Transit workers’ union grieves the manner in which employer uses and deals with social media customer communication mechanism
In Re Toronto Transit Commission and ATU, Local 113 (Use of Social Media), Ontario Labour Arbitrator Robert D. Howe heard a grievance by the union for workers at the Toronto Transit Commission, regarding the employer’s use of social media and particularly Twitter for customer service. Most of the complaint centred around the TTC’s Twitter account, @TTChelps, which the union said the employer was using to “to publish personal information about Local 113 members, to receive and make complaints about Local 113 members, and to solicit public comment with respect to Local 113 members.” The legal argument was that the manner in which the employer was using the Twitter account constituted breaches of the collective agreement and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
One of the union’s witnesses, an executive board member of the union, testified that after concerns by union members about the content of the @TTChelps Twitter feed were brought to his attention, he began to monitor it closely, and was “overwhelmed by the amount of abuse being visited upon bargaining unit members by the public, including racist remarks, homophobic remarks, vulgarity, and death threats.” He raised these concerns with management but received no substantive response, and thus the grievance was brought. Arbitrator Howe reviewed in great detail the testimony and arguments on both sides, as well as evidence about the content of the Twitter account which (as readers will perhaps not be surprised to learn) contained every manner of insulting, obscene and provocative comment under the sun, all aimed at union members with whom the public interacted or were otherwise displeased with.
The arbitrator ultimately made certain findings against the employer. Notably, “[S]ocial media sites operated by the TTC, such as @TTChelps, can be considered to constitute part of the workplace for purposes of determining whether the HRC, the Agreement, and TTC policies have been contravened as a result of harassment.” It was clear that a number of the tweets in evidence constituted harassment, which contravened both the HRC and the employer’s policy that applied both to employees and the public users of the feed. Moreover, the employer had failed to take all reasonable and practical measures to protect the union members against this harassment, instead using ineffectual or inappropriate methods such as ignoring the harassment, asking the user to avoid the harassment but then providing details about how to make a complaint, etc. The arbitrator concluded:
To deter people from sending such tweets, @TTChelps should not only indicate that the TTC does not condone abusive, profane, derogatory or offensive comments, but should go on to request the tweeters to immediately delete the offensive tweets and to advise them that if they do not do so they will be blocked. If that response does not result in an offensive tweet being deleted forthwith, @TTChelps should proceed to block the tweeter. It may also be appropriate to seek the assistance of Twitter in having offensive tweets deleted. If Twitter is unwilling to provide such assistance, this may be a relevant factor for consideration in determining whether the TTC should continue to be permitted to use @TTChelps.
The arbitrator also concluded that allowing users to post photos of TTC employees in their tweet on @TTChelps constituted invasion of the targeted employees’ privacy, and such users should be asked to remove the photos and blocked if they refused. On the other hand, tweets containing information about names, badge numbers and route schedules related to employees were not invasive of privacy because there was no reasonable expectation of privacy over such information in the context of a public service provider.
The arbitrator concluded that social media being an important and necessary tool and part of customer service, it would not be reasonable to order that @TTChelps be shut down. However:
Developing templated responses mutually acceptable to the Employer and the Union might well be of assistance to the senior service representatives who respond to tweets received by @TTChelps, and beneficial in ensuring that the responses they provide are not violative of the TTC’s collective agreement or statutory obligations. It might also be beneficial for the parties to develop mutually acceptable guidelines regarding when information of that type should be provided, and when tweeters should simply be advised that if they wish to file a complaint they must contact the TTC by telephone or via the TTC website.
The arbitrator chose to allow the parties time to confer on these topics and attempt to reach agreement, while remaining seized of the matter.