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Resolve a problem at work

How can the union help solve my problem, and what’s my role?

Imagine yourself driving down a street and coming upon a stop sign. Do you stop? If you are like many people, the honest answer would be “it depends.” It depends on whether or not there are any other cars coming, of course. But it may also depend on whether you think there is a police officer around who might give you a ticket for not stopping. You see, the written law by itself is not enough. Society recognizes the need for law enforcement. That’s why we have police officers.

Members of a union perform a similar role, ensuring that the employer abides by the collective bargaining agreement. Without us, the contract would eventually become worthless.

Contract enforcement is the way we establish and protect our rights from day to day:

• It ensures that all the benefits and protections written into our contract at the bargaining table are extended to everyone covered by the contract.
• It breathes life into the contract. No matter how carefully it is written, no contract can anticipate every question that arises under it. Applying it in real life situations gives it meaning for our members.
• It helps improve our contract. Contract enforcement reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our contract. Unresolved grievances should point out the contract’s deficiencies.
• Properly publicized, it can build support for future negotiations.
• It helps organize our workplace. People are more likely to assert their rights if they see the contract being enforced by others.
• It gains the respect of management. When managers know that we are determined to enforce our contract, they think twice before violating it.
• It builds community among our colleagues. Even the best contract is only a set of promises. By seeing that management fulfills those promises, we can gain our colleagues’ support on other issues and build a stronger, more effective union.

The Guild encourages each and every member to report violations of our collective agreement. You can do it by talking to a member of your union executive or a Guild staff representative – or you can file a grievance on your own. Read on to find out how it works…

What is a Grievance?

The first question we need to ask ourselves when a problem arises at work is: “is this issue a grievance?”

The textbook definition of a grievance is a violation of the terms, interpretation or application of the contract. But, as we all know, textbooks are not the final word on anything. So let’s develop this definition a bit further.

A grievance usually arises out of a violation of an employee’s rights on the job, a right that is usually, but not always defined by the contract. In seeing a grievance in this way, we can understand better that the best place to look for a way to defend our rights is in the language of the contract.

So for all practical purposes, we must go back to the contract first when we have a complaint or a problem. The contract provides us with the strongest ammunition in resolving the issues.

That is why it is so critical to know your agreement and use it as creatively as possible to write grievances.

Is the contract the only means to resolve our grievances? Of course not! But it is probably the strongest leg we have to stand on.

A grievance may exist if the employer violates the law. In almost every case, contract language or employer practices cannot violate the law.

Why is it important to resolve issues early?

In order to resolve problems effectively one has to understand the grievance process and their role in making the procedure work. It begins and hopefully ends with the member and their union representative and their supervisor/manager. No step two or three. No arbitration.

Few grievances should ever go up the grievance ladder and even fewer should go to arbitration. When a large number of grievances go up the grievance ladder, there is a serious problem with the procedure and its use. And that often signals a poor relationship between the employer and employees.

How do I begin?

The first step in our grievance process is to make management aware that your rights or the contract has been violated. All of our agreements have provisions for an individual or group to meet with their supervisor to lodge a complaint. All provide for a union representative to be present if you so choose.

The goal is to settle issues early. In order to be effective, you must prepare in advance. That means writing out the facts of the issue. Here are some pointers:

– stick to the facts
– remember to state the reason and purpose for your action/complaint
– explain the problem as clearly, briefly, and fairly as possible
– clearly state what you expect management to do to resolve the issue.

You may choose to send this information in a note to management prior to your meeting or you may simply bring the note along with you to help guide the conversation. You should also take a pad and pencil with you to any meeting with management and take notes of each participant’s statements (including your own).

Resolve grievances at this stage if you can. This saves time and frustration, and helps build better relationships. Remember, once the grievance has left your hands you no longer have control over it. If the employer denies your complaint or grievance they must respond to you in writing.

If the employer ignores the grievance by not giving an answer as required by the collective agreement, then the union may advance the grievance to the next stage, and the next, until the issue is before an arbitrator.
It is important to note that undermining or violating the agreed grievance procedure is itself subject to grievance.

Know and observe your contract’s time limits. You must be timely in the presentation of your grievance. Every collective agreement has different time limits for processing grievances. Most of our collective agreements have rigid deadlines that govern the process, from becoming aware of a violation to filing a written grievance. Pay attention to the specifics of your contract. Working days and calendar days are different. The date you became aware of the violation is different from the date of the incident itself.

Although all of our contracts provide for individual submission of grievances, most of us wouldn’t know how to begin. Even if you decide not to have a union representative at the complaint stage we would recommend that you get assistance to write the grievance.

Why is it important to write things down?

We live in a talking culture. We forget to put things down in writing.

That’s not what they teach in business school or in law school. Supervisors and lawyers have been trained to put everything down on paper.

