Virtually every union contract contains a grievance/arbitration procedure, which is the way the union and the employer tackle disagreements about workplace rights covered by the contract. Filing a grievance is the equivalent of starting a lawsuit: you put in writing what you believe another party has done that is contrary to the law, and what action will be necessary to correct the situation. If after going through a series of procedural steps the dispute is not resolved, ten the last step of the grievance process – arbitration – is the equivalent of appearing before a judge to argue the case out and obtain a final resolution, one way or the other.
The natural inclination is to think about pursuing a grievance only if it looks like it has a reasonably good chance of coming up a winner. Why file a grievance in the first place, unless your union is determined to take the case all the way to arbitration if the employer doesn’t back down?
There may be lots of good reasons for a union to file a grievance that doesn’t expect to “win.”
1. Fire a Warning Shot
There are times when it doesn’t make sense to think about fighting the employer to the death on a particular action. It may just not be worth it to arbitrate a relatively minor erosion of existing working conditions, or what looks like a one-time event. At the same time, rather than do nothing, a group grievance could serve to put the employer on notice that its action has not gone unnoticed, and that if it tries the same maneuver again, it may well have a serious fight on its hands.
2. Shine a Light
One of the most frustration experiences in the life of a union representative is to hear and employer say; “That’s just you complaining, none of the people you say you represent even care.” Sometimes it takes a grievance filed by an employee – or two or three or more – to get the employer to acknowledge that a particular problem is real and needs to be addressed.
3. Build a Record
One not entirely humorous definition of paranoia is “a heightened appreciation of reality.” Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw a line between an isolated memo taking you to task for something and the first deadly serious shot in your supervisor’s war against you. If there may be a suspension or termination action looming in your future, sometimes the wisest course of action is to begin to build a written record in your defense right away.
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4. Forge Employee Unity
It may well be that, for one reason or another, an immediate practical resolution of a particular problem may not be in the cards. But a grievance – particularly a group grievance – might be just what is needed to start building solidarity among those wronged by a particular supervisor or policy. If you and others can organize and take a small action, like filing a grievance, this may be the first step toward you and your co-workers later doing whatever it takes to fight – and win on this or a bigger issue.
How have you used your right to file Grievances in the workplace? What experiences can you share with other Union members? We want to hear from you… sound off on the Union Built PC Facebook Page or on our Twitter or LinkedIn feeds. And don’t forget to subscribe to the monthly #UnionStrong email newsletter for articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox.