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B.C. Ferries firings will test union’s mettle

Two announcements from opposing sides this week have set a tone for labour relations at B.C. Ferries that will endure for many months. First, management announced that the deck crew of the Queen of the North (the second officer, fourth officer, and quartermaster) have been fired. Then, inevitably, the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union announced that it will be grieving those dismissals.
The firings arose out of the sinking of the Queen of the North (after it crashed into Gil Island at Wright Sound off the B.C. coast). The Queen of the North struck the unmarked island, while traveling approximately 30 kilometres per hour, after failing to make a required course change. Ninety nine crew and passengers were rescued from the crippled ferry, but two remain missing and are now presumed drowned.
B.C. Ferries conducted an investigation into the sinking of the 37 year old ferry, concluding that human factors were the primary cause. The report went on to say that the deck crew had failed to maintain a proper lookout. According to a B.C. Ferries representative, the three employees were dismissed as a direct result of the investigation.
There are many questions which remain unanswered and it is inappropriate at this early date to draw conclusions about the conduct of the three fired employees. The Union's grievance may lead to an arbitration hearing, the result of which will be a published decision. That decision will certainly delve deeply into the actions of the employees, the training they received, and the prevailing conditions that night.
The question being asked right now (by me, at least) is whether the Union actually believes these employees have been unjustly dismissal or is simply grieving the dismissals automatically as a matter of politics.
The tendency (of certain unions, but not all) to grieve all such management decisions as a matter of course is one aspect of labour relations which gives employers fits. Employers wish for unions to make reasonable decisions based on the merits of the situation, not just political concerns.
Few unions, it sometimes seems, are willing to stand up to their own members and tell them when a grievance simply has no merit. When this is the case, relations between the employer and its employees can become strained by the weight of endless ongoing disputes. The cost of resulting arbitrations is nothing to be taken lightly, either.
When there truly is a question as to whether the employer acted properly in terminating an employee, based on valid just cause reasons, it is to be expected the union will grieve. But when there is an open and shut case of just cause the employer is entitled to expect the union to take a stand with its members by refusing to pursue a grievance.
One basis for a determination that just cause exists is the occurrence of a gross error or a highly egregious instance of misconduct. I would be challenged to imagine a more extreme instance of error or misconduct than failing to attend to duty when lives are at stake.
The R.C.M.P. and the Transportation Safety Board are also conducting their own investigations and their conclusions should provide much-needed clarity to the events leading to this disaster. It is likely that, in the event the grievances result in arbitration hearings, these various investigations and reports will be front and centre.
We don't know, yet, whether any or all of the three fired employees are guilty of any gross errors or misconduct. If the various investigation reports point to that conclusion, let's hope their Union sees the wisdom in withdrawing these grievances.