When is a longtime past practice not binding?

In 1986 management eliminated vending machines in the cafeteria as "inefficient and uneconomical" after they had been in existence 3 yr. "They shouldn't have been installed in the first place," the plant manager said.
By Raymond Dreyfack May 1, 1998

In 1986 management eliminated vending machines in the cafeteria as “inefficient and uneconomical” after they had been in existence 3 yr. “They shouldn’t have been installed in the first place,” the plant manager said. “The company’s too small to make them pay their way.”

At that time a request was granted for employees to bring in their own coffee makers. From then on workers enjoyed coffee indulgence at will. Since 1986 business had boomed and the personnel roster almost tripled. In addition, the closing of a nearby diner made eating facilities in the area more distant and inconvenient. The company was now better suited for vending machines than it had been in the past, management decided. Plant Engineer Carl Hammer negotiated with a food supplier who agreed to install machines if employees were prohibited from brewing their own coffee. When Hammer decided to comply with this proviso, employees, represented by a two-man committee, protested.

“You can’t do that unilaterally,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve been brewing our own coffee for years. It’s a long-time practice and has become a working condition.”

Question: Does management have the right to revoke the coffee making privilege?

Expert’s opinion: Hammer discussed the workers’ objection with Corporate Attorney Ellen Weiss who felt the mandate was justified. “When the employees’ request to use their own machines was granted, it was in response to a situation that existed at the time and no longer applies. It is now deemed beneficial to both the company and employees for vending machines to be installed, an arrangement that’s impossible so long as employee machines are permitted. While it’s true that long-time practice is sometimes sacrosanct and irrevocable, in this case I think we’re within our rights.”

Want this article on your website? Click here to sign up for a free account in ContentStream® and make that happen.