One of the duties of a shop steward is representing members of the union in grievance processes and grievance hearings at the workplace.
A grievance hearing happens when a worker has a complaint or lodges a grievance about the conduct of the employer or other workers or general conditions of employment in the workplace. The employer must protect an aggrieved worker from victimisation.
There are two categories of grievances. Collective grievances are about working conditions and the failure of the employer to implement workplace policies, collective agreements and comply with the legislation. Individual grievances are about a complaint by a single worker against the employer, fellow worker and conditions of employment. A complaint by an individual worker can be taken up as a collective grievance in the workplace. For example, a complaint by a worker about the quality of lighting in one department could be taken up as a health and safety issue, thus a collective grievance in the workplace.
Shop stewards and workers can use the grievance procedure as a tool for arguing for change and workplace democracy. The most effective approach to grievance handling is through the collective.
Steps to solve a grievance
There are two goals for shop stewards attempting to solve a grievance: to get the management to uphold an existing right and to get the management to agree to new rights for workers. But, a grievance may aim for both the goals when several issues are covered under one grievance.
Step 1: Study the problem
Find out who is affected by the grievance. Speak to all the workers who are unhappy to find out the cause of their dissatisfaction. Find out the facts, including dates, times, people involved, the place and the reason.
Sometimes the complaint doesn’t reveal the underlying reason for the unhappiness. One complaint can have several issues. Take the example of workers not wanting to work shifts on Saturday. It could be because of low pay or the lack of transport, or it is both. Know the real issue and solve it. Separate the issues if possible to reveal the exact problem and to make it easier to discuss solutions.
Check if the management has flouted an agreement or any laws. Find relevant documents if you think they will help.
Step 2: Work out possible solutions
Don’t look at just one solution. Together with members, discuss different solutions for each of the identified issues. For example, in the transport problem for shift workers on Saturday mentioned above, the employer can arrange transport or change the shift to a time when transport is available. To find solutions to issues easily, know your goal. If you are fighting to uphold an existing right, your battle would be easier because management must uphold that right.
Step 3: Rate your choices
Rank the possible solutions for each issue from best to worst.
Step 4: State the grievance clearly and prepare carefully
Present the grievance as a problem with a solution rather than as a demand or an ultimatum. Write down the answers to the following: Who has the grievance? What is the complaint? What is your best-proposed solution?
Step 5: Present the grievance to management
If the union has signed a grievance procedure with the employer, follow that agreement from this point. If there is no agreed procedure, request a meeting between the management, shop stewards and representatives from the affected department. But if it is possible to solve the issue at a lower level, first request a meeting at this level. Fewer shop stewards would attend this meeting. If the grievance involves an individual worker, the shop steward must ensure the member is present at any meetings with management.
Step 6: Getting the first response
Ask the manager to respond to the grievance by a particular day and give a reasonable time for resolving the issue. Make it clear you will refer the matter higher up if no satisfactory solution comes out of the meeting.
If the manager agrees to a meeting, try to negotiate a solution. Discuss your solutions with management and ask for a proper explanation for any of your rejected proposals.
Step 7: Taking the matter further
Repeat steps 5 and 6 if there is no satisfactory response from the first management level. Proceed to step 8 if you are still unsuccessful. At this stage, workers can hold a demonstration during lunchtime to make the management aware that they are worried about the result of the grievance.
Step 8: Declaring a dispute
Follow the agreed dispute procedure if it exists. If not, ask the union organiser to help you declare a dispute and hold a dispute meeting with the management.
Step 9: Tactics to resolve the dispute
Discuss how you will handle the issue and what your choice of tactics is before the dispute meeting. Members should be involved in this discussion. Below are some possibilities:
- Postponing this issue to the annual negotiations
- Mediation (a third person who is not involved in the dispute acts as a go-between to help you negotiate a solution)
- Arbitration (a neutral third person decides on a solution for you after listening to you and management)
- Arbitration – mediation (a mixture of the above)
- Industrial court
- Industrial action (make sure workers understand the risks)
Step 10: Get it in writing
Any agreement between the union and the employer must be in writing and signed. Make sure you understand the wording of the document and agree to it before signing the agreement.
Tips for dealing with management
- Only take up grievances that members feel strongly about.
- Don’t set unreasonable deadlines for management to address the problem.
- Use a problem-solving approach and manner – not a threatening approach.
- Don’t be put off by long delays by management.
- Be open to other solutions, as long as these solutions address the real reason for the grievance.
- Show management you have the support of members. Petitions and demonstrations by workers at the right time can be very useful. Report back to members at every stage to keep them interested and informed of what is happening.
- Make a genuine attempt to negotiate a solution.
- In trying to solve the problem, ensure that management deals with shop stewards and not directly with workers
Checklist on grievance handling
Things to look out for in a grievance procedure
- Have a few steps. The bosses try to put in many steps. This is a tactic to delay resolving the problem
- Have a time limit. The bosses will take as much time as they want if there are no time limits.
- Involve shop stewards at all stages: Every grievance is a union issue. There should be no such thing as a ‘private’ grievance
- Involving branch committees and union organisers at the later stages of the grievance adds to the union’s case.
- The dispute should always be the final stage in the grievance procedure
- Bosses should not have the right to the final say.
***Article sources: World Workers Media Productions (Basic Shop Steward Manual); National Union of Mineworkers’ (Basic training materials for shop stewards).
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