Navigating Termination of Employment with Unionized Workers: A Guide for Employers

By Cam Velasco

CEO & Co-Founder
Published: Mar 1, 2024
Employers likely agree that terminating unionized employees can be complex and challenging. This guide promises employers a thoughtful approach to navigating the intricacies of unionized worker termination.
Close-up of hands tearing a paper contract in half.

Employers likely agree that terminating unionized workers can be complex and challenging.

This guide promises employers a thoughtful approach to navigating the intricacies of unionized worker termination.

We’ll review key considerations around laws, regulations, collective bargaining agreements, proper procedures, and strategies for minimizing grievances. The goal is to equip employers with the knowledge to handle these situations in a judicious manner.

Employee Termination Guide for Unionized Workers

Defining Key Terms

Unionized employees are workers who are represented by a labor union. They work under a collective bargaining agreement, which is a contract between the employer and the union that governs topics like wages, benefits, and termination policies. Employers must have “just cause” to discipline or terminate unionized staff. Just cause means there is a legitimate reason for the action that is not arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory.

Understanding Applicable Laws and Regulations

The National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of unionized employees to organize and bargain collectively. It means unionized workers are not considered “at-will” employees who can be terminated without reason. There are some exceptions, like probationary employees or those fired for misconduct. Generally, union contracts require progressive discipline before termination.

The Role of the National Labor Relations Board

The NLRB is an independent federal agency that enforces the NLRA. If there is a dispute about terminating a unionized employee, the NLRB may get involved to determine if it was done lawfully and complied with the collective bargaining agreement. Their rulings help provide guidance to employers navigating this process.

Insights from the Labor Bureau on Unionized Employment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data on the unionized workforce. In 2021, 6.1% of private sector employees were covered by a union contract. When terminating union staff, employers must carefully follow contractual grievance procedures. Documenting performance issues is key. Consulting labor attorneys can also minimize legal risks.

What guideline should you follow when terminating unionized workers?

When terminating an employee, especially one that is part of a union, it is important for employers to follow proper protocols. Here is a brief guide for employers:

Meet with the Employee Face-to-Face

Experts advise informing the terminated employee in person whenever possible. Schedule a private meeting and keep the conversation brief and factual. Clearly state the reason for termination without suggesting any possibility of changing your decision.

Explain Next Steps

Clearly outline the details regarding the employee’s final paycheck, benefits, and process for collecting any personal belongings left at the workplace. Provide specific dates, contacts, and instructions as needed.

Conclude the Conversation

Once you have communicated the reason for termination and detailed next steps, conclude the meeting. Avoid prolonged, emotional conversations. Thank the employee for their service, and escort them out. Their union representative may be present if requested.

Following this process helps make a difficult situation clear and consistent for all parties. Ensure proper documentation throughout in case of any later disputes.

How do unions protect workers from being fired?

Unions protect workers from unjust termination in several key ways:

Collective Bargaining Agreements

Union contracts contain provisions that govern termination procedures and help prevent unjust dismissals. These collective bargaining agreements often require employers to have “just cause” before firing an employee. They also mandate steps for disciplinary action before termination, such as verbal warnings and performance improvement plans.

Grievance Procedures

Union contracts outline formal grievance processes that workers can use to dispute and appeal disciplinary decisions or termination. Workers have the right to union representation in these procedures. The union advocates on the worker’s behalf through the negotiated process.

Legal Support

Unions provide legal assistance and advice to workers facing disciplinary issues or termination. They help workers understand their rights and options for recourse under labor laws. Unions may file legal complaints or lawsuits on behalf of workers alleging wrongful termination or retaliation.

In summary, unions leverage collective bargaining power and contractual rights to institute checks and balances in the termination process. This aims to prevent arbitrary or unjustified firings. Workers have more job security, due process protections, and support when united under a union contract.

How difficult is it to fire a union employee?

Firing a union employee can be more difficult than firing a non-union employee. This is because union employees typically work under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the union and the employer.

The CBA outlines the disciplinary process and usually requires the employer to show “just cause” before terminating an employee. Some key points for employers:

  • Document performance or conduct issues thoroughly before considering termination
  • Follow the disciplinary steps outlined in the CBA
  • Conduct a fair investigation before making a decision
  • Have evidence to demonstrate just cause for termination

For example, the CBA may require the employer to:

  • Give verbal and written warnings before termination
  • Provide employees due process like a hearing
  • Have proof of consistent performance issues or serious misconduct
  • Show the termination is fair and nondiscriminatory

Without proper documentation or following the CBA, attempts to fire may be overturned in grievance arbitration. Consulting legal counsel experienced with CBAs can help navigate the termination process.

The CBA makes firing union employees more involved than at-will employees. But with proper procedures, employers can still terminate employees when there is just cause with appropriate documentation. Understanding the CBA requirements is key for a lawful discharge.

How does an employer get rid of a union?

The process to remove a union starts by filing a decertification petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Here are the key steps an employer would take:

  • File a decertification petition signed by at least 30% of employees in the bargaining unit. This can be done at the regional NLRB office or electronically through the NLRB website.
  • The NLRB will verify the signatures and determine if at least 30% of eligible employees signed. If so, they will schedule a decertification election.
  • Before the election, the employer should educate employees on the implications of decertifying and why they may wish to do so. However, employers cannot make promises or threats related to unionization.
  • The NLRB holds a private ballot election. Employees vote whether to decertify the union. If a majority vote in favor, the union is decertified and the employer no longer has to recognize or bargain with that union.

The NLRB has strict rules around employer involvement in the decertification process. It’s best to consult an attorney specializing in labor law before taking any action regarding union decertification. Overall the process centers around employees exercising their right to vote on union representation.

Pre-Termination Planning and Preparation

Reviewing the Collective Bargaining Agreement

It is critical for employers to thoroughly review the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) prior to terminating a union employee. The CBA outlines the terms and conditions of employment, including provisions related to discipline and discharge. Carefully analyzing these sections will ensure full compliance and prevent potential labor disputes. Relevant factors to review include:

  • Just cause standards for termination
  • Notice requirements before termination
  • Rules around suspension pending investigation
  • Grievance process details

Understanding these CBA guidelines is the foundation for lawful and fair terminations.

Consulting with HR and Legal Counsel

Before moving forward with terminating a union employee, employers should consult closely with human resources and legal counsel. These key stakeholders can provide guidance on:

  • Assessing if there is just cause for termination under the CBA
  • Following proper disciplinary procedures
  • Minimizing legal risks regarding wrongful termination claims

Collaborating across HR, legal, and management will lead to thoughtful, ethical decisions aligned with company policies and legal obligations.

Determining Just Cause for Termination

Employers must evaluate whether there is “just cause” for terminating a union employee based on the CBA’s standards. Just cause generally means there is sufficient and reasonable grounds for discharge, including:

  • Proof of misconduct (e.g. absenteeism, insubordination)
  • Fair investigation confirming violations occurred
  • Consistent enforcement of rules and penalties

Documenting evidence to meet these just cause criteria is necessary for lawful, defensible terminations.

Engaging with Union Officials Pre-Termination

Prior to discharging an employee, employers should discuss the situation with union representatives. This engagement can help:

  • Explain the rationale for termination
  • Show the consistency of enforcement
  • Reveal any extenuating circumstances

Constructive pre-termination conversations build trust, prevent disputes, and smooth the overall process.

The Termination Meeting with Unionized Workers

Arranging proper union representation is an important first step when terminating a unionized employee. This ensures the process aligns with labor regulations and the union contract.

Arranging Union Representation

The union must be permitted to have a representative present during termination meetings with unionized employees. Notify the union in advance and coordinate schedules to ensure proper representation. Both parties should prepare documentation to support their positions.

Documenting the Interaction

Take thorough notes about what is discussed and decided during the termination meeting. Document details on the reasons for termination, any rebuttals or mitigating circumstances raised, the final decision, and next steps. Keep records factual and free of subjective commentary.

Communicating Termination Decisions Clearly

Clearly explain the reasons for termination to the employee and union representative. Provide evidence supporting the decision while allowing them opportunity to respond or present additional information. Make the final call unambiguous, stating the effective date and terms of the termination.

Respecting Employee Rights During Termination

Throughout the termination process, maintain professionalism and adhere to the employee’s rights per labor regulations and union contracts. Avoid debates or accusations. Allow them to preserve dignity as they transition out of the role.

Post-Termination Considerations for unionized workers

Responding to Grievances and Appeals

If a terminated union employee files a grievance disputing the disciplinary action, employers should follow the established grievance process as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. This usually involves participating in a grievance hearing and providing documentation to support the termination decision. If the grievance advances to arbitration, the employer will need to present evidence and testimony defending the termination.

Reporting to Relevant Agencies

If the terminated employee filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the employer must fully cooperate with any investigation. The employer may need to submit copies of relevant policies, disciplinary documentation, and communications regarding the termination.

Managing Workforce Morale and Dynamics Post-Termination

The termination of a union employee can impact overall workforce morale and team dynamics. Employers should assess any drop in productivity or engagement after the termination and address issues through increased communication and team building initiatives.

Evaluating the Need for Policy Revisions

Employers should evaluate whether termination exposed the need for revisions to workplace policies, disciplinary procedures, or the management of union relations. Implementing preventative measures can help avoid future disputes related to terminations of unionized staff.

Conclusion: Navigating the Complexities of Unionized workers Termination

Terminating employees who are part of a unionized workforce requires careful preparation and strict adherence to legal requirements to ensure a smooth process. As summarized in this guide, there are several key steps employers should take:

  • Review the collective bargaining agreement to understand termination protocols and notify the union in advance of any planned terminations. This builds trust and transparency.
  • Consult legal counsel to ensure the termination reason and process aligns with labor laws and NLRB requirements before moving forward.
  • Document performance issues thoroughly over time to build a case for termination. This protects against wrongful termination claims.
  • Hold a termination meeting on neutral grounds with union representation present. Clearly communicate the reasons for termination in a respectful manner.
  • Expect the union to advocate for the employee and potentially file a grievance. Be prepared to explain how the termination aligns with policies.

Navigating terminations with unionized staff is complex but surmountable with proper planning. Open communication and fair treatment of employees, even in termination, fosters good faith with the workforce long-term.

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Cam Velasco

CEO & Co-Founder

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