What to Do When a Member Demands Arbitration

JOEY JOHNS WAS a 22-year employee and member of the local with an excellent attendance record and no previous grievances. So when he showed his steward a written reprimand for being away from his work station without permission, the steward understood his anger and frustration.

“I’ve given my life to this company, and this is what I get in return,” Joey said. “I want that reprimand removed from my file.”

The steward was inexperienced, but he knew what questions to ask and soon learned that Joey had personal problems which had kept him away from his station more than usual over the last few weeks. Nonetheless, Joey felt his 22-year record should count for something.

The supervisor said Joey’s record did count, but enough is enough. “I should have written that letter three months ago. If I take it back, I’ll lose control of the rest of the crew.”

Investigation showed the supervisor had documentation for numerous incidents over a four-month period, but Joey didn’t care. When he ran out of steps, he demanded arbitration. “I’ve been a member of this union since you were in grade school,” he told the steward, “and I’ve never asked for a thing. Now you can put my dues money to work. Take this to arbitration and clear my name.”

THIS SCENARIO IS unusual only because Joey wants to take a reprimand to arbitration. Usually when a grievant demands arbitration, more is at stake — a suspension, loss of a benefit, or a termination.

Deciding whether to arbitrate a grievance can be difficult under any circumstances, but it is especially difficult when a member is angrily demanding his or her day in court. Without clear guidelines for how to decide, many lodges end up arbitrating more grievances than they should.

Sometimes locals have no choice. But that step should never be taken without a thorough analysis, not only of the case’s merits, but also of everything the member and the local lodge could lose through the arbitration process.

Taking a grievance to arbitration can be expensive and dangerous — for the local, that is. The member usually has everything to gain and little to lose.

If Joey convinces his lodge to go to arbitration, the lodge will shell out thousands of dollars to pay for a hearing room, a court reporter, an arbitrator — maybe even an attorney, if the case is complicated. In addition, the steward, lodge officers, and often the International rep will put in many hours of work.

That is a high price to pay just to remove a letter from a personnel file — a letter that will mean nothing if Joey returns to his good work habits.

And if the lodge loses the grievance, the decision could set a precedent that will haunt the local for many years.

ARBITRATION CAN ALSO weaken the local’s bargaining power with the company. Using an arbitrator often helps resolve a bitter struggle, because it takes a problem that looks unsolvable out of the union’s and the company’s hands and lets a disinterested third-party decide.

But the nature of union business is negotiating a settlement with the company. The settlement will almost certainly not be perfect, but it will be something both the union and the company can live with. We do it with our collective bargaining agreements (CBA), and if we’re doing our jobs right, we do it many more times during the life of the CBA.

On any day, union officers may need to negotiate with the company over issues large or small, arising from members’ complaints or from their own observation.

When contract negotiations aren’t going well, we use demonstrations of solidarity and our willingness to take difficult steps to pressure the company to settle. If we do the same thing for grievances and other disputes, we can keep our union strong while saving time, money, and control over the outcome of the grievance.

Grievance settlements you negotiate with your employer may not be perfect, but what the arbitrator rules is often totally unacceptable. And there’s nothing you can do about an arbitrator’s bad decision. It is binding.

THE KEY TO handling those members who “demand” arbitration is constant education. Most workers know little about the grievance process. They may know the steps, who gets the form, and a few other details, but they don’t understand how it works. And more often than not, they believe the process gives the union more power than we actually have.

Their knowledge of arbitration is even more limited. They don’t understand how much it costs, how long it takes, the work required, and how easy it is to lose even what appears to be a “slam-dunk” case.

Keep the grievant informed at every step to avoid surprises. Explain what happens, what our choices are, and what the grievant can reasonably expect. Be supportive but honest, especially if the news is bad. If you call a spade a spade — or more accurately, call a loser a loser — the grievant won’t build up unrealistic expectations, so the let-down will be less.

Occasionally you’ll have a grievant who simply will not listen, who demands arbitration no matter what. Don’t be bullied into a bad decision.

Your CBA says the union is the sole bargaining agent for the unit. Once a grievance is lodged, the union decides how far to take it and whether to settle, based on what is best for all the members — not just the grievant. If going to arbitration is likely to harm the local, you need to make the decision that is right for all your members, not just the grievant.

Some locals take grievances to arbitration because they believe failure to do so is a denial of fair representation. Not so. The duty of fair representation only requires you to treat all members equally and to make a good-faith attempt to win their grievances.

Document your good-faith effort by taking notes of all conversations and everything you do. File your notes along with pertinent documents in the grievance file. If you decide against going further, write up your reasons and file them as well. Your documentation will show you did all you could and based your decision on what is best for your members. You did your duty.

WHEN YOU TRY to negotiate a settlement for a grievance, keep a few things in mind.

  • Have a plan that everyone agrees to. You don’t need a detailed map, but think about where you are now, where you want to go, and what the likely outcome might be. Be realistic. Chances are you won’t get what you want, so think about what could be acceptable.
  • Have a bottom line — a target which, if you can’t get it, you won’t settle. Make sure everyone on your team knows what that bottom line is and stick with it until you have a reason to change your strategy. Don’t let on what your bottom line is, because you’ll be asking for more and might get it.
  • Don’t give in too easily. Make your case methodically, one point at a time, and wait for a response. Use their responses to measure how far apart you are. Don’t jump in right away and say, “Let’s settle this thing.” Don’t assume you know what the other side is thinking. Let them tell you.
  • Be ready for a good offer. Be able to recognize and accept an offer that is close to what you’ve asked for. Sometimes it’s good to resist the temptation to try for more. If the grievant likes it and you have no problem with it, take it.

AS FOR JOEY (not his real name), the local lost the arbitration, several thousand dollars, and their credibility with management.