• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Tue, Dec 31, 2002

Getting More Out of Grievances

Part 3

Using Communication To Get What You Want

In the beginning of our series on Getting More Out of Grievances we spoke generally about grievances, what they are, what to consider when filing them and how the grievance procedure in your collective agreement works. In this segment we're going to discuss how you can use communication strategies and skills to your advantage when discussing your grievance with management.

The grievance procedure exists to give the union and the employer a way to deal with disagreements about the interpretation of the collective agreement. It gives "the parties" (the employer and the union) an opportunity to discuss problems, understand each other's positions and, if possible, find a resolution. Grievances that aren't withdrawn or settled may be taken to arbitration - a legal proceeding where an independent outsider hears both sides of the grievance and decides who's right, who's wrong and what the remedy will be.

A Radical Departure From Tradition

We're heading into uncharted ground with this piece - big time. We're suggesting that the griever (the person who has actually filed the grievance or on whose behalf the grievance was filed) should take an active part in grievance procedure discussions. The conventional wisdom about grievances and the grievance procedure says that grievers should be seen and not heard during. Grievers are customarily told to sit quietly at meetings where their grievances are being discussed with management and let their union representatives do all the talking. In some instances, they are cautioned about saying anything to anybody about their grievance, including their coworkers.

We can hear a lot of mainstream union reps (especially the biz unionist variety) jumping up and down already. Members talking about grievances?! What's the world coming to? Beyond providing information about what happened and (maybe) what kind of remedy they are seeking, grievers play more of a mostly decorative role in the grievance procedure. Many union reps staunchly defend this practice of muzzling the griever. Their reasons from for doing so range from misgivings that the griever will do or say the wrong thing to concern that it will be more difficult for the union to make a deal with management if the griever is allowed to take an active part in the grievance process.

The griever, by far the person with the most riding on the case, can contribute a lot to resolving the case and often has a big emotional stake in the grievance. Despite this, s/he is expected to sit on the sidelines while others do the talking.

This is unfortunate. It's disempowering and it sends a certain message to management: This person is dumb, can't be trusted to speak and has nothing to say worth listening to. This is not exactly helpful to advancing the union's case or impressing upon management the seriousness of the issue raised in the grievance.

Why Grievers Should Take An Active Part In The Grievance Procedure

The participation of the griever in the grievance procedure can be very helpful. Grievers are members who are exercising an important right they have under their collective agreement: The right to call management on the carpet when it plays fast and loose with that agreement. A union member who is raising an issue through the grievance procedure knows a lot about the issue and about practices in the department or workplace. He or she is also the person the department managers and supervisors see, hear and work with every day.

Working people are intelligent and articulate when given the opportunity to be. They can also be quite persuasive. It's easier for management to say no to the "official representative" of an organization than to someone you must interact with every day of your working life. Grievers can bring a lot to the party. They are another voice, another set of eyes and ears and most importantly, another source of ideas and power.

We are not suggesting that union members plunge recklessly into communications with management about their grievances, nor should they ignore advice given to them by their representatives. Communication without a plan and without coordination with others who will be involved in representing you can be a recipe for disaster.

What we are suggesting is that grievers can and should participate in discussions about their grievance. This is fair to the griever, helps build their confidence and skill and can help get a favorable resolution. Even if there is no settlement, the union and the griever will be that much better prepared for the arbitration hearing.

Some coordination, planning and preparation will need to be done before any discussions take place about the grievance and may need to be revisited and modified as you go along. We'll get into that in this segment as well. Presenting, discussing and resolving the grievance, however, should be a collaborative effort that involves the griever(s), stewards and union reps that will have some part to play in the process.

No Guarantees But Lots Of Learning Opportunities

There are many different opportunities to communicate about grievances (formal and informal), many different strategies and tactics that can be used and absolutely no guarantees that any of them will work in any given situation. Engaging in grievance discussions and attempts to negotiate grievance settlements can be frustrating and disappointing. You need to keep this in mind and keep your perspective. Whether you settle or don't, you'll have learned something about management's position, the strength of their case and what they do/don't respond to when you're squeezing them for a settlement.

Some employers rarely ever settle grievances until just before the arbitration hearing and there is nothing much that you can do to persuade them no matter how hard you try or how compelling your arguments might be. Grievance meetings tend to be pro forma (for form's sake, going through the motions) events where company and union representatives state their positions and say "See ya in court". There may be some going back and forth about facts and details, some arguing over practices and tough talk about who is right and who is wrong but nothing comes of it and nobody expects anything to come of it except maybe the griever.

Whatever the circumstances, union members can bring their perspective, knowledge and ideas to the table. Muzzling them diminishes the union's strength. To understand how, it's important to know a little about management and management culture.

How Managers React To Grievances

Being a manager is not an easy gig. All that corporate talk about teamwork and cooperation is mostly for your benefit and not for the managers and supervisors who are often required to spew it at you. Management is an individual achievement sport. Managers look after themselves, compete with each other for attention, resources and rewards, and fight among themselves pretty much constantly. There is little trust and no solidarity in management ranks.

Survival is a constant preoccupation of most managers and supervisors. For this reason it is important that they don't make mistakes or, at least, are perceived as infallible by their peers and superiors. Grievances always allege some failing on the part of some manager or group of managers. Worse than the allegation however, is the possibility that they will be found to be wrong by some judicious third party. For this reason, managers do not respond well to grievances.

