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Getting a Grip on Grievances

This Advisor column was originally published in September 2004.

Collective bargaining is the process whereby the employer and the union exchange commitments, in the form of a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA"), for the purpose of defining their interdependent relationship. The daily management of the CBA is commonly referred to as contract administration. Despite the best efforts of both parties to adhere to the CBA provisions, disagreements or violations of the CBA will likely occur. Most CBA agreements contain very specific provisions about how disagreements will be made known to the employer, and the timeline for resolving any disagreements. These provisions are known as the grievance process.

A grievance is an allegation made by an employee, union, or employer that a collective bargaining agreement has been violated. In most instances, the CBA contains a provision that describes specific steps for filing grievances and the progression of grievances (1st Step, 2nd Step up to arbitration). Generally, grievances are filed to protect contractual violations or to draw attention to problems in the workplace. On occasion, however, a grievant will file a grievance to make a point about his/her, or the union's, discontent with the labor-management relationship.

The most effective way to combat grievances is to avoid violating the contract in the first place. Make sure that you and your supervisors and managers know and understand the CBA, especially the provisions related to human resources issues including, but not limited to, time keeping policies that reference overtime, call back, shift extension, etc.; the processes for making assignments, promotions, and transfers of employees; the investigative processes for handling allegations of employee misconduct; and procedures for issuing discipline to a represented employee.

Checklist For Effectively Managing Grievances

Consider the following strategies for managing the grievance process more effectively:

  • Establish a Labor-Management committee with representatives from management and labor (decision makers) that meet routinely to share information and discuss concerns before they become emergencies or critical problems.
  • Get together with other similarly situated management individuals who deal with labor relations issues. Many times, labor groups come up with their agenda for the year, and will file the same grievance consistently throughout the region to try and support that agenda. By communicating with other management individuals, you may learn of an issue before it arises at your workplace, and management throughout the region can strategize on how best to globally address the issue.
  • Have one central person responsible for tracking grievances. Maintain a log of grievances. The log will assist in maintaining time lines for grievance responses, and can provide data for grievance trend analysis when it is time to negotiate a new contract.
  • Remember the science of labor relations is about human beings, and thus, about maintaining and caring for a relationship between management and labor. To aid in strengthening the relationship, consider the following suggestions:
    • Be timely in your response to grievances and/or ask for an extension if the response is going to be delayed.
    • Don't make promises that you can't keep.
    • Follow through with your commitments.
  • Admit when you have made a mistake, and advise the other side as quickly as possible.
  • Research the issue before you put any substantive response in writing. That includes gathering the relevant documentation, talking to any witnesses, and talking to key members of management regarding any past history on the issue.
  • Look to see if you have any procedural defenses such as lack of timeliness. Such defenses must be asserted during the grievance procedure or they will be considered waived at arbitration.
  • Don't be afraid to use the language of the collective bargaining agreement if the language is strong and absent ambiguity. Past practice cannot supercede clear, unambiguous contract language.
  • Be respectful in your response. You can deny grievances in a manner that still maintains your relationship provided you limit the response to the facts and stay away from personalities.
  • Recognize that not all grievances can be resolved amicably. For operational reasons, the employer must sometimes make a decision the labor group will not look upon favorably.
  • Be creative and ferret out the real issue underlying the grievance. Oftentimes, a grievance is filed not because of a specific issue, but because of a breakdown in communications.
  • Engage in active listening. Focus on what the union is saying to you in a grievance meeting, and repeat the information back to make sure you truly understand the issue. Do not feel compelled to give an answer that day, but take the time to consider the information that was presented.
  • Take good notes during grievance meetings. The notes will assist your representatives in preparing for arbitration should that become necessary and may help limit the arbitration hearing.

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About Janice Corbin and Janet May