Union, Not Firefighter, Has Right To Challenge Discipline In Arbitration

John Woods was a fire lieutenant for the Berwyn, Illinois Fire Department. A series of disputes arose between Woods and other members of the Department, and eventually the Department terminated Woods. Local 506 of the International Association of Fire Fighters voted not to challenge the termination in arbitration.

The collective bargaining agreement between the Department and Local 506 allows employees the right to have disciplinary disputes not referred to arbitration to be heard by the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. The Board held a hearing on the charges against Woods, and upheld the termination decision. Woods then sued the City, alleging he had the right to challenge the termination in arbitration.

The Illinois Court of Appeals upheld Woods’ termination, and rejected his argument that he was entitled to arbitration. The Court ruled that “where a collective bargaining agreement establishes a grievance and arbitration procedure, those procedures are the exclusive mode of redress for enforcing the employment contract unless the parties expressly agree otherwise.

“The collective bargaining agreement applicable to Woods provides ‘non-probationary employees with the right to choose between having a dispute as to disciplinary action resolved through a hearing before an arbitrator selected according to the grievance/arbitration procedure of this agreement or by hearing conducted by the Board.’ The agreement sets forth the following procedure for arbitration: (i) When the Fire Chief files charges with the Board, he must give notice to the affected employee and the Union; (ii) the employee or the Union may then ‘file a grievance contesting the just cause of the disciplinary action’ within a certain period of time; and (iii) the grievance ‘may be referred to arbitration.’

“The collective bargaining agreement further states: ‘If the grievance is referred to arbitration by the Union certain conditions must be fulfilled, including a signed statement from the accused waiving all rights to a hearing before the Board. If no grievance is filed or the Union does not refer the grievance to arbitration, the charges shall proceed to hearing and determination shall be made by the Board.’”

The Court found that “these procedures create a condition precedent to arbitration – the Union must refer a grievance to arbitration. The collective bargaining agreement sets forth several steps before arbitration: The Fire Chief must file charges with the Board, then the affected employee may file a grievance. The Union must then decide whether to refer the grievance to arbitration.

“Woods argues that his right to arbitration is unconditional. He points to the language in the collective bargaining agreement intending to give employees the right to choose between arbitration and a hearing before the Board. But the plain meaning of the collective bargaining agreement belies Woods’ reading. The collective bargaining agreement does not provide for an employee to directly refer a grievance to an arbitrator. If the Union and the City wanted to allow an employee – without Union approval – to take a grievance to arbitration, the collective bargaining agreement would have said so.”

Woods v. City of Berwyn, 2014 IL App (1st) 133450 (2014).