A recent arbitrator’s decision shows that while protesters at the Muskrat Falls project site in Labrador in October 2016 were disrupting work on the project and attracting national media attention, confusion inside the gates among some security personnel resulted in three security officers being fired, and another being issued a suspension and demoted in rank.
The three men who were fired had left the site in an unmarked truck, without having the permission of the security company to take the truck. The fourth man was disciplined for his part in allowing it to happen.
An arbitration hearing was brought on by grievances filed on behalf of the disciplined security workers.
In the decision, the arbitrator found that while the workers deserved discipline for their “failure to exercise due diligence” and “failure to consider the interests of the employer,” the punishment was too severe.
The arbitrator, James C. Oakley, ordered the reinstatement of the three fired workers and instead imposed suspensions upon them. He also ordered that the demotion of the fourth man be rescinded, but that having a suspension placed upon him was justified.
The decision also notes some other interesting pieces of information — at one point there were concerns raised that some security officers were in collusion with protesters, but that allegation was not substantiated.
The arbitration case was between the Resource Development Trades Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Muskrat Falls Employers’ Association Inc.
The trades council argued that Leonard Smith, Clarence Ponniuk and Perry Mugford were wrongfully dismissed, while assistant crew chief Barry Canning received excessive discipline.
All were employees of contractor Speuata Security Inc.
On Oct. 16, 2016, a large group of protesters blocked entry to the Muskrat Falls site, causing difficultly for workers and others entering and leaving the site.
A court injunction was granted to prevent protesters from interfering with access to the site and from trespassing on it. Speuata had enacted its protest policy to monitor and deal with the demonstration, while the RCMP beefed up its presence at the site.
By Oct. 19, security workers were unable to gain access to the site by road and were being flown in by helicopter.
Smith, Ponniuk and Mugford are among workers who would normally travel back and forth between the site and Happy Valley-Goose Bay in a company vehicle.
The end of their 14-day rotation came on Oct. 22 and the three were anxious to get off site.
Speuata did not want any of its trucks taken from the site for fear the protesters would not allow the vehicles back inside.
The company had earlier also seconded a truck owned by Labrador Catering to help with security on the massive site. This truck was unmarked, and though it had a specific purpose in the security plan should protesters break through the gate, Smith, Ponniuk and Mugford believed they were permitted to take the truck to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“At about 2 p.m., protesters cut the lock on the chain link gate,” Oakley states in his decision.
“Protesters walked in the access road past the gatehouse and started to arrive at the camp at about 4 p.m. The security personnel were instructed to make notes of their observations of the protesters. The breach of the gate and entry on the site by protesters affected the construction activity. At least 18 busloads of construction workers were observed by security personnel leaving the site on the night of Oct. 22.
“Several witnesses testified that the scene at the camp was chaotic but the protesters appeared to be peaceful. The three grievors, Mr. Smith, Mr. Ponniuk and Mr. Mugford, left the site in the LC truck on the same day that protesters breached the gate, and at a time when access to the site had been blocked by protesters.”
The decision is detailed and contains statements of many of those involved, and outlines a list of often contradictory accounts of what happened that day in communication among security personnel — amid a chaotic situation — as to whether permission was given for the truck to be taken off site.
Lyndon Quinton, part owner of Speuata, testified at the arbitration hearing that the employees were putting their self-interest above the interests of the company. He said the breach of the site by protesters had caused the shutdown of the site, affecting several workers.
He also testified that on Oct. 22, Dave Riffe, security and safety manager for Muskrat Falls Corp., called and told him that Nalcor believed Speuata security officers were in collusion with protesters at the site.
The concern from Nalcor was that security officers might have moved the security cameras so the view of the gate was obstructed when protesters entered the site.
However, upon investigation, it was learned that Ponniuk had been told to pan the camera to show the protesters moving toward the gate, and then to pan the camera to show protesters entering the gate.
Quinton said there was no collusion with protesters, but he feared the ability of Speuata to deliver security services at the site was being questioned by Nalcor, and he was concerned at the time the security contract might be terminated.
The Muskrat Falls Employers’ Association Inc. indicated the actions of the workers taking a truck — which was part of the security plan — off site affected the employer.
Oakley agreed, in part.
“While the conduct was not planned, it represented a failure to exercise due diligence in the carrying out of the duty of security officers and assistant crew chiefs, and failure to consider the interests of the employer,” Oakley said.
“The actions of the grievors justify a significant disciplinary penalty, but not the disciplinary penalty imposed by the employer.
“An appropriate penalty for (Smith, Ponniuk and Mumford) is a suspension without pay for three 14-day working rotations, or approximately three calendar months. It will be ordered that those three grievors be reinstated with full compensation upon completion of the suspension. With respect to Barry Canning, it is appropriate that he be suspended without pay for a period of two working rotations of 14 days for approximately two calendar months, that the demotion be rescinded and that he be reinstated in his rank. It will be ordered that Mr. Canning receive full compensation resulting from the reduction of his suspension and the reinstatement of his rank.”