Intentions Passing Like Ships in the Night

Authors: Anna Solmundson, Grant Stefanson

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (Regional Pharmacy Program) v. Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals is a recent decision of Arbitrator Peltz (“Arbitrator”) that highlights the importance of collective agreement language accurately capturing the intentions of the parties.

The employer, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (“WRHA”) operates the Regional Pharmacy Program to provide pharmacy services in its various hospitals, and found itself in a dispute with the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (the “Union”) related to seniority in internal hiring.

In 2008, the Union was certified as bargaining agent for all employees, other than clerical and administrative employees, of Concordia Hospital, Deer Lodge Centre, Health Sciences Centre, Seven Oaks Hospital and Victoria General Hospital. As a result, the collective agreement covered all of the hospital sites (the “Collective Agreement”) as opposed to single sites as had been the case prior to the certification.

The grievance arose when the WRHA considered calculating seniority across the entire bargaining unit rather than on a site-specific basis.

The Collective Agreement referenced the “bargaining unit” as the seniority pool for filling internal vacancies. The Union took the position that seniority was intended to be site-specific, meaning that where a specific hospital pharmacy was hiring, employees of that hospital pharmacy would be given preference in hiring for the position. The Union further argued that the Collective Agreement was ambiguous, and that the ambiguity should be resolved by following past practice, and applying seniority in a site-specific manner.

By contrast, the WRHA denied that the language was ambiguous, and argued that on a plain language interpretation of the Collective Agreement, seniority ought to be calculated on the basis of the entire unit. The WRHA further argued that if the Union had wanted site-specific seniority to apply, they could have negotiated for it, but had failed to do so.

While the WRHA declined to present evidence of the bargaining history, saying it ought to be inadmissible, the Union presented evidence from past negotiations as well as evidence of past practice prior to the amalgamation of hospital employees into single bargaining unit. Even though the Arbitrator accepted that the Union’s evidence was admissible, the Arbitrator noted that the evidence failed to reveal a consensus between the parties. The Arbitrator confirmed that such evidence will only win the day if it reveals a consensus about the meaning of the language under dispute. According to the Arbitrator, “If it is merely compatible with one of the interpretations being proposed, it is of no value in resolving the dispute.”

Unfortunately for the Union, the Arbitrator was unable to find a consensus between the parties’ intentions, even with the aid of extrinsic evidence, noting that intentions seemed to have passed like ships in the night during negotiations. Without a consensus as to the intention of the parties, the Arbitrator applied a plain language interpretation of the Collective Agreement. Since the provisions of the Collective Agreement did not reference or provide for site-specific seniority, on a plain language approach, the Employer’s interpretation was adopted.

This case is a reminder that in bargaining, employers should ensure that the language of the agreement clearly reflects the intended outcome.

Parties seeking an interpretation that doesn’t correspond with the plain language of an agreement may not be successful unless that party can provide extrinsic evidence showing a clear intent, attributable to all parties, that the plain meaning does not apply.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.