Getting More Out of Grievances
Grievances are probably the most frequent form of union activity in a workplace. Most grievance procedures contain a number of steps at which representatives of the employer and the unions are required to meet to discuss (and try to resolve) the grievance. The early steps tend to involve officials at the local level, while the later steps involve more high-ranking officials from the union and corporate offices.
If you are a steward or store-level representative you probably find the grievance procedure frustrating. Meetings seem to take forever to arrange, management never wants to budge, your business agents tell you that you don't have a strong case, members get frustrated and accuse you of not doing much for them.
Well, we have bad news and we have good news: First, the bad news is that when it comes to raising complaints about management having violated the collective agreement, the grievance/arbitration procedure is your only option. The good news, however, is that there are some fairly simple strategies you can employ that may help you use the grievance procedure more effectively. You just need the inside track on a few things.
To begin with it's important to understand how management perceives grievances. There are two levels of management that become involved in grievances: The store level or shop floor level managers and corporate office labour relations staff. Store level management takes grievances relatively seriously, the people at the corporate office don't. Store level managers rely on advice from corporate labour relations staff when deciding how to respond to a grievance. The Advice they often get is that they are in the right, they ought to deny the grievance and do nothing until the grievance is processed to the later stages of the procedure, which call for corporate labour relations involvement.
The advice store managers get from their corporate LR experts is not always based on any thorough examination of the facts. The LR experts are often unaware of the origins of the collective agreement language and how it's been applied at the store level. A lot of off-the-cuff, on-the-fly advice gets dispensed when the nervous store manager calls to discuss the grievance that's just landed on his or her desk.
Corporate office staff and store (or branch) level managers are not generally a mutual admiration society. In the average business organization there is considerable friction between corporate and branch operations. Store managers often see corporate types as arrogant, lazy and out of touch with the rigors of life in the trenches. Traditional corporate labour relations officials tend to see themselves as baby sitters of sorts - they exist to protect the local level mangers from themselves and to protect the corporation from the potentially costly fallout of their actions. Corporate staffs tend to regard store level management as stupid - if they were smart, they'd be working at the corporate office after all. Many Labour relations types are quite turned on by the legal side of labour relations and focus on the legalities of the issue almost exclusively.
At the corporate office, grievances are regarded as a nuisance - something that is inevitable in a unionized environment. Grievance handling isn't a high profile task for ambitious labour relations managers so it is often delegated down to more junior level staffers where these exist or given short shrift, where the managers must handle grievances themselves. Dealing with the union is an unpleasant task - especially when one must maintain some level of civility. Arbitration is far more exciting. You get to hang out with the lawyer all day, have your lunch in a pricey restaurant and feel very, very important. Of course, you can't go there too often as that would blow the department's budget for legal fees and possibly draw attention to what you're doing or not doing for your store level clients. In short, store level management generally doesn't get a lot of good advice about the grievances it receives. Corporate officer managers could care less about grievances until they get to the arbitration stage.
So what you have are two different groups of managers with completely different reactions to grievances. Neither of the two is terribly predisposed to settling grievances in favor of the union but each has some buttons you can press to put the pressure on. You'll notice that the buttons are different but pressing both can work well for you.
Local managers are more sensitive to grievances. They don't feel comfortable dealing with labour relations stuff and find the collective agreement confusing. Some worry that having grievances will reflect poorly on them in the eyes of the big shots at the corporate office. The fact that they have to deal with union stewards and union members face-to-face on a daily basis is another factor - if I have to look at you every day, I may want to maintain at least some semblance of a relationship with you.
Local managers are more likely to respond to pressure to settle the grievance early and at the local level. Corporate staffers only get excited about grievances when they disrupt their schedules or when enough of them end up at arbitration to generate a big legal tab. This is problem for two reasons - it may eat up whatever funds have been allocated for legal expenses and it may cause some very high-ranking corporate officials to wonder if the Labour Relations department is letting things get out of hand.