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  5. The Grievance Procedure
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  3. Local Union Presidents and VP's
  4. Stewards Guide
  5. The Grievance Procedure

What is a grievance?

A grievance is a difference between the union and management over what the collective agreement means, and/or the way the collective agreement is being applied in practice.

It is usually the result of some action taken by the employer or by their failure to take action when it should have been taken.

A grievance always contains a demand for corrective action (this is usually a demand “to be made whole”; that way it covers any redress you might not be aware of when writing the grievance).

A grievance can be based on…

  • The Collective Agreement (including Letters of Agreement / Memorandums of Understanding)
  • Labour Legislation such as:
    • your Provincial Employment Standards Act /Federal Labour Code;
      o Health and Safety Act;
      o Labour Relations Act;
      o Human Rights Code / Act.

A grievance can also be based on…

  • Past Practice (well-known, established workplace practices);
  • Employer rules and policies;
  • Discriminatory, unreasonable or unfair management actions.

Grievances generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • clear-cut violations of the plain words of the collective agreement
  • violations of a labour law like the human rights code, minimum employment standards, or health and safety
  • unfair or unequal treatment of workers by management
  • discipline or discharge without just cause
  • an unreasonable rule
  • a rule or policy applied unfairly
  • past practice not followed in relation to some contract language

Although a grievance may sometimes have to do with things not spelled out in the collective agreement (like some past practices), every grievance must make reference to the collective agreement.

Types of grievances

Grievances can also fall into individual, group or policy categories.

Individual employee grievances are those that affect a single worker.

Group grievances – a number of employees with individual grievances on the same or related subject join together in their grievance.

Union or policy grievances – the subject of the grievance is of general interest to the bargaining unit as a whole. Individual employees may or may not be affected. If you are filing a policy grievance, still be sure to also ask for full redress (“to be made whole”) for individual workers whose rights were violated.

Workplace problems and grievances

There is a difference between grievances and other workplace problems; a grievance is an action we can take as a union to correct a violation of the collective agreement.

There are times when members come to us with issues that may not fall into any of the grievance categories we have discussed – and are therefore not grievances.

That doesn’t mean workplace representatives can’t get involved – explain to the member the limits of the grievance process, but have a discussion to see if there are other channels for resolution.

Refer members with personal or non-workplace problems to officers or union counsellors in the local or your community who deal with such problems. They can help set the member on the right course. Check in with the member from time to time; they need to know the union cares.

What every grievance procedure has in common:

  • Outlines a process for enforcing the collective agreement.
  • Allows union and management to settle grievances between them.
  • Is written down right in the actual collective agreement.
  • Includes steps in the grievance procedure.
  • Names the people responsible on both sides at each step.
  • Requires written documentation.
  • Identifies an arbitration procedure for final settlement.
  • Always demands/includes an investigation by workplace representatives.

Steps in the grievance process

Every collective agreement outlines the steps to follow when filing a grievance.

For example:

Step one: a discussion is held between the griever, the workplace rep/steward and the supervisor to try to find a quick, informal solution to the problem. Many workplace problems are solved this way.

Step two: If there’s no satisfactory resolution, the union writes up grievance, using a grievance form that outlines the problem, how it relates to the collective agreement and says what the union and the worker want done about it. Often getting the problem down in writing is enough to get management to agree to a resolution.

Step three: If management doesn’t fix things when they receive the written grievance, then people higher up in the organizational chain (on both sides) get involved to try to find a solution.

Step four: If there is still no satisfactory resolution, then the President of the Local /Local Unit Chairperson and the Human Resource manager will get involved. If they need help, a Unifor national representative and/or a head office / senior management person may become involved.

Step five: If there’s still no resolution, the issue may be referred to an Arbitrator, a government-appointed independent third party. As you can see, at each stage, the steps become more formalized, and people higher up the chain on both the union side and management side get involved.

Check your collective agreement. You need to know:

  • How many steps are there in your particular process? (not all workplaces outline four steps before arbitration)
  •  Who needs to be involved or informed at each step?
  • Before filing a grievance, verbal or written, do you have a duty to discuss the complaint with the
  • What is expected and required at each step?
  • What timelines come into play at each step?
  • How, when and why we move from one step to the next?

Seven things to keep in mind about the grievance process

  1. We always try to find a solution at the earliest stage. The higher up the process, the more senior people get involved and the more entrenched they may become.
  2. We always proceed knowing the case could potentially go to arbitration. This means right from the beginning we do a thorough and timely investigation and we document, document, document.
  3. Except in certain circumstances, we follow the dictum “obey now, grieve later” (see page 40).
  4. We keep the grievor informed at every step of the process, even if the only news to report is that there’s no news.
  5. We deal with grievances strategically, always with an eye to building the union.
  6. We have a legal right to this process. The employer cannot get in our way of proceeding from one step to another; the power to move forward is in the union’s hands
  7. Timelines are critical. The last thing we want is to lose a grievance on a technicality – one of the most common ways to mishandle a grievance is to fail to follow timelines.

Obey now, grieve later

Stewards and members must know and understand the “obey now, grieve later” rule. This is a general principle of labour law, established in arbitration.

Workers have a duty to obey an employer’s order when given and, if they disagree, grieve it later on.

The union doesn’t necessarily always agree with this rule, but we know that arbitrators will generally uphold it.

Arbitrators also recognize exceptions to this rule. A worker might have grounds to refuse to follow an order if the order

  • endangers a person’s health and safety; or
  • requires the worker to perform an illegal act.

A third exception might happen when a workplace representative disobeys an order because they’re protecting the interests of other workers from irreparable harm in an urgent situation.

A union steward claiming an exception must be prepared to show they were justified in doing so. You will need to educate your members on the “obey now, grieve later” rule (as well as on “right to refuse”, see page 41). Obey now, grieve later can be a tough pill to swallow for members who are really angry / emotional about an injustice – make sure they understand this is not our rule, but it’s a rule we (almost always) need to follow if we are going to have a good shot at fixing the problem.

The right to refuse unsafe work

Workplace health and safety laws give workers a great deal of protection when they refuse work because they have an honest belief the work is unsafe or hazardous to themselves or others. So long as the worker tells the supervisor right away that they are exercising the right to refuse under the health and safety law, the worker should not, under law, be disciplined or suffer reprisal.

If there is no worker safety representative around, a union steward may be called upon to act as the worker’s representative or advocate. Your job is then to see that the worker has been fully informed of their rights and that the proper steps are followed. The supervisor, together with the worker’s representative, must investigate the refusal in the presence of the worker.

If, after the investigation, the worker does not agree with what the supervisor says, the government inspector must be called in. Meanwhile, in nearly every jurisdiction, another worker cannot be made to do the refused work unless s/he has been told of the refusal, the worker’s reasons for the refusal, and what their rights are under the law.

Find out more about the right to refuse and how it works under the law which applies to your workplace. Unifor advises bargaining committees to include the right to refuse unsafe work into the language of the collective

If a worker has been unjustly disciplined or discriminated against for exercising his or her right to refuse, the matter must be filed either as a grievance or a complaint to the appropriate government labour relations board –
but generally speaking not both at the same time.

You can order “Unifor Right to Refuse” cards by contacting our Unifor Health, Safety and Environment Department, at healthandsafety@unifor.org (or 1-800-268-5763 ext. 6558). Be sure to specify your province or federal jurisdiction.


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