Do I Take the Grievant With Me?

Here is a basic question which has come up more than once at our stewards' training sessions. Should the steward take the grievant to the first level grievance meeting? The answer I usually give is yes. I am a strong believer in letting the member see how the union functions. After a member actually signs their union authorization card, the next great step of union participation in some member's lives is the filing of their first grievance.

Here is the opportunity for the union steward to show the member what he/she actually does in protecting the membership and enforcing the contract. We preach that we should keep the member informed at every step of the grievance process; it's also our legal duty. So why not show the member by bringing them into the grievance meeting?

Bringing the member to the meeting insures a number of things for the union, management and the member. It usually forces the member to be candid with you about the incident prior to the meeting. That means fewer surprises at the actual meeting. Management sees the member and knows the union is serious about the grievance. For the member, attending the meeting clears up any doubt about the process being a secret one. Everyone is there and the cards are on the table.

Now let's backtrack for a minute before you actually walk into that first level meeting. Let's assume that the steward has done his/her homework on the grievance. It is written properly and investigated. Deadlines have been met.

Talk to the member and tell them who will be present at the meeting and how you expect it to be conducted. The goal would be to decrease the member's anxiety and increase the comfort level if that is at all possible.

Establish clear ground rules for the member. Assuming this is a meeting about a contract violation, you don't want the member speaking at all unless you hear it first. That would mean a clear instruction on how to call a break or caucus so that we can speak privately at the meeting.

Discuss the special status of a union representative at the meeting so that the member understands that you are his/her advocate who is the equal of management at the meeting. Whereas you can turn up the volume or language at the meeting because of this special status, the member cannot. You do not want a grievance meeting to turn into a write up of insubordination because the member loses his/her control.

Make sure that the member understands the whole process of grievance resolution and that there is a very good chance of denial at the first step. Give them an understanding of the possible outcomes of the meeting so that they are not surprised. Let them understand the appeal process and what options the union has in pursuing the grievance. This is not the place to guarantee an arbitration hearing. That decision is for the local union to make.

In case of appeals of disciplinary action, members more than likely will insist on being present at their appeal. In certain cases, this right may be contractual. Nonetheless, there are few reasons not to have the member at the meeting unless there is a clear problem of an expected personality clash between the member and management. This special case presents a judgment call to the union as to how to handle a potentially volatile situation. One possibility is to ask for a substitution on the other side of the table rather than leaving the grievant out of the picture.

The bottom line is that the union emerges stronger when the member sees first hand what can be done together with the shop steward.