Union FAQs: Grievances

By Carrie

Published December 2019

In our March newsletter, we answered some FAQs about unions and union membership. This month we hope to answer questions about another union related topic: grievances. 

What is a Grievance?

A grievance is a formal complaint filed by a worker against their employer. This formal complaint can be filed based on several things:

  • A violation of the union contract or employer rules (Employee Handbook)– if the employer didn’t follow the conditions in the contract or their own handbook related to scheduling, pay, breaks, or other working conditions.
  • A violation of the Law- If an employer isn’t following the law concerning FMLA, OSHA, the Civil Rights Act, ADA, State Laws or Local Laws. 
  • A change in Past Practice- A past practice is a longstanding, consistent response or practice that has been known and accepted by both workers and management.  

I am not a union member, can I still file a grievance?

If your work is protected by a union contract and there has been a violation of the contract, law, or past practice, you can file a grievance. Unions have a duty of fair representation, meaning that they must represent all of the workers protected by their contracts, regardless of membership status. 

Can I file a grievance against my coworker?  Can my coworker file a grievance against me?

You can not file a grievance against a coworker. If a coworker has harassed or bullied you, you can file a grievance against your employer for failing to provide a safe workplace.  Your union steward can assist you with that process. If you choose not to utilize the grievance procedure to address a coworker’s behavior, you may still choose to use a union representative to assist you in bringing your concerns to HR. In addition, your union may have a process for addressing bullying and harassment internally.

In some cases, a worker has to file a grievance for a situation that benefited another worker. For example, if managers choose to call back workers without following contract language or past practice around seniority where a worker might file a grievance.

How do I file a grievance?

Talk to your union steward. The steward will ask important questions about the incident that you wish to grieve. They will begin by writing down the who, what, when, where and how of the experience. They will help you follow the grievance procedure that is in the contract.

The first step is often a conversation with a supervisor. It is important to bring your steward to these conversations. Depending on the situation, you might have the steward do all of the talking. When a steward is representing a worker, they have protections that a worker does not have. 

How is a steward protected in a grievance procedure where that employee is not?
Isn’t the steward also an employee of that organization and therefore putting themselves at risk by saying something?

When representing workers, a union steward or union representative who may be an employee is protected by the NLRB’s Equality Principle. This puts the steward or representative on equal footing with the employer when representing workers. 

This might allow the representative to raise their voice or speak or behave in ways they might not be allowed to when they are not representing workers. For example, a steward might call the boss a liar in a negotiation or grievance meeting, the employer would not be able to reprimand/penalize the steward for this action because they are protected under the Equality Principle. These rights only extend to stewards when representing a worker. For example, a steward may yell and call the boss a liar in a grievance meeting but if they start showing up for work and yelling at the boss as an employee, they would not be protected. 

How is a grievance different than just going to HR? 

The grievance procedure is different than going to HR because it utilizes the union contract and union resources to come to a solution. This might be union representatives working to come to a solution or research the incident. In some grievances, this might mean access to legal resources available through the union. Not every worker can afford access to a lawyer when facing discrimination or harassment, so a union can be valuable in these cases.

I don’t like or don’t trust my Steward.
Why do they have to be involved? Can I request someone else assist me instead?

If you do not trust your union steward, you may request someone else from the union to represent you in steps of the grievance process. In some cases, this might be a steward from another department or a representative from your union.

Note- if there are trust issues with your steward and other workers share this concern, contact your union about steps that you might take to change this.

Why would you HAVE TO file a grievance? Can’t you just not say anything?

You do not have to file a grievance. A grievance can’t move forward without a grievant. Filing a grievance is a way to work towards a solution or remedy using the union contract and the resources of the union when there has been a contract violation, a change in past practice, or a violation of the law. 

The grievance procedure can provide a structure for dealing with issues. It provides a path for workers to exercise their rights and come to a solution that the worker and employer can agree upon. 

As a worker, you can always choose to not say anything. Depending on the issue you can chose to remedy the situation using other avenues, including collective action, OSHA, the EEOC or the company’s HR department. 

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