A B.C. Supreme Court judge has grounded an Air Canada cabin cleaner’s bid to appeal her firing for stealing a handful of almond packages and lotion.
Neena Cheema worked 17 years for the airline, but was fired in February 2016 after she pocketed four unopened packages of almonds and a tube of unused hand lotion left by a passenger in a plane’s first class section. Cheema was in a rush and forgot the items were in her pocket, instead of throwing them in the garbage.
While subsequently meeting a supervisor to talk about vacation scheduling, Cheema discovered the items were in her pocket and gave them to the supervisor.
The supervisor then reported the incident to her superior and claimed Cheema offered the items as a bribe. Cheema was called for an investigation hearing that she attended with a shop steward from her union, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers lodge 140. Cheema was suspended pending discharge.
An arbitrator and judge upheld the firing, but the judge referred the case to another arbitrator. This time it was veteran arbitrator Vince Ready who came to the same conclusion.
On June 5, Justice Jasvinder Basran denied Cheema standing to pursue another judicial review. Her only avenue of appeal is to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board.
Basran found that the collective agreement does not make workers individual parties to grievances or arbitrations, because they are contracts between the union and the employer.
“Following certification, the employer loses the right to negotiate directly with the employees, and the union takes on the exclusive responsibility to negotiate on their behalf,” Basran ruled. “Under a collective agreement, administering grievances is one of a union’s essential roles.”
Despite that finding, Basran said he sympathized with Cheema’s predicament.
“The relatively minor transgressions of removing a few packets of leftover almonds and some lotion, even when combined with the bewildering assertion that she attempted to use these items to bribe a fellow Air Canada employee, does not appear to be a firing offence,” Basran ruled. “The reliance on a purported zero-tolerance test is not determinative because a decision to terminate a long‑term employee requires the application of judgment and some semblance of proportionality.”
Basran was puzzled by Ready’s conclusion that Cheema’s actions merited firing, but accepted that Ready had applied the relevant test to the facts of the case.
“I suspect that over the almost 80 years of labour relations between unions and Air Canada, there have been Air Canada employees who have done far worse things and received much lighter penalties that fall well short of termination.”
There was small relief for Cheema, when Basran exercised discretion not to award costs against her.
”I do not believe such an order is justified in circumstances where a long term, 17‑year employee finds herself confronting both her former employer and union, whose positions are perfectly aligned with one another. She undertook this litigation to do whatever she could to continue her career after being terminated over a few nuts and a tube of lotion.”
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