The arrival of a grievance is often met with disbelief (I can't believe they're grieving this) followed by denial ("Of course, I am right"), then by minimizing the importance of the grievance ("It's just Joe shitdisturbing again. That guy will do anything for attention".) followed by reassuring oneself that the whole thing will go away on its own ("The union isn't behind this. It's Joe's issue. I'm sure they just filed it to make him feel good. They'll drop it after the Step 3 meeting.)

Supervisors and first line managers especially don't like grievances. They are the level of management that understands the least about the collective agreement or the grievance procedure (that doesn't make much sense considering that they deals with shop floor issues directly but that's how it is). Shop floor level managers are likely to take grievances personally. That can be an obstacle (they feel personally slighted and will dig their heals in) and an opportunity (they may be more amenable to settling the grievance in-house). This is really important to keep in mind. Many local managers would prefer an in-house solution; they just don't know how to achieve one.

Most managers will consult with a labour relations expert from the corporate office shortly after receiving a grievance. By the time they make the first phone call, they've convinced themselves that they are right and will probably do the same with the LR expert. The corporate LR experts are supposed to provide advice about whether grievances are winners or losers for the company and encourage managers to settle the losers. Some actually do this but many don't. The LR experts usually don't have any authority over line management and provide guidance only. They need to keep up good relations with their management "clients" and will go to lengths to please them - even if it means having to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear when a grievance arrives. This is why management will sometimes take a tough line on grievances even where it has a rotten case.

So, management is not a well-oiled machine when it comes to dealing with grievances. The more restrictive the grievance procedure, the better for them. By restricting the participation of the griever to sitting around like a bump on a log, unions are giving management an easier ride.

Multi-Dimensional Strategies

Many union reps (shop floor stewards and business agents alike) treat grievance meetings like mini arbitration hearings. This is a one-dimensional approach, focusing almost entirely on legal arguments. While it's helpful to cover the legal ground, this in itself is unlikely to cause management to roll over. Management guys love legal sparring matches with union reps and always consider themselves the winners.

Who has the best command of legal jargon decides absolutely nothing in a grievance meeting (unless one side or the other is very experienced and easily intimidated by this stuff). Reps on both sides tend to convince themselves rather than each other of the correctness of their arguments and the strength of the case during these sparring matches.

The strategy employed by union reps at these meetings often tends to be one of attempting to persuade the other guys that you are right. The problem is that the other guys don't want to admit that you are right because that will imply that they are wrong. Being wrong can be a career-limiting move for managers, so they avoid doing it unless they really have to. During the grievance procedure, they don't have to admit to anything.

During grievance meetings, neither side can make the other do anything that it doesn't want to do. They can discuss, exchange information, trade harsh words, whatever, but in the end nobody has to budge from their position. If there is no settlement, the grievance can go to arbitration. Management reps are often content to just let it go there. It might be withdrawn or settled at some point before the hearing, let's wait and see. Since management guys don't like to tell other management guys that their case stinks, they usually feel pretty confident that they'll win at the hearing. Digging their heals in is pretty tempting and more fun than having to back down or acknowledge that they've goofed.

So there are a lot of disincentives to settling grievances. Don't be put off if you aren't able to get one early in the process or at all.

In any grievance situation, the union is trying to persuade the employer that it is in its best interests to settle the grievance on some basis that is acceptable to the union and the griever. This may involve complete capitulation or some compromise that is acceptable to everyone concerned. Union representatives are turning up the heat and hoping that it gets too hot for the managers to hold their position.

Pressuring Others And Getting Results

Pressuring others to do something they really don't want to do can mean using a wide range of different tactics. In grievance proceedings, talking the loudest or the longest about the issue or expressing the most intense emotions about the issue are common but usually ineffective tactics. Effective communication is communication that gets you what you want (not necessarily communication that makes you feel good for a short but sweet moment).

When dealing with a grievance, a strategy aimed at getting full and immediate capitulation from management is not likely to work very often. It may be more effective to use a strategy that will turn up the heat and soften up your opponent over a period of time. You've got very little to lose by trying this. A lot of time will pass as the grievance moves from one step to another. You might as well put the time to productive use. You can soften up management by using all kinds of tactics that will cause confusion, guilt, doubt, diminished confidence, division in the ranks, fear - you name it. The purpose of these tactics is to gradually bring your opponent around to a point where settling up with you (on your terms) begins to look like a more desirable option than fighting.

No Idiot's Guide

There is no template or script that you can use to do this, no "Idiot's Guide to Softening up Management" that will guarantee you the results you want. There are no tried, tested and true tactics that should be employed in a given situation. What works in one workplace may not work in another, what works with one group of managers may not work with another. There are a lot of variables. Finding what will soften up management where you work involves trial and error, pressing different buttons and seeing what happens, watching how your opponents react to different approaches, watching the dynamics between them and, most importantly, treating the whole thing as a learning experience. If your strategy doesn't work, you will still have learned something that may help you the next time around or may help one of your fellow union members the next time that they have a grievance.

It's Not About What's Fair; It's About What's Legal

Some people might find this all this talk about strategies and tactics distasteful. If it sounds like a lot of head games, that's because it is - you've just never been told about that.

The way that most union members understand the grievance procedure is that it's all about who's right and what's fair. That's really not what it's about however, at any stage. At arbitration, it's about what's legal. Was the employer entitled to do what it did? Were the employer's actions in conflict with the collective agreement? Everything leading up to arbitration is about getting a resolution (that's what the labour relations "system" is all about - employers and unions solving their problems) and that involves negotiating.

Negotiating involves persuading and using whatever strategies and tactics will get you the deal you want or at least a deal you can live with. Management uses this stuff on you and your union on all the time. All that you're doing when you engage in this kind of persuasion is playing the game by the same rules.

© 2022 Members for Democracy