What Is A Grievance?

A grievance is any dispute or difference arising between any employee and managementor between the union and management. Most collective bargaining agreements define, in general, what the parties have agreed to consider being a grievance. Unions usually prefer a broad definition that recognizes any dispute, while management prefers to limit grievances to the meaning or application of a particular clause. The primary function of the definition is to outline the parameters of what types of disputes may be grieved.

Why Do We Need It?

· Settles workplace problems in a systematic way.

· Helps to establish and protect workers’ rights.

· Gives workers a voice on the job by providing them with an opportunity to tell their side of the story.

· Promotes workplace harmony.

What Is It’s Purpose?

· To enforce the contract

· To interpret the meaning and intent of the contract, including ambiguous or silent contract language.

How Does It Work?

· Defines workplace problems that are grievances.

· Identifies the steps to follow to remedy the problem.

· Identifies the union and company representatives involved in each step.

· Imposes time limitations for filing grievances, responding to grievances and appealing grievances.

· Stipulates at each step whether the grievance presentation is oral or written.

· Places the burden of proof on management particularly with discipline and discharge cases.

Types Of Grievances

· Individual/Personal Grievance: Affects only one person (Sue has been disciplined).

· Group Grievance: Department or category of people in the shop or store (unsafe chemical in one department).

· Principle Grievance: Deals with a basic contract principle (such as seniority, vacation, etc.) all members involved.

· Union or Policy Grievance: Initiated by union on behalf of worker or entire store or plant (for example, overtime not being distributed properly), or member is not willing to file individual grievance.

Generally, a grievance exists where there is a violation of:

The Contract: These are the easiest grievances to win, especially where the violation is clear-cut and management is not overly belligerent.
The Law: There may be a violation of municipal, state or federal law. Remember that the law always supersedes the contract.
Company Regulations: Management generally cannot violate its own rules to harm one or more workers. A personnel regulation may be overlooked in hiring or firing of a foreman may have brought liquor into the plant and then fired a worker for the same violations. Uneven enforcement of company or agency regulations, as well as management disregard for its own rules, can provide the grounds for a grievance.
Workers’ Rights: Discrimination and workers’ rights cover a broad range of incidents or practices. Discrimination occurs when two people are treated differently under the same conditions in such a way as to harm or treat unequally one of them. Discrimination may include, and is not limited to, race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, personality, looks, union activity, past incidents and experiences, and political affiliation.
Past Practices: Arbitrators will sometimes consider violations of long-standing practices, accepted by the union and management, as grounds for ruling in favor of the union. If, for instance, the employer has allowed a 15-minute wash-up for years and then suddenly disciplines a worker for leaving her station 15 minutes before clock-out, the union usually has a strong case.

Is It Really A Grievance?

Stewards know that the word grievance is one of the most misunderstood words in the workplace. Some workers believe that anything they don’t like about work is a grievance. Others put up with clear violations of their legal rights by management but they don’t want to “rock the boat.”

So how does a steward know they have a grievance? The first thing to do is to investigate the situation.

Investigating A Grievance

It is not always easy to identify workplace incidents as grievances. In order to totally understand and work out a solution to problems, stewards must get all the information about the incident they are investigating. Here are five questions stewards should ask when investigating a grievance:

1. WHO … is involved? Who is the worker; who is the supervisor; who are the witnesses? Anyone else?

2. WHAT … really happened? What did the worker do? What was the sequence of events? What was said? What did management say, do or fail to do? What has happened in the past? What should be done to remedy the situation?

3. WHEN … did it happen? Time, date, etc. Any special significant holidays or days off that may tie in?

4. WHERE … did it take place? Identify the exact location by workstation, building, department, etc.?

5. WHY … is this incident a grievance? Which contract clause(s) applies? Was there a background of action which went before? Why did the member take this action? Why did management take action?

Always use the 5 W’s when investigating a grievance:


Take Good Notes: Good stewards document everything! Notes are essential because:

· You won’t remember everything.

· A written record can be used by others who may decide to handle the complaint as a grievance.

· Notes help you compare conflicting accounts of the same situation.

· Writing down information shows everyone that you take your job responsibilities seriously.

