What Does "No" Really Mean?
Many stewards hear the word "no" more often than they would like. It might happen like this.
A member comes to you with what seems like a clean grievance. They have been bypassed for overtime and according to your investigation they were at the top of the list, but were never asked. Simple?
You decide to meet and discuss the issue with management because it appears that the supervisor committed some oversight here. But when you get into the supervisor's office, he begins to talk about emergency work and needing to assign an available employee without going to the list. Your jaw begins to drop, the muscles tighten and it takes all your effort not to explode. You have just entered the world of grievance denial.
Chances are the supervisor on duty made a poor decision and management is now using the emergency work excuse as a cover. Of course the member has been wronged, but management doesn't like to admit it made mistakes. So it compounds the mistake and gets the union members angry.
Here's another scenario. Your shop has enjoyed a practice for many years. There is nothing in the contract that deals with the practice but a new supervisor decides to end it. You protest through the grievance procedure and are told the grievance is denied. When you ask why, the supervisor reads you the management rights clause of the agreement.
Don't take no for an answer
We have to live with bad answers and grievance denials but that doesn't mean the process ends. Your first move is to explain to the grievant what just happened and make it clear that the union will not allow management to play games with his/her grievance.
Next, you must research and document the grievance thoroughly, if you have not already done so. Make sure that your notes of the first level meeting go into the union's file in case the second step appeal is handled by a different union officer. Insure that record is complete. Talk to the chief shop steward, executive board member, or local officer so that the proper person can make the strongest case on appeal to the next step.
Always consider the reason for the denial but your rebuttal is not necessarily the primary argument. If a member is passed over for overtime and there was no real emergency, stick to your guns about the bypass. If the supervisor hides behind the management rights clause--and they often will--insist that the employer consider the practice as part of the unwritten agreement between both sides. Show that the practice has been ongoing for a long enough time period that it appears to reasonable people that this is the way both sides conduct their business.
What about no answer?
Let's take a variation of this case. Suppose the supervisor doesn't answer your written grievance within the time limits set out in the agreement. The union must then choose to move the grievance up on appeal to the next step.
In the space on the form for management's reply, write in that still empty space, "not answered in a timely manner," and appeal to step 2. Do not miss out on the time limits.
When a supervisor does not reply to a grievance, it is usually because he or she is overworked, negligent, can't make a decision or won't make a decision. I have heard senior management complain that their worst nightmare in the grievance process is to go to arbitration where their lower people did not answer the appeals and the union progressed the grievance. Most of the time, they would settle the grievance to save face.
Employers will go to the issue of time limits first when responding to a grievance. And the language that justifies a rejection of the grievance on the basis of missing the time limit is usually found in the labor agreement. Good grievances--grievances with merit--can be lost when management sees that the union has missed time limits.
The key is not to let management control the grievance procedure through denial or refusals to reply. Their hope is that denial or silence might make the grievance go away.
As frustrating as these tactics are, they cannot be allowed to divert the union from its primary task of defending members' rights on the job.
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