Getting More Out of Grievances
So what you want to do is:
- Put the pressure the local management to settle - because it will look good on them and give headquarters one less thing to criticize them about; and...
- Move grievances through the grievance procedure quickly, arbitrating where you need to, to get the corporate office staff to wake up and feel your presence.
A few pointers about grievances that may help you along your way:
- File good grievances.
A grievance has to allege a violation of the collective agreement (you can't just grieve anything) so understand your agreement. Ask for a meeting or information session with you union reps so that you can get a good understanding of all of the clauses. Don't grieve stuff that you clearly don't have an entitlement to or that's so airy-fairy that you can't possibly win. This only reinforces management's "don't take 'em seriously, they don't have a clue as to what they're doing", view of store-level union representatives.
- Get the grievance in within the time limits in your collective agreement.
Generally, you have a certain number of days from the date on which you became aware of the violation of the agreement in which to do this.
- Get your union office rep involved early - drag them in kicking and screaming if you have to.
If they're involved right from the beginning this will minimizes the likelihood of them telling you that you haven't got much of a case at some later date. You also want to get them onside before management has a chance to bend their ear (if that's the kind of relationship that exists between your union and your employer). You rep should be aware of what you're doing and should be able to advise you right from the beginning. If your rep is telling you that you don't have a grievance, make sure you get a good explanation of why this is ("it's not in the collective agreement" or "the collective agreement says the opposite" are two really good answers - "it will make management mad", or "we're not sure that you can win or the language is less than clear" are not good answers).
If you're getting the run around from your rep, ask what the union's position on the language or the issues that you're raising is. What does the union believe the language means? What is it supposed to mean? What did we think it meant when we bargained it? Every union has to be able to answer these questions with something better than "we don't know".
- Be clear about what you're grieving and what you're looking for as a resolution.
Yes, yes, it makes sense to always include that broad all-encompassing statement "and all other relevant articles and clauses" right after your statement about what the violation of the collective agreement is and "any other remedy that may be just and equitable" right after your statement about what remedy you're seeking - that's to cover your butt at arbitration. Submitting grievances, however, that are vague and general only encourages management to ignore them (management construes this as meaning that you don't really know what you're talking about or what you want).
- Get a sense of how far you may be willing to go to settle the grievance.
What kind of deal is a good deal? Depending on the grievance, there may be no happy middle ground at all. If there is a clear violation of the agreement, why settle for anything short of a complete "make whole" remedy? If the language of your agreement is important to you (and it has to be), dealing away grievances that are clear cut winners for you, sends management some mixed signals about how committed the union really is to upholding the agreement. On the other hand, if you can accomplish what you're setting out to accomplish by giving management a trade, maybe that's worth a look. As long as the trade doesn't cost you anything important. We're not suggesting that you trade away other rights and entitlements. Some trades simply involve acknowledging a right that management already has (i.e., "the union acknowledges that hours of operation are set at the discretion of management"). You're not giving anything away. Management offers up these kinds of compromises all the time.
- Time is of the essence.
Don't allow weeks and months to go by in between the grievance procedure steps. The more time that is allowed to drift by, the less seriously your grievance will be taken by management and by your union reps. You don't want it ending up in some pile of old grievances that will one day get dealt away at negotiations or in some bulk-grievance mediation exercise.
Get after your local management and union reps to schedule grievance procedure meetings ASAP. If management is dragging its feet on meetings or responding to the grievance, the union can, if it wants to, advance the grievance to the next step of the procedure (or to arbitration if you're at the end of the procedure). Press your union to do this. Nothing gets management moving like the prospect of a grievance advancing in a timely manner.
You may want to take advantage of expedited arbitration procedures if these are available to you under your provincial labour legislation. In Ontario, either party to a grievance can request expedited arbitration (Section 49 of the LRA) through the Ministry of Labour once the grievance has gone through the procedure. Upon receiving a request, the Ministry of Labour appoints an arbitrator and schedules an arbitration hearing within 21 calendar days. Management officials hate this process because the hearing comes up so quickly. Union officials tend to dislike it for the same reason and also because the date isn't always convenient for its lawyers. But hey, there's always somebody available at the firm (they never pass up an opportunity to make buck after all) and there is little that we've seen or heard to the effect that decisions issued by arbitrators appointed by the Ministry are of any lesser quality than those issued by arbitrators who are chosen by the parties. In many cases, they're the same arbitrators anyway.
- Keep the heat up at the store level.
As we said earlier, store level managers tend to take grievances more seriously than the folks at the corporate office. Impress upon your local manager the need to deal with the grievance quickly. Talk about fairness, equitable treatment and the need for him/her to act reasonably. It will seem like you're wasting your time, but hearing this over and over again has an effect. There are a number of key messages you want to get across to the store level manager:
- The grievance is not going away.
- The issue is important and needs to be dealt with quickly.
- Now is the manager's opportunity to resolve it at the local level, quickly and without drawing a lot of attention from the corporate office.
- Resolution will be more difficult to achieve later on.
- Managers have a responsibility to work things out at the local level, don't they?
Take advantage of informal opportunities to chat about the grievance. You can't compel management to talk formally about the grievance outside of the official grievance procedure meetings, but you can avail yourself of opportunities to plant some seeds. Make mention of the remedy that you're seeking and the reasons why it makes sense (its what the agreement calls for, or if the agreement is vague or ambiguous, its the way the language has been applied in the past are two good ones.)
Of course there are no guarantees. Management can be obstinate if it wants to and that's just how it is. It also takes time to change the way managers respond to issues, particularly if they've been in ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away mode for a while. You can, however, increase your chances of successful outcomes by knowing where the vulnerabilities are - and how to exploit them. (Oh gosh, and up to now only management was supposed to know how to do that!)
Go get 'em!
In a future article, we'll talk some more about communication techniques you can use to boost your effectiveness in grievance procedure discussions. Stay tuned.