Problem solving: grievances and complaints

excerpted from the Steward’s Handbook

As a Steward, you are the first person to be approached by a member experiencing a problem(s) in the workplace. S/he is relying on you to help solve the problem even if there is no clause or protection in the collective agreement or under legislation.

Members see and present their problems as  “complaints” against the way they are being treated in the workplace by management, supervisors or co-workers. The Steward must be able to identify the most appropriate problem solving route to deal with the particular issue that is being presented.

In some circumstances, the Steward may decide to try to resolve problems in an informal discussion with the supervisor before presenting a grievance. This also has the advantage of finding out the supervisor’s view of the problem and hear their explanations.

The Steward must prepare the case as thoroughly as if it was a formal hearing. Although this is an informal problem solving session between the supervisor and the Steward, document the facts and the results on the Steward Fact Sheet. Follow the same process as in Investigation of a Complaint – Grievance section.

An early settlement  of a problem adds to the Steward’s reputation and authority and it leaves the grievance process, at upper levels, available for the settlement of other major problems at the work site.

If a satisfactory settlement is not reached, a grievance should then be prepared and transmitted to the grievor’s immediate supervisor or local officer-in-charge.  (See Processing the Grievance.)

Formal  Complaints

Be aware as a Steward that complaints have legal definitions in the context of various pieces of legislation that affect workers.

  • A complaint can be made against “Unfair Labour Practices” as defined in the Canada Labour Code, the Public Service Staff Relations Act and any of the Provincial and Territorial Codes.
  • A complaint can be filed with the Human Rights Commission on grounds of discrimination under the Human Rights Code
  • For Treasury Board members, a complaint can be made against a deployment and reverse order of merit application.
  • For Treasury Board members, a complaint can be made to the Investigation, Mediation and Conciliation Branch of the Public Service Commission (PSC) on such matters as abuse of authority or personal harassment.
  • In some collective agreements, there is a complaint stage prior to the grievance process. Consult the collective agreement to ascertain if a formal complaint stage exists.

     Although as a Steward, you may not have to deal with these complaints, you should take the Grievance Handling Course and the Steward Advanced Training Program in order to learn more about them and how to process them, if the need arises.

Identifying  a Grievance

Whether the problem constitutes a grievance or not, the member is concerned enough to come to you.  This concern demands action on your part to clarify  the problem  and identify the most appropriate  route to use to correct the situation.

A simple guide is to ask these questions to determine the  most appropriate  problem solving route to take:

  1. Has the collective agreement been violated? Was the employee disciplined in any way e.g. suspended or discharged?
  2. Have any acts or regulations been violated?
  3. Have the employer’s policies been violated?
  4. Did an action or lack of action on the part of management affect the members’ terms and conditions of employment and/or their work environment? 
  5. Is this a matter which can be appealed?

If you answered “no” to all of these, then you have a problem to deal with, not necessarily a grievance, but possibly an issue that can be addressed by a separate process. The problem may also be conducive to informal discussions with management as described earlier.

If the member still alleges there has been a violation of the agreement, explain why this is not the case. This is a time for tact and diplomacy. Discuss with the member other possible avenues of resolution. The member is concerned and if you say there is nothing to be done, there is bound to be disappointment and frustration.  If you give people the brush off, they will lose faith in the union.

If you are uncertain on how to proceed, give the member the benefit of the doubt.  Say you are not sure about it and then ask for help from the Chief Steward or the Steward’s Committee.  When you have discussed the matter with them, go back to the member and report on your discussion.  It is important to keep the member informed at all times.  Don’t go out on a limb promising action when you are not sure if there is a basis for the complaint.

If the member remains convinced that there has been a violation in the application or interpretation of the collective agreement, then advise the member that your decision not to initiate a grievance can be challenged through the Local Executive, the Component or the PSAC Regional Office.

In some cases, it is more appropriate to use an internal consultative forum such as the Union Management Consultation Committee to deal with the issue.

This occurs if :

  • the issue is one which affects more than one member at the worksite, or
  • if after your investigation and discussion at the Stewards’ Committee, you find that it could affect all the members of the Local.

The matter should be brought to the attention of the Local Executive, through the Chief Steward, so that it may be dealt with at a Union-Management Consultation Committee meeting. Management’s internal complaint mechanisms can be pursued in dealing with problems associated with health and dental plans.

Remember, a good reliable Steward is one who can be trusted to treat all members equally, ignoring personal likes and dislikes, and who does not promise the impossible or improbable.