Information requests are a valuable tool

They can be used for more than just gathering facts

TO HANDLE A GRIEVANCE properly, you need a lot of information. Often your search for facts will lead you to make a request to your employer for information they have on file.

Employers have a legal obligation to provide information that union stewards need in order to handle a grievance or to negotiate changes in working conditions not covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

The company may initially resist turning over the documents and other items you seek, but an outright refusal to comply with a legitimate request can result in an unfair labor practice charge.

Stewards can request a wide range of documents, data, and other materials, as long as they are relevant to the grievance. Items requested might include accident reports, attendance records, disciplinary records, OSHA logs, timecards, vacation requests, work rules – even photographs and drawings. For disciplinary grievances, it’s a good idea to request the entire contents of the grievant’s personnel file and the names of other employees who have committed similar offenses, along with the penalties imposed on them.

To get the most out of your information request, here are some things to consider:

  • Make your request in writing. Employers often stall responding to requests or do not provide all the information requested. You may need written evidence of when you made the request and exactly what you asked for. If you initially make your request orally, immediately follow up with a letter confirming your request. For example, you might begin your letter with: “As I indicated in our conversation earlier today, to process this grievance I will need the following records...”
  • Be specific in what you ask for, but open the door for other information that could be relevant. You might say something like, “To process this grievance, I need the attendance records for the third shift of the press room for the past year, disposition of other employees who have exceeded the absence rule, and any other company records that have a bearing on this grievance.
  • If you are asking for a lot of records, specify that the various items can be provided separately, so the company doesn’t treat the request as all-or-nothing. “Please provide these records by end of business Friday, Oct. 31. If not all records can be supplied by that deadline, the union will accept a partial response with the understanding that the union is entitled to all of the documents as soon as it is practical to deliver them.”
  • Anticipate the company’s objections and find ways around them. For example, employers do not have to provide records that disclose confidential information. But you may be able to pre-empt this objection by agreeing to accept records with confidential information blacked out, or you can submit written privacy waivers from the members whose records you need.
  • Consider other sources. If the information you need can be obtained through another method – a government agency, for example – you can avoid going to your employer. This can be helpful if you know the company will stall you, or if you don’t want the company to get wind of your strategy.
  • Sometimes making an information request can yield results even though you never get the information. If the company doesn’t want to release the information, or if complying with the request would be burdensome, they may be willing to agree to a reasonable compromise on the grievance to avoid giving you the information. However, don’t make an overly broad or burdensome request just to have something to bargain with. The law doesn’t protect “fishing expeditions,” nor do you have the right to information that you cannot clearly link to the grievance in question.

Information requests are an important tool in the steward’s toolbox. You can’t argue a case well unless you have all the facts. Like every interaction you have with your employer, a professionally-handled information request raises your credibility — with the company and, if the grievance goes to arbitration, with the arbitrator as well.

Letter Writing Basics

WHEN YOU DECIDE to file that information request, keep these basic concepts of good letter writing in mind.

  • Every letter can be used as evidence. That’s why you want to put your request in writing — in case you need evidence. That’s also why you should not put anything in your letter that you don’t want used against you.
  • Put it on letterhead, so the company knows it is official union business.
  • Date the letter. Good evidence includes a date.
  • Include the full name, address, and title of whomever you’re sending it to. Doing so keeps the letter from going to the wrong person and shows respect for the addressee.
  • Make sure it is going to the right person. If you send it to someone who doesn’t handle that information, the response could be delayed.
  • Explain the reason for the request. For example, your reason might be “To process a possible grievance involving a dismissal based on an alleged fight on company property...” Only give as much explanation as needed.
  • Put the request in a paragraph by itself, so it stands out.
  • If the request is long or complicated, number the different items you are requesting.
  • Name a deadline. If you don’t get a response by the deadline, contact the person immediately to see what the difficulty is.
  • Tell the recipient how to contact you if more information is needed.
  • Include the names and titles of anyone you are sending copies to, and then be sure to make copies and deliver them.
  • If you cannot hand-deliver the letter, consider sending it registered, return receipt requested, so you can document who signed for it.
  • If you send the letter by FAX, also send it in the post or hand-deliver it, stating on the second copy, “Delivered by FAX on .”