'Blue collar culture' no excuse for verbal abuse and harassment, arbitrator rules

The union representing the coal mine workers at Teck Resources' Elkview operation argued a worker's comments were nothing more than "locker room talk," but an arbitrator disagreed.

Teck Resources was justified in firing worker for harassing and verbally abusing coworkers, arbitrator rules

A road sign to Teck's Elkview coal mine, where Guy Travis worked until he was fired last year for harassing and bullying colleagues. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

An arbitrator has upheld the firing of a Teck coal mine employee who bullied and harassed his colleagues after he had received earlier warnings and anger management counselling.  

The union representing the worker argued his behaviour was consistent with the "blue collar culture" at the mine and his comments were no more than "locker room talk."

But arbitrator Stan Lanyon used strong wording in his decision, writing that "no one is required to work in fear of his fellow employees, nor does any employee have to 'put up' with or accept harassment and bullying as the price of their employment."

The decision — released June 20 — highlights how workplace behaviour that may have once been brushed aside is increasingly recognized as harmful and hurtful.

History of angry outbursts

The complainant in the case, Dave Armstrong, reported being the target of "digs" and hurtful comments from his colleague, Guy Travis, who was fired on June 5 of last year. 

Both men had worked at Teck Resources' Elkview operation near Sparwood, B.C., for more than two decades when Armstrong reported what he described as abusive behaviour to management.

Travis had a history of angry outbursts and the company had ordered him to get anger management counselling in 2015. The company had also given him two "final letters" — considered an employee's "last chance" — for his treatment of employees.

Coal dust is seen rising from a Teck coal mine near Sparwood, B.C. (sparwood.ca)

Yet the union, United Steelworkers Local 9346, grieved Travis's firing, presenting a different perspective of the two incidents that led to his termination.

According to Travis, he was "dead calm" when he approached Armstrong on May 16, 2017, and urged him to speak directly to him instead of to the foreman if he had "a problem with the leaving of a magazine in a piece of equipment at the mine site."

The employer does not allow reading material on the work site or in the equipment, according to the documents.

'Beet red'

But, according to Armstrong, Travis was "beet red" when he approached him in front of the entire road crew. Travis put his finger in Armstrong's face and swore several times while telling him not to go to the foreman with a complaint. 

Armstrong said he knew nothing about any magazines and later said Travis had been making harassing digs at him for years.

"It gets you down," Armstrong is quoted as saying in the written decision. "It makes you feel terrible."

According to the judgment, when Armstrong told his wife about the incident, she started to cry and said he wasn't "himself anymore."

'Bullied, belittled, harassed and scared'

Armstrong wrote a letter to his general manager to say he wasn't functioning well and couldn't get the incident out of his head. For the next few months, he said he was sleeping for only a couple of hours a night, and even called 911 at one point to talk to a police officer.

"Mr. Armstrong felt bullied, belittled, harassed and scared," Lanyon wrote in his decision.

"I conclude that [Travis] harassed and bullied Mr. Armstrong on May 16, 2017. He did it in front of Mr. Armstrong's entire road crew in order to intimidate him and to show him up as a squealer in front of his fellow employees."

'Just guy talk'

The second incident outlined in the 24-page decision involved a comment Travis made to another colleague — 12 days after the Armstrong confrontation — in which he swore and used explicit language to suggest the employee performed a sexual act on a supervisor. 

Explaining his comments to a hearing, Travis said it was "just guy talk," according to the written judgment. 

"That's what we do. We do it all the time. We are always giving it to each other. I mean you keep religion and family out of it. Those are the things you don't touch, but the rest is okay," he said. 

Teck Resources said in an email to CBC News that the company's code of ethics "recognizes that all employees have a right to work in an environment free from violence and threats, including acts of physical, verbal or written aggression." 

The union and its lawyer declined to comment. 

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