Don't Jump To Conclusions -- Let The Facts Guide You

In the last issue of the Reporter (V40 N4 -- Organize your facts with a Steward Fact Sheet), we provided a form you can use to collect and organize the information you will need to process your grievance. That form will not only help you organize your evidence, but if you are thorough in filling it out, you will have covered all the bases and be ready to go forward with a strong case.

But what is your case, exactly? You won't know until you've sat down with all of the information and studied it. Don't jump on the first issue that you see — or think you see.

We cannot stress this point too much. It is very easy to listen to a member's complaint and immediately jump to the conclusion that you know how the grievance should be handled.

Remind yourself: You don't know anything until you've collected all of the facts and studied the complaint, the evidence, and the contract (or whatever forms the basis for the grievance).

One problem with jumping on the first issue that comes to mind is that you might not collect all the information you need to argue your case effectively. The second problem is that even if you collect all of the information, you might frame your argument in such a way that it is impossible to win.

Let's look at an example adapted from an actual experience at one of our lodges. The lodge has a reasonably good relationship with their employer, but recently the company has hired several new supervisors.

His first day on the job, one of the new supervisors fires Joe M., a seven-year employee who is popular with his co-workers. He can often be seen before or after work hanging out in the parking lot with several other employees who all ride motorcycles.

This group enjoys talking about their bikes and can often be seen riding together on weekends. Like a lot of motorcycle riders, they also enjoy long hair, beards, tattoos, earrings, and clothing with Harley logos and motorcycle-related cartoons and pictures.

Joe immediately files a grievance, but before his grievance has even been heard at the first step meeting, one of Joe's best friends, Bill B., is fired. Bill also files a grievance.

Word gets around the yard pretty quickly that the new supervisor doesn't like bikers. The workers who ride start talking about how to get rid of him. The steward handling these two grievances is not a biker, but he has long hair and wears an earring. He doesn't want to have a supervisor who is prejudiced against people who dress that way.

The steward, who is also new to the job, isn't sure how to get ready for the first-step hearing. Can he argue that discrimination based on looks or interests is against the law? How does he show that the supervisor is prejudiced?

He spends a lot of time talking to other long-haired workers and bikers, asking them if the supervisor has ever said anything to them about the way they look or shown any favoritism for workers who dress more conservatively. He hears quite a few things.

One biker says the supervisor sometimes stands in the parking lot before work, smoking and watching them. Another says he goes out of his way to talk to the workers with short hair, but ignores the long-hairs. Several others share observations that seem to show prejudice, but none of them can relate a specific statement or action where he clearly discriminated.

The steward takes down all of their statements, though, and goes into the meeting planning to argue that the sheer volume of observations is enough to show bias, even though there is no "smoking gun."

At the first-step hearing, the supervisor wastes no time making his case. Both Joe and Bill have excessive absences and tardinesses. Both have sufficient violations that the previous supervisor should have fired them.

The steward looks at the attendance sheets, which support the supervisor's statement. He realizes immediately that he was asking everyone the wrong questions, but takes a shot anyway, saying people on the floor think the supervisor is biased against bikers.

The supervisor smiles and opens his wallet. He shows the steward a photo of a younger version of himself, with beard and long hair, sitting on a Harley at the rim of the Grand Canyon. "You guys have me figured all wrong," he says. "I just want to start off with a clean slate here."

It is always tempting to jump on the first issue that comes to mind, and prejudice -- either against individuals or anti-union prejudice -- is often the first issue that comes to mind.

But you need to let your investigation decide how you'll argue your case. If this steward had done the proper research with an open mind, he would have known about Joe and Bill's absences and perhaps been able to discover some mitigating circumstances.

Instead, he had no defense for their actions and made himself appear foolish in front of the company.

It is not easy to keep an open mind throughout the entire investigation process. We tend to think we see what the issue is and begin focusing our questions in that direction. Doing so can lead you to collect the wrong facts.

When you speak to the grievants and witnesses, avoid the temptation to direct their answers. Don't ask leading questions, like "When did the supervisor lose his temper?" Ask simple, direct questions, like "What did you see? What did you hear?"

Once you have all the facts, you can begin looking for an issue. As you look at the facts, look for a way to take the negative argument. That is, let the company make their claim, then force them to prove it.

The positive argument is always more difficult to prove, so avoid claiming company bias.