Following the decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court in United Steelworkers of America v. Commonwealth Employment Relations Board [http://socialaw.com/slip.htm?cid=19281&sid=119], union officials have been put on notice that what they don’t know can hurt their union.
When the City of Springfield terminated a civil service public works employee, he had the option of either appealing to the Civil Service Commission or going to arbitration through his collective bargaining agreement (CBA). This option was spelled out in the CBA and is also part of the collective bargaining law, Chapter 150E.
The union representative explained the option to the employee and advised him that the union would handle his arbitration case but that he would need to hire his own lawyer if he wanted to go to the Civil Service Commission. The employee nevertheless expressed a preference for challenging his discharge through civil service, rather than arbitration. What the union representative did not know or fully understand was that civil service appeals must be filed within ten (10) business days of the termination.
Although the union representative went ahead and prepared to file the employee’s case for arbitration, when the employee again stated he preferred the civil service route, the representative withdrew the case and did not file for arbitration. He did not check into nor inform the employee about the 10-day filing period, which had already passed a month before. Both the Division of Labor Relations, and now the Appeals Court have concluded that the union’s actions here constituted “inexcusable neglect” in violation of the duty of fair representation.
While this case does extend the degree to which public sector unions in Massachusetts are held liable for knowledge of laws outside their contract, it must serve as a warning to all unions, their staff, and even elected local union leaders. When unions collect dues from and undertake to represent employees, they are going to be required to have some degree of knowledge about the laws covering their members.
The decision in this case points out that the union representative had access to union attorneys but did not utilize that resource. For those of you in a position of union leadership, the message is clear: If you don’t know, ask!