|At First Glance: How to Read Grievances
by J. Talbott, LL.B.
Forming the basis of the employer’s relationship with the union, the collective agreement is the focus point for all union complaints and grievances. Consequently, it is by reference to the collective bargain that employers must learn to read and contend with union complaints.
It is the rare grievance that spells out exactly the violation of the collective agreement being alleged, and provides enough supporting detail for managers to respond. Often, grievances can become a wish list for changes, regardless of whether employees are empowered to demand the changes under the collective agreement.
Grievances are also often used as weapons in a power struggle with the employer. Grievances will often contain bluffs such as, “The Employer is violating the Health and Safety Act by not giving me a 17 inch computer monitor.” In meetings with the employer, as another example, shop stewards may refer to the morale boosting effects of agreeing to uphold a grievance.
The First Question: What Section was Violated?
So, the first question any employer must ask is, “What section of the collective agreement is allegedly being violated here?” Employers should note that in many jurisdictions, labour arbitrators are also empowered to apply relevant employment laws, including human rights statutes, employment standards laws, and health and safety laws. So, the next question is, “Exactly which section of what statute is allegedly violated here?” Scanning through the formal compliant, there should be at least one article in the collective agreement mentioned.
The next step is to look up the article in the collective agreement. Read it carefully. Are there any nuances in meaning? Is it easy to understand, or does it seem poorly worded? Now return to the grievance. Are there any facts alleged in the grievance, which if true, would support the contention that the specific articles mentioned in the collective agreement were violated?
Next: Review the Remedies Requested
Now, employers should scan through the grievance and see what remedies are requested. Often, in these cases, there is a lack of logical follow through. Does the remedy actually correct the alleged violation of the collective agreement, or is it meant to address other concerns which are not properly part of a grievance? Is it a power play?
As an example consider the following hypothetical grievance:
The grievor alleges the employer has violated section 9 regarding health and safety. The manager, Bob Smith, told employees to place their lunch boxes above their lockers because the lockers were too narrow to contain the lunch boxes. Having lunch boxes perched on top of lockers is a health and safety hazard. The grievor requests that management build new lockers, and also requests that Bob Smith be given sensitivity training and provide the grievor with an apology letter for telling her to place her lunch box in an unsafe location.
So, reading this grievance, one can discern that there is only one article which is claimed to have been violated, section nine regarding health and safety. Reading the facts, is there a real health and safety concern? To answer this properly, one would have to read section nine and perhaps go and visit the lockers. Would the lunch boxes fall on peoples heads?
But, the remedy gives something away. Build new lockers? Can a health and safety article really require management to build new lockers to accommodate lunch boxes that are too big? Is there an employee right to a large lunch box, or any lunch box, in the collective agreement? Can a rule be imposed that employees use containers that fit in the locker? Likely. Also, requiring an apology letter and sensitivity training for Bob? Will an apology letter really address a health and safety concern? Will sensitivity training? It seems doubtful.
Employer Checklist for Reading Grievances
In summary employers should ask the following questions when attempting to handle a formal complaint or grievance:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. Talbott, LL.B., is a labour lawyer, consultant, and founder of the Ottawa firm, Labour Relations Consultants. He was formerly Director of Human Resources for a unionized, national non-profit organization. His contact information is given below.
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