Strategic Grievance Handling
Imagine a doctor who tells every patient to take aspirin no matter what the aliment, or a carpenter whose only tool is a hammer.
No, this isn't an article about HMO's or an ad for tools. It's about thinking strategically when you file grievances. Rather than "prescribe" a written grievance for every problem your coworkers encounter on the job, or view every workplace issue as a "nail" that needs pounding, you can be more thoughtful and strategic - and strengthen your union and its ability to fight for the workers - by asking and answering questions like those below.
Is this a continuing problem or one-time occurrence?
When you've got a situation where one member is unfairly disciplined for absenteeism, a grievance that challenges management's action might be exactly the right thing to do. But what if the discipline is part of a new harsh attendance policy, and this one discipline is the beginning of management's expected crackdown? Filing one grievance at a time may never get you the solution you need, at least not in a timely manner. But dealing with the policy with some group grievances and actions, and perhaps making it an issue in bargaining, might get better and faster results.
If this case is going to create a precedent, is it the right test case?
If you decide to challenge management's new attendance policy through a grievance, you want to make sure you have a case that very clearly demonstrates the unfairness of the policy to an arbitrator. If the grievance goes to arbitration and you lose, you may be stuck with the result for a long time. It is often wiser a better strategy - to wait for a stronger case or series of cases that the union can take to arbitration with the hope of getting a favorable decision or a good settlement from management.
Who has the power and authority to resolve the issue?
It's not always clear who in management can resolve an issue. Often stewards are tempted to "beat up on" the closest or nastiest manager or Human Resources representative they can find. But if these are not the people who can change things, you are wasting a lot of energy and time on the wrong targets. It may take some probing to find out just who in management has the final say on an issue, but it's time well spent.
What is the source of the problem?
Let's say you are about to file your umpteenth grievance over an incident where a member curses out a supervisor - a supervisor who routinely provokes these incidents by "forgetting" to talk to employees with the proper respect. Does one more grievance challenging the discipline do anything to attack the source of the problem? A more strategic approach might be a group grievance about the supervisors' unacceptable behavior.
Besides grievances, how else can we resolve this problem?
Would even an arbitrator's decision telling the disrespectful supervisor to "cease and desist" change the situation? Perhaps yes, but more likely the problem will continue until you change or expand your strategy and tactics. It might be time for some kind of demonstration. Or giving the silent treatment to the supervisor. Or filing a discrimination charge (if some of the supervisor's comments or conduct constitute unlawful discrimination). Or all of the above.
Like the carpenter with only a hammer, a steward whose tool belt contains only grievance forms doesn't have all the tools necessary to get the job done.
What forces are in the way of resolving the problem?
Let's say the disrespectful supervisor is getting the best productivity that management has ever seen from the workers. Does upper management have much incentive to lean on him to clean up his act? No, so your strategic thinking might lead you to come up with a group plan that offsets the productivity gains. Perhaps bringing large numbers of workers to long grievance "meetings" with management, or making sure everyone is taking enough time to do every job exactly correctly and safely, will give you the leverage you need to achieve a solution.
Or maybe the reason management is dragging its feet on reining in the offending supervisor is its concern that it will cause them to lose "face" -look bad in front of the workers and weaken other supervisors. If this is the case, then you and your members need to do some strategic thinking about whether it's worth it to give management a face-saving way out of the situation.
So, the next time management gives your members a "headache", don't just reach for the grievance aspirin. Stop and think strategically about other alternatives. And remember, sometimes it takes something other than a hammer to screw management's bad decisions to the wall.
- Ken Margolies. The writer is on the labor education faculty at Cornell University.
10 Steps to Creating Involved Members
Stewards can play a key role in helping their local unions develop a strong and committed membership, but it's a task that takes time and patience. Here are some ideas to begin the process, ideas that have proven themselves effective in unions across North America.
Don't focus on how many members come to the regular membership meeting, but think instead about what you can do to get members more involved.
Take the time to communicate directly to members regularly about how the benefit from the union. Every time a grievance is settled make sure your co-workers know about it. Use the bulletin board, talk about settlements in meetings or in the lunchroom. This also applies to contract settlements. Use these opportunities as an educational tool in why the union is important in the life of the member.
Develop opportunities for members to socialize and get to know one another. Sports, picnics, dances, games, and potluck suppers with families can be put together at little or no cost to the union treasury. These activities provide an opportunity for members to work with one another and enjoy the community of solidarity.
Find the new members right away and welcome them. Stewards should seek out the new employee the first day on the job and invite him or her to sit down with experienced and loyal members at lunch. Make new folks feel part of the family immediately. Give them lots of time to ask questions. Invite them to a meeting -- offer them a ride, if you can ---and acknowledge their presence. Do not let them learn about the union from your boss or a cynical or dissatisfied member.
Ask members to do something for the union. Use their strengths. If someone is a good photographer, have him or her take pictures of a union event, use the pictures in a publication and be sure the photographer is given credit, in print. If the member can decorate a cake, ask for help when you're putting together a union function like a retirement party. Make the task easy and give the member public recognition. That is how you begin to build loyalty.
Make the union visible on the job. Make sure the bulletin boards are clean and look good. Make sure the members know who their stewards are. And officers should visit the properties regularly, not just when there is a problem.
Handle grievances quickly and effectively. Let the grievant know what is going on when there is a delay or if the case cannot be won. As steward, you owe it to everyone to be properly trained and motivated. If you need help from others in the union, ask for it.
Seek input from your members. Locals often think of getting opinions at contract time when the bargaining committee circulates a survey. But there are many opportunities in between contract deadlines when members' opinions would be useful for the local. Stewards should pass members' concerns on up the line.
Help keep your newsletter member-oriented. Submit items to the editor about the people you work with. Highlight your member's activities with articles and, if possible, pictures. List life events such as births, marriages, graduations and anniversaries. Of course, you need to include union news, but highlight some of the human-interest stories. By doing so, you will encourage members to read the whole newsletter.
Work with your leadership to see if the membership meetings can be made more interesting. Guest speakers might be able to make short presentations. Perhaps brief videos can be shown on topics that are interesting to members. Do what you can to help the meetings start and end on time, be reasonably short and in a comfortable setting. Think about families and how they can be accommodated.
Think back to what it was like when you started out in the union and figure out how that experience can be improved. It doesn't take much but you must be consistent and make these changes a regular part of the local's day-to-day activities.
This article was written by Robert Wechsler, Education Director for the Transport Workers Union of America.