Union must pay $500K to company it called out for ‘broken promises’

“The chains of outraged humanity
are forged in bureaucratic papers.
Franz Kafka

WHEN IS A PROMISE NOT A PROMISE? Not knowing could cost you. It recently cost a union in B.C. $500,000.

Indigenious workers at a Civeo Corp. work camp in northern B.C. felt their employer had broken promises to raise their wages and job opportunities. Their union, Unite Here Local 40, wanted to build support for the workers demand that Cieco keep their promises. The union posted a banner on its website with the headline “Civeo’s broken promises to First Nations people.”

The post went on to criticize the company for low wages, a decrease in hiring of Indigenous workers and a lack of “commitment to improving the living standards of Indigenous workers and their families.”

Lacking specifics

Cievo claimed the banner was “defamatory,” and harmful to their reputation and good name. They filed a grievance against the union. On May 16 arbitrator Nicholas Glass ruled in favour of Cievo and ordered the union to pay $500,000 in damages.

His ruling was based on one technicality: the singular fact that the expectations of the workers did not matter. What mattered, he said, was that the claim of broken promises was not specific.

The web page did not cite any specific “broken promise” in the existing contract between Cievo and the workers at the Sitka Lodge work camp in Kitimat. This fact, Glass argued, made the use of the words “broken promises” defamatory.

‘Unsavory history’ irrelevant

“I found that the use of the phrase ‘broken promises’ was deliberately chosen,” ruled Glass, “and highlighted by the union to associate the employer’s conduct with the unsavoury history of broken promises suffered by First Nations over many decades.”

He added the words carried a “special sting” against the backdrop of failed promises to Indigenous peoples in Canada and said the sweeping allegation was “much more damaging” than simply accusing the company of failing to fulfil a promise.

Glass found that while Civeo may have caused “disappointment and frustration” to local First Nations by offering wages well below other industry jobs in the region, he found no specific violations of its collective agreement.

‘Just surreal’

One worker commented: “The whole thing is just surreal. It’s like a wife-beater saying, just because I have beaten and brutalized you for years, you have no right to remind people of that now.”

Civeo entered into its agreement governing labour relations at Sitka Lodge with Unite Here Local 40 in 2018. The agreement included prioritizing the hiring of local Indigenous workers and minimum hourly wages, adjusted each year for inflation.

Mike Biskar, lead organizer for Local 40, described the mindset of his members employed at Civeo was an expectation that wages should return to the levels being paid at KMP back in 2015.

Biskar stated that in the summer of 2021 the issue of wages had come to a head at Sitka Lodge. And that the union was on the hunt for “different ways to put pressure on the employer.”

Looking for public support

One idea was to create a website to get the workers’ stories out to the public. Biskar testified: “The idea was to have people in our community think about our members situation and what they want.”

Biskar said the “Broken Promises” banner reflected what indigenous members said to the union. When Glass asked if any of the union members raised any concerns about the phrase “Broken Promises” Biskar answered “I don’t know why they would… It was part of the conversation”.

Biskar also testified that the website had not had any real impact on the issues between Local 40 and Cievo at Sitka Lodge.

None of that mattered to Glass. Natural justice did not matter. Common sense didn’t matter. Glass believed that under the strict letter of the law, Civeo had been defamed. And that’s how he ruled.

Unite Here Local 40 did not comment on the decision, nor on whether they would file an appeal.

No retraction is currently posted on the union’s website.

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