Notes can be used as evidence that the union has conducted an investigation should a worker later claim that the union failed to properly represent him or her.

How to Document

¢ Try to get direct quotes from the worker. Use quotation marks “ ” to indicate quotes in your notes.

¢ Ask the worker to repeat the information so you can record it accurately.

¢ When you are finished, go over your notes with the worker.

¢ Complete the grievance investigation form.

Grievance Procedure

A grievance procedure is an agreed-upon channel for complaints; a list of steps and who is involved at each step; and a provision for time limits at each step in order to discourage stalling.

The grievance procedure:

· Defines workplace problems that are grievances.

· Identifies the steps to follow to remedy the problem.

· Identifies the union and company representatives involved in each step.

· Imposes time limitations for filing grievances, responding to grievances and appealing grievances.

· Stipulates whether the grievance presentation is oral or written at each step.

· Places the burden of proof on management particularly with discipline and discharge cases.

The grievance procedure may vary depending on the collective bargaining agreement. A typical grievance procedure may have four steps, referred to as “Step 1,” “Step 2”, etc. through “Arbitration.”

Grievance Arbitration

(Arbitration is a method for resolving disputes in which a third party is called in to make a decision on a grievance case. The arbitrator’s decision is binding on both parties)

*Note: Time limits on company response begin only after the grievance is presented in writing. Grievances should be moved to the next step as rapidly as possible. Serious grievances, such as discharge cases, are often introduced as Step 3 of the grievance process.

Preparing A Grievance

Once you have collected the facts of the grievance using the five W’s we discussed before, it is now time to write the grievance. The number one rule in writing a grievance is to keep it simple! Here are three steps in writing a grievance:

1. What Happened

State the grievance issue simply—who, what, when. The grievance form is not the place to argue the grievance. That should happen in the grievance meeting.

Right: On or about May 1, 2005 Brenda Coles, clock # 54289, was denied her bid on the second shift forklift job.

Wrong: The forklift job should have been awarded to Brenda Coles. Pete Smith is a rotten foreman and didn’t give Brenda the job because he hates Brenda and wanted to date Brenda’s daughter, but she wouldn’t go out with him. Because of this and because Pete is an idiot he refused to give Brenda the job.

2. Why That is Wrong

State what part of the contract, law, past practice, etc. was violated. A grievance can be filed over a violation of the contract, a change in a well-established past practice, violation of a law (OSHA, FMLA, etc.) or a violation of an employer policy. Always state that the employer may have violated other parts of the contract:

Right: By not giving Orville the job award, the employer is violating Article 3, section 2 of the contract, plus all other relevant sections of the contract.

3. What You Want

Clearly state the remedy the union is seeking.

Never leave out the remedy – otherwise the employer can agree they made a mistake, but offer no solution.

Right: Make Brenda Coles whole, including but not limited to an immediate transfer to the forklift operator job and pay her the $1.00 an hour pay rate difference for the time missed on the forklift job, including overtime.

In cases of discipline, discharge or involving money, the catch all phrase to use is “The employee should be made whole.” This phrase covers all the parts of the remedy which may include wages; reinstatement in the health insurance program with no waiting period; reinstatement in the pension program with restoration of all back service and credits; vacation time; and the list could go on. The phrase “be made whole” is a legally accepted catch all phrase that covers all the situations.

The union still has the right to negotiate a different remedy from the one listed on the grievance form.

Example: A grievance on a termination case stated the fired employee should be returned to work and be made whole. The final settlement was a two week suspension. In this case the remedy was that the employee was made whole except for losing two weeks pay.

Presenting The Grievance

A union representative should have a cordial, professional, business-like relationship with the supervisor. A firm but fair approach to problem-solving usually makes the job easier for both parties.

When preparing to present or presenting the grievance a representative should do or consider the following:

1. Prepare Your Facts Beforehand:

a. Outline on paper the facts in a logical, chronological sequence.

b. Consider what the supervisor’s response will be, and what you will say in return.

c. Review the facts of the case with the employee alone, before you meet with the supervisor.

d. Check your case with other representatives, union officials, or others who might be knowledgeable about the issue.

2. Stick To The Facts when speaking with the supervisor. Do not jump from topic to topic. Do not get sidetracked on unrelated issues.

