Arbitrator rules that Reuters violated union contract

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In the first of more than two dozen challenges to the widespread use of so-called performance improvement plans as a disciplinary tool, an arbitrator has ruled that Thomson Reuters editorial managers violated the contract when they disciplined a New York-based reporter for job performance that was addressed in a PIP.

The ruling by Arbitrator Carol Wittenberg, which sustains a grievance filed by the Newspaper Guild of New York, concludes that language added to the new Guild-Reuters contract last year bars management from disciplining employees for job performance that is addressed in PIPs.

“What the company conceded in negotiations was its right to discipline employees for their failure to achieve the objectives set forth in an individual PIP,” Wittenberg wrote in an 18-page decision dated Nov. 8 that the Guild received on Monday.

The company’s recently installed editorial management team has flooded the newsrooms with PIPS this year, targeting 32 Guild-represented journalists with them and with simultaneous discipline. The total includes eight who were terminated and nine who left voluntarily. Ten others were later removed from their PIPs.

The reporter whose disciplinary case came before Wittenberg was placed on a PIP in September 2010 and again in May 2011. Those PIPs, unlike the deluge issued this year, did not contain disciplinary language and were not accompanied by simultaneous verbal warnings. This reporter’s verbal warning, which cited a failure to meet the requirements of a PIP, came in September 2011, a couple of months after Guild members ratified the current three-year contract.

Wittenberg ordered the company to expunge the verbal warning. Arbitrators’ rulings are binding and all but impossible to overturn.

The reporter in this case was fired in September.

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