Hammering out a labor agreement is not the last step in collective bargaining. No labor contract can cover all contingencies and answer all questions. For example, suppose the contract says you can only discharge an employee for “just cause.” You subsequently discharge someone for speaking back to you in harsh terms. Was it within rights to discharge this person? Was speaking back to you harshly “just cause”?

The labor contract’s grievance procedure usually handles problems like these. This procedure provides an orderly system whereby both employer and union determine whether some action violated the contract. It is the vehicle for administering the contract on a day-to-day basis. The grievance process allows both parties into a “living organism”. Remember though that this day-to-day collective bargaining involves interpretation only; it usually doesn’t involve new terms or altering existing ones.

Sources of grievances:

From a practical point of view, it is probably easier to list those items that don’t precipitate grievances than to list the ones that do. Employees may use just about any factor involving wages, hours, or conditions of employment as the base of a grievance.

However, certain grievances are more serious, since they’re usually more difficult to settle. Discipline cases and seniority problems including promotions, transfers, and layoffs would top this list. Others would include grievances growing out of job evaluations and work assignments, overtime, vacations, incentive plans, and holidays. Here are four examples of grievances:

* Absenteeism: An employer fired an employee for excessive absences. The employee filed a grievance stating that there had been no previous warnings or discipline to excessive absences.
* Insubordination: An employee on two occasions refused to obey a supervisor’s order to meet with him, unless a union representative was present at the meeting. As a result, the employee was discharged and subsequently filed a grievance protesting the discharge.

Overtime: The employer discontinued Sunday overtime work after a department was split. Employees affected filed a grievance protesting loss of the overtime work.

Plant rules: The plant had a posted rule barring employees from eating or drinking during unscheduled breaks. The employees filed a grievance claiming the rule was arbitrary.

A grievance is often a symptom of an underlying problem. Sometime, bad relationships between supervisors and subordinates are to blame: This is often the cause of grievances over “fair treatment”, for instance. Organizational factors such as automated jobs or ambiguous job description that frustrate or aggravate employees also cause grievances. Union activism is another; the union may solicit grievances from workers to underscore ineffective supervision. Problem employees are yet another underlying cause of grievances. These are individuals, who, by their nature are negative, dissatisfied and prone to complaints. Discipline and dismissal are also both major sources of grievances.

The Grievance Procedure:

Most collective bargaining contracts contain a very specific grievance procedure. It lists the various steps in the procedure, time limits associated with each step, and specific rules such as “all charges of contract violation must be reduced to writing. Virtually every labor agreement signed today contains a grievance procedure clause. Non-unionized employers need such procedures.

Union grievances procedures differ from firm to firm. Some contain simple, two step procedures. Here the grievant, union representative and company representative meet to discuss the grievance. If they don’t find a satisfactory solution, the grievance is brought before an independent, third party arbitrator, who hears the case, writes it up, and makes a decision.

At the other extreme, the grievance procedure may contain six or more steps. The first step might be for the grievant and shop steward to meet informally with the grievant’s supervisor too, and there’s a meeting with the employee, shop steward, and the supervisor’s boss. The next steps involve the grievant and union representatives meeting with higher level managers. Finally, if top management and the union can’t reach agreement, the grievance may go to arbitration.

Sometimes the grievance process gets out of hand. For example, in the first half of 2001, members of American Postal Workers Union, Local 482, filed 1,800 grievances at the Postal Service’s Roanoke mail processing facility (the usual rate is about 800 grievances per year). The employees apparently were responding to job changes, including transfers triggered by the postal service’s effort to further automate its processes.

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