A teacher with two school boards for a total of 17 years, I had a great deal of conflict with my most recent, newly appointed principal. I was asked to sign a “personalized contract,” which stated that I would agree not to speak with any parent or staff member without the principal present, or I would be subject to dismissal without the ability to grieve.
Being a teacher, I felt I could not work effectively under those terms. I thought the union would back me for professional autonomy reasons, but they refused. Thus, I was left out in the cold with no severance.
The employment lawyers I’ve spoken to have said my case is basically unwinnable because I belong to a union that won’t back me. Any advice?
THE FIRST ANSWER
Daniel Lublin Partner at Whitten & Lublin employment lawyers, Toronto
As a unionized employee, you cannot take the school board or the principal to court. But you can pursue legal action against the union for failing to properly represent you.
The union has a legal duty to fairly represent your interests against your former employer, which requires that it conduct an honest and good faith assessment of your matter when deciding whether to fight the dismissal on your behalf through the grievance procedures in the collective agreement.
Although the union is not always required to pursue your case, it has to fairly consider the merits and make a decision that is completely free from bias, ill will or discrimination. Here, if the union did not have an genuine reason for disregarding your rights, particularly where you signed a questionable contract purporting to eliminate your ability to grieve the dismissal, you should file a claim with your province’s Ministry of Labour. If successful, it can force the union to pursue a grievance against the school board, where you could receive reinstatement or damages.
The Ministry’s website provides free information regarding how to file this type of claim by yourself or there are various lawyers who perform this service as well.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Christina Stewart Managing partner at Praxis Performance Group, Vancouver
I’d suggest you close the door to the past and look to stepping forward. Without the full details, it’s hard to say why your union isn’t backing you – but I will say it’s unusual, which leaves me wondering how much more to the story there is. Clearly it involves some intense disagreements that the union doesn’t feel will land in your favour and, as such, they are electing to bow out. Employment lawyers are telling you the same thing. Perhaps it’s time to let go of winning this fight, even if you still feel wronged, and look toward your future.
You have been in the school system for 17 years, so presumably you have possibly 20 years of work ahead of you. Given that you were an educator, you will have a lengthy list of transferable skills: planning, organization, presentation and public speaking, as well as handling tough situations to name a few. Corporate training, social work or perhaps starting your own business might be just a few of the options available to you.
Take some lessons from this experience and move on. Make a list of what you learned, then crumple it up and recycle it. Turn your energy to figuring out your next chapter.
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