Association for Union Democracy

Manuel’s Story

Not all problems work out as well as Maribel’s did. Take a look at Manuel’s story.

Manuel is an assembly line worker for Rusty Cog Manufacturing, a small factory that makes machine parts. Last week, Manuel’s supervisor, Gladys, fired him. Gladys said that she just did not like his attitude. Manuel did not understand because he had always done a good job and had not been warned or written up; no one gave him a good reason why the company fired him.

Manuel did not have a copy of his union contract so he wrote a certified letter to his union requesting a copy (see Example A). Manuel received a copy of his contract a few weeks later, but if he had not he could have filed a complaint with the Federal Office of Labor Management Standards with a copy of the letter he sent to the union.

After reading the contract, Manuel found that for the company to fire him they had to show just cause. He knew that the company had violated the contract.

Like Maribel, Manuel went to his union steward, but the steward said there was nothing he could do to help Manuel. Manuel was frustrated and angry, he knew the company had violated his rights, but the union would not help him. What could he do?

If the union won’t help Manuel, can he go to court and fight on his own? Usually not. Most contract rules can only be challenged through the grievance procedure established in the contract.

There are a few exceptions:

Discrimination: If you are fired or discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability or immigration status or because you are pregnant, you can file a discrimination case against the employer. To do this, you must show that you were treated differently by the employer because of one of the above characteristics. Filing a discrimination claim is a slow, difficult process.

Unpaid benefits: If you were not paid for benefits you deserved (sick days or vacation time), you may be able to file a claim with your State Department of Labor.

Minimum wage and overtime: If you are paid below minimum wage or do not receive overtime pay when you work more than 40 hours in one week, you can file with the Department of Labor for your state.

Organizing: If you are fired or disciplined for taking collective actions to improve workplace conditions, trying to organize a union or standing up for your rights, you can file a claim with the National Labor Relations Board.

So what can Manuel do?

Talk to other people in the union. Do not give up if your steward will not help. Find the business agent for your shop and talk to him or her. If that does not work, make an appointment to see an elected local union official, such as the president or business manager, and complain to them. If you still do not get satisfactory representation you may want to write to the international union, to which your local union belongs.

File the grievance anyway. No matter what the union officials tell you, file a grievance. Find out how to do this from your contract or other workers or send a letter like Example B. Do it quickly because some contracts say you can only file a grievance within a certain amount of time. Keep a copy of your letter or your completed grievance form and mail it to the union by certified mail. Then go through the process of investigating and collecting evidence.

Put pressure on the Union. Your union has a duty to represent you fairly. They have to investigate your grievance and cannot neglect it. They cannot play favorites and cannot refuse to help you with a grievance because they do not like you or because you do not like the union leaders. The union cannot legally discriminate against you.

Unions can refuse to file grievances that they do not think are valid but they must investigate them and must treat all workers fairly and equally in making such decisions. You should ask why they will not file your grievance and remind them of their duty to represent you.

Go to the National Labor Relations Board. If the union still refuses to help you, you can go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and file a complaint against your union. You must do this within 180 days of the time the union refused to do anything about your grievance. Claims against unions are not easy to win so you will need proof and evidence that the union treated you unfairly. You can also file a private lawsuit. Call AUD for advice and information.

Find proof. Finding proof in a case against a union is similar to finding proof in a grievance against a company. Find out how the union has treated other people. Gather your grievance evidence together and take it to the union, if they still will not act for you, you can show it to the NLRB as proof that you had a good case that deserves to be heard.

The NLRB will look at your evidence, investigate your claim and decide whether or not to act on it. They are very slow. If they do not take your case, you can still take action by yourself in the Federal District Court, but you will need a lawyer.

Take action. Whether your union is helping you or not, the best way to win a grievance is often to take action. — Remember, taking action on the job can be risky, even if you are within your rights. Be prepared, know your rights, and make sure to act as a group. You may also want to get some outside assistance or advice from experienced organizers. Some of the things you might want to do are:

1. Circulate a petition and present it to the boss.

2. Make buttons and have people wear them to work. Write slogans on them such as “No More Contract Violations” or “We Support Maribel.”

3. Give your supervisors the silent treatment and talk to them only when you have to for work.

4. Get a group of workers together at break, at lunch or before or after work and march into the boss’s office with a list of problems. Do this every day until you get a solution. Be sure to do this at a time when you are not supposed to be working.

5. Write a leaflet and give it to customers when you are not working. (Be careful with this one, there may be legal issues.)

There are all kinds of ways to show the boss that you are tired of being treated badly and want a change. Be creative. If you make noise and have people on your side, you might get what you want without the traditional grievance procedure.

Run for Union office. If your union officials are doing a bad job representing you, maybe it’s time for a change. Local unions have elections for officers; you and your coworkers can run for local president, executive board, steward, or another office. A change in local leadership can make a big difference. Rules for these elections will be in the local union constitution. You can get a copy of your union constitution and by-laws from your union or by contacting the Federal Office of Labor Management Standards. Be sure to contact AUD for information and advice about your democratic rights.

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