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At a time when union members are increasingly facing disciplinary action for speaking out against cutbacks and privatization, arbitrator Christopher Sullivan has issued an important decision recognizing the right of union officials to criticize employers when defending members’ interests and quality public health care.

The subject of HEU’s successful grievance was a local executive member employed at Rosewood Manor who had received a five-day suspension for a letter he’d written to the Richmond News in April, 2002. The letter criticized his employer for recent staff cuts, a lack of information regarding potential contracting out, and deteriorating staff morale within the intermediate care facility.

The Health Employers Association of B.C. argued the suspension was reasonable discipline as the grievor had violated his duty of fidelity to the employer, the facility’s policies and procedures manual, and his pledge of confidentiality.

HEU argued that because he was acting in his capacity as a union official he was entitled to immunity from discipline. Sullivan agreed.

“A cornerstone to the inherently adversarial nature of a collective bargaining relationship is protection from discipline for union officers, acting in an official capacity, criticizing management,” he said. “As local union president, the grievor was entitled to a measure of protection from discipline for his public statements made in connection with his union office.”

“This is an important victory for those members who face gag orders from their employers,” said HEU secretary business-manager Chris Allnutt. “And it’s a setback for employers’ efforts to silence union leaders.”