Settling Problems Before They Become Grievances

GOOD STEWARDS WIN grievances through negotiation with the company, organizing workers in support of each other, and making effective presentations at grievance meetings and arbitration hearings.

Better stewards solve problems before they ever become grievances.

The grievance process may be the most important part of the contract, but it is never perfect. Grievances take time, leaving the grievant angry and frustrated until it is resolved. After a long wait, even a win can leave a bad taste.

Grievances also change the nature of a problem. A minor flare-up can become complicated and threatening once you and the company begin discussing it in the formal terms of the grievance process. “Common sense” solutions may be swept aside, and the resolution could have consequences you never expected.

And the complication — and expense — of arbitration can even make winning a grievance into a losing proposition for the local lodge.

It doesn’t take most stewards long to realize that they are often better off finding a way to solve a problem without filing a grievance. If you can do that, you can save your grievance process for those special situations when only the legal structure of the formal grievance process will do the job.

Here are some tips on how you can successfully solve problems in your unit without actually filing a grievance.

  • Be ready to act. You would never allow an unsafe practice that might eventually result in an injury to continue; why allow the company to keep doing something that could eventually cause a problem? Listen to what your members are talking about. If you hear grumbling about a practice or situation, don’t wait for someone to get hurt. Go to the company and try to resolve the issue.

    By acting quickly, you gain two ways. First, you earn respect from your members when they see that you listen to their problems and are willing to go to bat for them — even if the contract doesn’t cover it. Second, the company is less likely to try to get away with things when they realize that you know what’s going on.

  • Develop good relationships with management. You need to work with these people to get any problems resolved, so you need to know how they think. But don’t confuse your professional relationship with friendship. You don’t need to be the supervisor’s buddy. You need his or her respect and willingness to listen to the issues you bring up.

  • Learn to create win-win arguments. The fact is that your member and the company both win every time a problem in the workplace is solved or a potential problem is avoided. Your member is better able to do the job and enjoy it; the company gains better productivity and workplace harmony. The problem is that sometimes one side or the other doesn’t see how they will gain.

    Sometimes people take positions, then stubbornly refuse to back off of them without truly considering the consequences. Let’s say a member is in an argument with the supervisor about overtime, and the supervisor is threatening discipline if he doesn’t stop bringing it up. What is more important to each of them? Does your member want the supervisor to “say uncle,” or does he want the overtime he was promised? Does the supervisor want the bad behavior to end, or does he want to punish the member?

    If you can get each side to see how they gain from your solution, you can probably resolve the issue.

  • Get your members behind you. Your most powerful tool whenever you deal with the company is a bargaining unit that sticks together and is willing to stand up for you and for each other. You can demonstrate solidarity many ways — wearing buttons, singing songs, signing petitions. Whenever you do anything as a group, the company sees that they are not dealing with individuals, but with a single unit. And that sends a powerful message.

    But you need to have solidarity in order to show it. Do you have 100 percent union membership in your unit? Do your members show their support for each other? Are union activities well attended? Building solidarity isn’t easy, but in the long run, every bit of effort you put into it will pay off.