3. Listen! Repeat key statements made by the supervisor. This will tell the supervisor that you are listening and paying attention to what is being said.

4. Narrow The Focus Of The Dispute, if possible. Look for possible areas of compromise and settlement.

5. Keep Your Cool! Do not let your emotions override the facts of your case.

6. Avoid Bluffs And Threats. Some day a supervisor will call your bluff!

7. Respect The Employer Representative and treat him or her as you would like to be treated.

8. Do Not Delay The Settlement Of The Dispute. Watch for stall tactics by the employer.

9. Do Not Horse-Trade Grievances, for example the employer offers to settle a grievance if all other grievances are dropped by the union.

10. Settle Grievances At The Lowest Possible Level.

11. Avoid Disagreements With The Grievant In Front Of The Supervisor. If you need to talk with the grievant during the presentation of the grievance, do so privately.

12. The Burden Of Proof Is On Management particularly with discipline and discharge cases. This does not mean the supervisor should be put on the defensive.

13. Be Sure To Follow-Through And Follow-Up On The Grievance. Make sure the grievance follows the proper channel, even after it leaves your hands.

Communications Skills For Stewards

Here are some quick tips for writing, listening, speaking, and handling meetings.


· Use short words, phrases and sentences and give only a few important facts.

· Get to the point quickly by listing your ideas in order of importance.

· Use basic, everyday language, don’t use slang.

· To avoid confusion, don’t use initials.

· Check your writing to make sure it is clear and without any errors.


· Stop talking: You can’t listen well while you are speaking.

· Concentrate on what is being said: not on who is saying it. Focus your attention on the message, the choice of words, the idea being presented and the feeling for the subject.

· Ask questions: When you need clarification or don’t understand what is being said and also to show that you are listening. But never ask questions certain to embarrass anyone.

· Don’t interrupt: Allow the speaker time to formulate ideas and present them in a natural style.

· Get rid of distractions: Put papers, pencils and other items away; these can distract you and/or the speaker.

· Focus on the main points: Concentrate on the main ideas and not the illustrative material; examples, stories and statistics are important but usually are not main points. Focus on the concept rather than supportive information.

Tips For Speaking With Management

· Take deep breaths: Just before speaking, take two deep breaths.

· Wiggle toes: Move excess nervous energy out of the upper body.

· Know your exit line: Prepare a closing line in case your mind goes blank.

· Speak slowly: Most people talk too fast.

· Use your own words: Don’t try to copy someone else’s style.

· Decide in advance what to do with your hands: whatever is comfortable.

· Remember that some fear is good: fear means you care about what you’re doing.

Meeting With Management

· Be firm.

· Be a good listener.

· Don’t be too ready to settle.

· Don’t be sidetracked; stick to the point.

· Hold your temper.

· Don’t talk too much; stick to the point.

· Demand the same respect from management as you give them.

· Disagree with dignity.

· Take notes.

· Prepare questions in advance.

· Stick together; don’t show any disagreement between union members.

· Watch body language.

Attitude And Body Language

· Look at the speaker: The face, mouth, eyes, hands and body have a language of their own. Direct eye contact helps you concentrate and shows you are listening.

· Leave your emotions behind: Your worries, problems and fears are barriers to good communications and detract from your listening skills.

· Control your anger: try not to get angry at either the speaker or the message.

· Empathize with the other person: Try to put yourself in the speaker’s place so that you can better understand the message.

· Don’t argue mentally: It’s a mistake to be preparing your answer while the speaker is talking. You can not listen and prepare an answer at the same time.

· React to ideas, not to the person: Don’t let your personal bias toward the speaker influence your interpretations of the message. The ideas can be good even if you don’t care for the person.


We prepared this document using many materials in the Leadership Development Department, UFCW International Union. We also used information from the following publications:

· The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, Third Edition, by Robert M. Schwartz published by Work Rights Press, Cambridge, MA. 1999.

· Solidarity in Action: A Guide for Union Stewards, published by the Labor Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City IA. 2005.

· The Union Steward’s Complete Guide edited by David Prosten and published by Union Communication Services. Washington, DC. 1997.



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