A federal judge has denied a motion by a major union to compel arbitration regarding an employer’s mandatory vaccination policy. This policy began last month and required employees to receive vaccinations. The policy does provide for both medical and religious exemptions and provides for unvaccinated employees to use any paid time off they have accrued until it is all used, at which point their employment could be terminated.
This policy which ironically was instituted by the union’s own sponsored benefits fund was instituted and bargained over by both the employer and union through the summer. However, the talks fell through with the union claiming that the employer was unwilling to bargain concerning the mandatory nature of the policy. This led to the union filing a grievance seeking arbitration to resolve the issue, but the employer refused to engage in the arbitration. Instead, the employer set a date for employees to return to in-person work and required employees to be fully vaccinated prior to their return.
This led the union to file with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois for a temporary restraining order. The union argued that the new vaccination policy violated collective bargaining agreements through instituting a condition of employment and potentially taking from an employee’s paid leave.
The district court denied the union’s motion for a temporary restraining order finding that the union had failed to prove that the union would suffer from irreparable harm should the policy take effect as any fired employees would be able to file a grievance and proceed through arbitration.
In the most recent development for this legal saga, the court has denied a motion by the union to compel interest arbitration regarding the implementation of the vaccination policy. This form of arbitration would have given an arbitrator the right to make a final determination between proposals and counter-proposals by the union and the employer. The judge presiding over this case found that the clause in the contract between the union and employer providing for interest arbitration only applies in cases of economic policies covering wages and benefits, which does not include vaccination policies.
The union argued that the policy did qualify as economic due to its impact on both wages and benefits. However, the court disagreed with this argument finding that such an interpretation would encompass all employment policies essentially.
Many employers are dealing with returns to in-person work right now, and a vaccine mandate is part of many plans to accomplish this. For unionized employers, there is an additional layer of complexity created by the necessity of collective bargaining over policies. Though, in this case, the employer has avoided interest arbitration, there is still a high possibility of the case proceeding to grievance arbitration. Unionized employers should be prepared for bargaining with any unions when introducing any new vaccine mandate.