One of the most important responsibilities of a shop steward at a workplace is dealing with the problems raised by workers. There are many problems in the workplace. Some of the problems can be solved quickly and others can take years of struggle. Some problems are obvious and members will bring them to you, as their shop steward. Some problems aren’t immediately obvious and you will have to look out for them.
In general, problems can be divided into two groups: individual and small group problems and collective problems or issues.
There are different ways and different procedures for dealing with different kinds of problems. Some problems may start with a complaint from an individual worker. When you investigate the matter you may find that the problem is wider than reported. An individual problem then becomes a collective issue. For, example, a worker complains that he has been paid only time and a half for Sunday overtime. You investigate this and find all workers are being paid at this rate. The law says double time must be paid on Sundays. Therefore, this becomes a collective issue. You will have to decide what kind of a problem you’re dealing with in order to plan which course of action to take.
How do we deal with various kinds of problems? The general rule is:
- Individual grievances and small group grievances lead to grievance procedure.
- Disciplinary problems lead to disciplinary procedure.
- Collective issues lead to collective bargaining (negotiations).
Handling grievances and disciplinary cases
When handling grievances or disciplinary problems there are important questions to ask, facts and information to find out and plans and strategies to work out. Too often stewards rush off to management with a problem without preparing themselves.
Steps to take when preparing a grievance
Get the true facts: This is very important. To prepare the case you must know exactly what happened. Often the worker concerned conceals the truth and you have to dig it out tactfully. Ask the following questions:
- WHEN? – date and time
- WHO? – people involved
- WHERE? – place of problem
- WHAT? – the nature of the problem
- WHY? – the reason for the problem
Analyse the problem: Is it a grievance? Sometimes it can be solved by giving advice. Sometimes the grievance is not genuine. Sometimes the complaint is against another worker and should not be taken to management.
Is there a chance of success? Sometimes workers come to you with impossible problems. Sometimes the issue is complex and needs a longer-term solution.
Is this an individual problem or a collective issue? This will determine how you take up the issue
Make further investigations: Are there any witnesses? Has management broken any agreement? Are any legal rights involved? Does the union have a policy on the issue? Do you need to inspect the place where the problem took place? Do you need any documentary evidence?
Get advice from other shop stewards: It’s very useful to discuss the problems with other stewards and sometimes with your organiser. This makes grievance handling a collective learning experience for stewards encourages teamwork and ensures the spread of information to other departments.
Plan your approach: Work out clear demands. It’s pointless to just complain. Work out your argument and have your facts ready. Prepare your evidence and witnesses. Have a fall-back position – If you don’t win your demand, is there an acceptable compromise?
Involve the membership: Keep members in touch with what is happening to keep them active, interested, mobilised and ready to give practical support. Keeping workers informed also strengthens your position as a shop steward if management knows the union membership is right behind you.
Procedures for taking up grievances cases: Most workplaces have procedures to be followed when handling grievances cases. Grievance procedures can be informal or written down. The procedures can be unilaterally implemented by management or negotiated with a union.
Grievance procedures can be used effectively in the struggle for workers’ rights, but can also work against the interests of workers where shop stewards and membership are weak. They can also be used against workers if stewards don’t know them or how to use them well.
In grievance procedures, workers attack management. This is different from a disciplinary procedure where ‘workers defend themselves against an action brought by the management’.
Workers start the action in grievance procedures. They lay the complaint and push the issue from low-level management up to top management.
The grievance procedure
Below is a typical grievance procedure.
Worker fills in grievance form > Worker gives form to supervisor > Time limit – 5 days if unsolved
Worker reports matter to foreman > Foreman gets grievance form from supervisor > Time limit – 5 days if unsolved
Worker reports matter to Department Head > Department Head gets grievance form from foreman > Time limit 6 days if unresolved
Worker reports matter to Personnel Department > Personnel Department gets form from Department Head > Time limit – 10 days If unsolved
Meeting between worker, Personnel Manager and General Manager > General Manager’s decision is final
Important points to look for in a grievance procedure
Small number of stages – Many stages mean long delays, which is a management tactic.
Short time limits – If there are no time limits management will definitely delay.
Stewards involvement at every stage – Every grievance is a union issue. Management prefers to keep grievances “private “. Involve senior shop steward and union official in later stages to add power to the struggle.
Final stage to be a dispute – Management’s word must not be final.
*This article is extracted from the Basic Shop Stewards’ Training Manual and re-published with permission from the manual’s author, Workers World Media Productions