It allows them to control what is called “the record”. If you go into a meeting where your supervisor takes notes, chances are those notes will form the record of the meeting. Your memory and their memory can be faulted. Notes cannot.

That is why it is important to get into the habit of recording all meeting discussions that concern your employment. Most importantly, take notes when you are making a complaint or discussing a potential grievance.

Write down what your supervisor says. Don’t worry about spelling. Just get it down. Date and sign your notes for reference later.

If your supervisor agrees to fix a problem, ask for the agreement in writing. It is a mistake to leave the meeting without a clear written record of what has been agreed. Don’t leave it to management to send you their record afterwards: keep your own notes, and if necessary, insist that the agreement be spelled out there and then. If the supervisor won’t agree on the words at the meeting then send them a note confirming the agreement. If the agreement is not lived up to, send another letter detailing the original commitment.

The very act of writing the proceedings or commitments down conveys a sense of no-nonsense and professionalism to management. Matters that are committed to writing are more likely to be resolved.

Tips on taking notes and writing letters

Of the many useful tools for resolving problems, none is probably more important than a well structured e-mail or letter. You’ll find that by sending a letter to support your case, you can and will accomplish many things. For example, a letter provides a clear and concise way of getting your point across to management. It also puts them on notice about your concerns and the need for a management response. Letter writing also serves as a way to substantiate and support your position in the event that your matter becomes a legal one.

When dealing with a workplace issue, taking the time to prepare well-structured, clear and concise correspondence is extremely important:

• It makes it difficult for managers to renege on agreements reached.

• It documents the facts for the record and future arbitration.

• It will assist in establishing your credibility.

• It shows that you take the matter seriously.

• It demonstrates your professional approach to seeking a resolution.

Some Rules to Follow:

• Don’t let time pass. Write the letter as soon as possible after the incident. If your matter becomes a legal issue, you will need written documentation of your actions and activity. Follow any conversations, even unfavorable ones, with a letter confirming your discussion.
• Write for a third party. One purpose of a formal letter is to create a paper trail that you can use later on, if necessary, as evidence of your attempts to get a fair deal. When you write, remember that someone else—an arbitrator –may read your letter later.
• Stick to the facts. Remember to state the reason and purpose for your action/complaint. Explain the problem as clearly, briefly, and fairly as possible. In the first and last lines of the letter, clearly state your expectations of management.
• Keep a file or record of all correspondence and save it on your home computer. Remember to keep track of any conversations, including the date and name of the person that you spoke to.
• Avoid insults, personal attacks or accusations. Don’t get into arguments or make threats of grievances. Again, your initial contact should be one to advise and assist in making a positive change.

How do I write and file a grievance?

If your complaint isn’t resolved to your satisfaction, write out the facts. This is for use of the union only. You should supply as much relevant detail as possible over the facts of the case and what went on in meetings with management, who was present and what was said on both sides. Include any pertinent documentation, notes or memos. (It is not necessary to report every last detail of meetings with management: the main thing is to record the main arguments made by both sides and the name of the person(s) advancing the arguments.) Use the fact sheet, which can be found on your branch page of the website (www.cmg.ca), as a guide.

The union will make use of these facts as the case proceeds; the data will be used to prepare a legal brief (facts, issues and argument) for arbitration.
This summary along with a filled out CMG Grievance Form (also found on your branch page of the website) should be given to a member of the location unit executive, who will submit the form to management. If you don’t feel comfortable writing the grievance one of your location unit executives or staff in the office will be happy to assist you.

Grievance writing tips:

The ideal written grievance is short, simple and specific. It should highlight who is involved, the protest and the request for full redress. It is not necessary to go into all the details and arguments in the grievance form. It is in meetings with employer representatives that you present your details, evidence and arguments. That is what such meetings are for.
Also include the phrase, “and any other clause in the collective agreement that may be applicable” after the original protest statement. This is done so that we can be specific to the problem yet have the whole contract to protect us, rather than just one clause.
The request or demand can often be covered by the phrase, “I request that I be fully compensated and my record made whole.” This enables the union to get full redress for the grievor without having to be specific and decreases the chance that something may be left out.

SAMPLE GRIEVANCE LANGUAGE

“Grievance explained: I Jonathon Smith grieve that the employer has acted in violation of the CMG/xxx collective agreement article x, xx, xx, xx and any other clause in the collective agreement that may be applicable by unreasonably denying my request for three (3) days of special leave to be with my four year old son while he underwent and recovered from surgery.

Resolution sought: In order to resolve this grievance the union demands
that the Corporation

1) Admit a violation.

2) Make me whole in every respect by granting me three days of special leave,

3) Adhere to any other remedy an arbitrator may deem appropriate.”

Do you want to talk to a Guild representative? Click on the “contacts” link at the top of the page for information on how to contact Guild staff and members of your Branch or location executive.

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