apply.

Business owners reserve the right to discipline their employees for a variety of workplace offenses.

For some policy violations, inaction can expose the business to civil action, negative publicity, and other unwanted consequences.

However, union contracts introduce wrinkles into the disciplinary process. Depending on the terms of the union contract, the employer's hand may be tied in the area of disciplinary procedures. Violations of union contracts can incur the wrath union officials or civil litigation.

Most union contracts have clauses that protect members from unfair discipline. As a rule, employers carry the burden of proof in disciplining union employees, so before you discipline a union worker, you'll have to document your claims.

Employers must also prove that the discipline is "progressive, corrective, and for just cause". Each of these categories has specific compliance guidelines that need to be assessed before disciplinary action is taken against unionized workers:

  • Progressive. The progressive requirement is designed to prevent actions that are disproportionate to the nature of the offense. Whenever possible, unions want to give their members the ability to correct their behavior or performance before the employer makes a termination decision. Although employers reserve the right to perform on-the-spot terminations for severe policy violations, a history of warnings, suspensions, and other actions demonstrate a progressive disciplinary philosophy and provide support for an eventual termination decision.
  • Corrective. In a union workplace, discipline should be seen as corrective rather than punitive. Even though the outcomes of a disciplinary process may "punish" workers with termination, demotion, or unpaid suspensions, the overarching theme of the disciplinary process should work toward helping the employee improve his performance or behavioral problems.
  • For a just cause. The "just cause" requirement can be difficult to prove because employers and unions often disagree about what constitutes just cause. Regardless of whether or not the contract stipulates it, just cause will come into play if the action leads to arbitration. There are seven tests that are generally accepted as proof of just cause, all of which are designed to demonstrate that the disciplinary action was fair and that the employer performed due diligence before the discipline was carried out.

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