Patrick Veinot, Jason Patterson and Mike French were fired by Vale on Jan. 19, 2010 after an incident in the community that resulted in criminal charges.
The trio were eventually found not guilty of criminal harassment, while French was found guilty of assault against Todd Chretien, a Steelworkers Local 6500 member who had crossed the picket line during the strike.
In a 73-page-long decision released Sept. 20, arbitrator William Kaplan upheld the men's firings.
He said he was disinclined to believe their reasoning for being in Chretien's neighbourhood, the area where the assault occurred. Kaplan said he thinks they were actually looking for Chretien.
The men said they were visiting an area where French had noticed a vehicle from the private security firm hired by Vale during the strike, AFI, following him and a co-worker a few days earlier, and where they'd boxed in the AFI vehicle.
But Kaplan pointed out they were were expected at a union meeting at the same time, and had actually received several phone calls from union officials asking where they were.
“On balance, one can only conclude from the weight of all of the evidence, assessed according to the strictest standard, that the visit to the location of the 'boxed in' incident was contrived after the event in order to explain the grievors’ presence near the Chretien residence and to undermine any assertion of premeditation,” he said in his decision.
“In fact, when all of the evidence is examined the only conclusion that can reasonably be drawn is that the grievors were not going to see the location of the 'boxed in' incident, but were instead looking for Mr. Chretien.”
Kaplan said the employer “demonstrated just cause for termination” because of the premeditation and the participation in the assault.
In the case of French, this assault was physical and verbal, and in the cases of Veinot and Patterson, it was verbal, and they did nothing to stop the physical confrontation between French and Chretien.
“Given the complete absence of any acknowledgment or responsibility, any expression of genuine contrition, and dishonesty in these proceedings, it is hard to see how this could be an appropriate case for reduction of the penalty.”
On the other hand, Kaplan said a newspaper advertisement put out by Vale in response to the assault was “somewhat over the top” and “undoubtedly used by the employer to advance its case in the wider community.”
Steelworkers Local 6500 president Rick Bertrand, reached while on union business in Pittsburgh, said the workers in question are shocked and disappointed by the decision, as is the union.
“They felt they're innocent, and they should feel innocent,” he said.
Bertrand said the union will be asking for a judicial review of Kaplan's decision through the divisional court, which is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice.
“We were shocked,” Bertrand said. “We're outraged and very disappointed about the decision. We feel that the arbitrator made the wrong decision.”
Steelworkers lawyer Brian Shell said he's also “very unhappy” about the decision.
“I'm bitterly disappointed, in particular in connection with Veinot and Patterson,” he said.
“I understand why it is that the matter might be different for Mr. French, who actually was engaged in the assault, and who was convicted of assault.”
In a press release, Kelly Strong, Vale’s vice-president of Ontario/UK Operations, said he “fully supports” Kaplan's decision.
“Violence and harassment will never be acceptable in our workplace,” he said.
“We are pleased the arbitrator agreed that the actions we took to discharge these individuals were justified and appropriate.
“The actions of these individuals are not at all a reflection on our workforce. We are pleased that all of these arbitrations associated with the labour dispute have been resolved and look forward to putting these matters behind us.”
If the union is granted the judicial review, it will mark another chapter in a battle that has lasted more than three-and-a-half years so far.
When Veinot, Patterson and French, along with six others, were fired during the strike, Local 6500 brought the matter before the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
They fought for and won the right for them to participate in arbitration hearings determining if they can return to work at Vale.
Two of the workers won their jobs back last year, while another three decided not to return to Vale after receiving settlements from the company. Another retired after the strike was over, and was not involved in the fight for arbitrations.