The Court of Appeals has ruled against the UST Faculty Union’s (USTFU) claim for P80 million in hospitalization and medical benefits accumulated since 1996, citing a technicality.

In a July 13 decision, the appellate court’s former fourth division said a labor arbiter and the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), which had favored USTFU in September 2010 and June 2011, respectively, had no jurisdiction over the case.

Citing the Labor Code, the court said the USTFU should have sought voluntary arbitration to straighten out disagreements over its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the UST administration, before going to the labor arbiter or the NLRC.

“Where the ultimate objective of respondent is to clarify the relevant items in the CBA, its complaint should have been filed with the voluntary arbitrator or panel of voluntary arbitrators having original and exclusive jurisdiction over the same,” said the ruling penned by Associate Justice Sesinando Villon.

USTFU filed a motion for reconsideration last Aug. 6.

The disagreement between the union and the University administration is over how much the latter should contribute annually to a perpetual fund for hospitalization and medical benefits.

The union’s interpretation of the CBA is that UST’s contributions should be repeated annually on top of new contributions, as they correspond to yearly tuition increases. Taking away P8 million remitted by UST to the fund, the administration supposedly owes P80 million to USTFU for the years 1996 to 2011.

The University is supposedly “obligated to remit the amount of PhP2,000,000.00 not only in the first year of the CBA (1996-1997) but also in the subsequent years because the said amount became an integral part of the current or existing tuition fee.” After UST remitted P2 million during the first year of the CBA, it remitted P1 million in the second year, P1 million in the third year, and P4 million in the fourth year, or a total of P8 million.

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Court records showed USTFU demanded P65 million plus interest from then rector Fr. Ernesto Arceo, O.P in 2007. Arceo, however, responded that the contributions to the hospitalization fund were only “one-time” allocations and were not meant to “slide” every year.

The case reached the labor arbiter in September 2007. The labor arbiter ordered UST to pay only P18 million to the union in 2010.

UST and USTFU appealed to the NLRC, which last year ruled in favor of the union and ordered the University administration to pay P80 million plus attorney’s fees. UST subsequently asked the appeals court to review the decisions of the labor arbiter and the NLRC in a petition for certiorari.

‘Wrong forum’

Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina said UST’s petition to set aside the rulings of the labor arbiter and the NLRC was granted by the Court of Appeals because the union went straight to the “wrong forum.”

“[I]f the issue is collective bargaining agreement interpretation, under the law you have to resort to grievance procedure, meaning try to talk things over or see if it can be settled before you go to the labor arbiter,” Divina told the Varsitarian.

But Rolando Go, USTFU legal counsel, said the latest decision did not affect USTFU’s right to pursue its P80-million claim.

“[A]ng maganda, hindi ito total na panalo, kasi nakalagay ‘without prejudice to the refiling of private respondents (USTFU) complaint,’” Go told the Varsitarian. “The petition [of UST] was granted ‘without prejudice,’ ibig sabihin, kung ano man ‘yung right ng private respondent (USTFU) to their money claims, ‘yung hospitalization and medical benefits, hindi maaapektuhan.”

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USTFU reiterated in its motion for reconsideration before the appeals court that violations of the CBA committed by the University were “gross in character” and are considered “unfair labor practice.”

USTFU added that the court made a mistake in “not finding that the proper body under the CBA to process the claims of USTFU is the Permanent Union-University Committee and not the Grievance Machinery.”

“In view of all this foregoing, it is respectfully submitted that a referral of this case to a Voluntary Arbitrator, which is not even provided under the CBA, would serve no purpose except to delay the resolution of the valid claims of the USTFU and would render useless and put to waste the proceedings already had before the Labor Arbiter where UST actively participated and filed all the pleadings and documentary evidence required,” it said.

Rene Tadle, USTFU internal vice president, said the union was considering elevating the case to the Supreme Court.

“If this will be granted, this will be added to the existing hospitalization fund being managed by USTFU and the hospitalization committee,” Tadle told the Varsitarian. “It will be able to give more help and hospitalization benefits to our faculty, so we cannot just give it up.”

Divina maintained that UST has been fully compliant with the terms under the CBA. “UST does not renege on its commitments under the CBA or any agreement for that matter, and UST will not capitalize on any ambiguity in any agreement to be able to escape from any obligation,” he said. Bernadette D. Nicolas

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