Unions emerged in the 18th century during a rapid expansion of industrial society but were met with large amounts of hostility from employers and government groups. Today, it is widely accepted that unions play an important role in the workplace and advocate for employee rights, providing a much-needed increase in employee bargaining power. With Unions expanding roles as employee representatives, the line between advocacy and legal advice can sometimes become blurred.
In a recent case before the Fair Work Commission, an unfair dismissal applicant was found to have been unfairly dismissed after relying on incorrect advice from their union. The Applicant was asked to attend an informal meeting regarding her work performance, intended to be a coaching session. The Applicant attempted to assert that she should not attend the meeting with management until they had given her the meeting details in writing.
The Applicant relied on a union campaign poster and corresponding advice from a union representative as the basis of her argument. Despite the employer clarifying that it was not a disciplinary meeting, the Applicant was adamant that she would not attend until written details were provided. The Applicant and her employer remained at loggerheads over the point. In the end, the Applicant was dismissed for failing to follow a lawful and reasonable direction from her employer.
In this case, the Commissioner determined that it was a valid reason to dismiss the Applicant. However, because the Applicant relied on incorrect advice from the union, the dismissal was rendered unfair.
Despite this ruling, the Applicant was not reinstated as the relationship between her and the employer had deteriorated. Neither was the Applicant awarded any compensation because it was a union representative’s error rendering it unfair if her employer needed to provide monetary compensation. The judgement in the Applicant’s favour did little to mitigate the loss of her employment.
This case highlights the importance of ensuring that you rely on correct legal advice. While unions have a role in advocating for employee rights, there is no substitute for sound legal advice.