Association for Union Democracy

Grievances: do I have to go through the union?

A: We don’t have to tell you that you have problems. You’re stuck between a rotten employer and a weak union. What we can tell you is that the solution is not in court. There are exceptions to this, but bottom line: you and your coworkers have to get organized.

First, sit down with a few coworkers and sort out the different problems you have. Some are violations of the contract, some are unfair or unjust acts, some are violations of the law, and some are just things you don’t want the employer to do.

For most workplace problems, you have to solve the problem through the union grievance procedure or through direct pressure tactics, or a combination of both. If the law has been broken or the case is especially outrageous — you mentioned sexual harassment — you may be able to go to court and should talk to an attorney, more on this below. But, in most cases, you will not be able to address the problem by filing a lawsuit. So, what should you do?

Do not let the union representatives off the hook. Keep filing grievances, but change the way you do it. Do not just tell the Chief Steward you want to file a grievance, put it in writing and send it to the union hall by certified mail, return receipt requested. (Keep your copies.)

Better yet, get your coworkers to sign on to the grievance like a petition, to show this is an issue that affects everyone. Then, if they do not tell you what is happening or if they are taking too long, follow up with another certified letter. You can also put the Chief Steward on the spot at a union meeting or in the workplace — ask him to report on the progress of the grievances. The point is to demand that the union representatives do a good job — they work for you. It is important to file grievances because it shows you tried to address the problem. If the problem becomes a legal case, this will help you.

You should read your union contract carefully, make sure you understand the grievance procedure and the time limits. You may be able to file grievances as an individual or a group of workers — even up to step two or three of the procedure — without the union representative. This can give you a way to get in front of the boss and let him or her know how you feel about the problem and what you want them to do about it. The union rep. has a right to be present at any grievance meeting, but at least at this step you can present your case. If you plan to do this — you need to be prepared to present your case well. Call AUD for advice.

What if the employer broke the law? Let’s take your example: workers are being sexually harassed. Workers who have been sexually harassed have several options. They can file a grievance. They can contact the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (contact info below). They can go to a private attorney. They do not have to wait on the union to take action. (Note that if the union fails to take action on a sexual harassment or discrimination case, the union can become liable, too.) One thing to watch out for: if the employer has an internal complaint procedure to deal with sexual harassment, you should use it. If you do not, the employer may get off the hook. In any case, you should talk to an attorney.

However, in some cases, even when the employer breaks the law, government agencies or judges may insist that you handle the problem first through the grievance procedure. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, “defers” charges to the grievance procedure and seldom challenges the result.

Bottom line: if you really want to change the way your employer treats you, filing grievances is not enough. You have to organize with your coworkers to take actions that put pressure on the company. Get together with your coworkers, in a non-work place on non-work time, and talk about what you can do to pressure management to deal with your concerns. There are many, many ways to pressure the boss — from lower risk actions like wearing buttons or stickers to the higher risk slow downs and sick outs — and you may invent new ones. Before you take job actions, make sure you know what the risks are. Read the contract carefully: many contracts include a “no strike” clause that limits workers’ rights to take certain kinds of actions. Also, make sure you do everything as a group — lone rangers are weak.

Finally, dump that chief steward. As long as you have a union rep. who is more likely to suck-up than fight, your problems will keep coming back. If the Chief Steward is elected, run your own candidate against him. If he is appointed, petition the local to remove him. If the union officers refuse, then change the bylaws to require elected stewards. (You will need to see your union bylaws to find out how to do all of this.) It can be done: workers in a meatpacking plant in Washington State did exactly this, and won. They dumped the chief steward, elected a new one and new stewards for every shift, and later went on to take over the local. Their problems are not over, but now they have stewards who give a damn.

Resources: If you want to learn what a grievance is, how to file a grievance, how the grievance procedure works, and examples of what to do in a good situation (where the union is helpful) and in a bad one (where the union is part of the problem), see our guide “Your Job, Your Rights” on this site.

If you want detailed information and advice on how to use the grievance procedure — and on direct action alternatives/additions to the grievance procedure — there are several good books available from AUD. The top two are: The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, by Robert Schwartz, and The Troublemaker’s Handbook, by Dan LaBotz. We also publishes a Manual for Survival, that includes useful material on fighting sexual harassment. Another good online source is the toolkit on the UE website.

If you want to learn how to do this kind of organizing, contact AUD to set up an educational workshop. We can teach you the best organizing techniques and help you figure out how to build power on the job and in the union.

For the website of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

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