A Dozen Rules for Writing Grievances

Here are some basic hints to help you write good grievances.

1. Short and Sweet. Unless your contract specifies otherwise, limit the information you present to what the basic problem is, what violations have occurred, and how the problem needs to be fixed by the employer. Note that railroad grievances are the exception here and they must be very detailed.

2. Omit all arguments. You should not include arguments, evidence, and justifications on the form, unless your contract states otherwise. Save these items for the first level meeting when you go in to speak with the boss. Writing them into the grievance tips your hand and you don't need to give the employer any more ammunition before you arrive on the scene.

3. Use flexible language. When citing dates, precede the actual date of the event with the phrase, "On or about." A grievance dealing with supervisors doing union work might read, "On or about March 21, supervisor Brown performed bargaining unit work by painting a wall panel." If this happened on two dates March 20 and 21, you stand on firmer ground for the grievance.

4. Don't limit contract violations. When you write your grievance use the expression, "management violated the contract including but not limited to Article V, Section 5." By adding the words "including but not limited to," you are on surer ground if you need to add additional violations of the agreement later on.

5. No opinions. Do not use words such as "I think," or "I want." The grievance states the union position.

6. Don't use company language. Your grievance should use the words you are comfortable with, not how the boss characterizes the situation. It's not "disputed work;" it's "bargaining unit work." The grievant does not have a "bad attitude' she has been denied "due process."  Concede nothing on paper.

7. Don't limit the remedy. Use the phrase, "the grievant should be made whole in every way including...[then ask for what you want]." By using these words, you are not limiting your remedy because you left out something in the grievance. It also gives the union some leeway to bargain over the award.

But remember -- just because you use the phrase "made whole in every way," does not mean that management or an arbitrator will search out all the specific benefits management denied the grievant. You must try to include the entire remedy in the grievance.

8. Involve the grievant. This rule may seem obvious. By consulting with the member, you will be getting all the details you need to pursue the grievance and at the same time make sure both of you are on the same page in requesting an appropriate remedy. Some of our contracts are very specific and indicate that the grievant must write up the grievance and/or sign it. This language should be seen as a strength, not a weakness.

It means that you will have to work with the grievant in getting the correct language down on paper. It also keeps the member a direct participant in the process and this strengthens the union. Keep the grievant up to date.

9. Sign the grievance. Whether the contract calls for a grievant's signature or not, get the member to sign. It empowers the member and at the same time makes clear that the union and member will speak as one.

10. Stay timely. Do not miss your time limits. Whatever the issue, never lose out because you missed the time limits set up by your contract.

11. Focus on the process. Prepare each grievance as if it will be arbitrated. Do the proper investigation early; keep good notes; and pass copies of everything up to the local union.

12. Pre-meet to resolve if you can. Always remember if you can resolve the grievance before you write it up, you are way ahead of the game. Once the grievance is committed to paper, other management people tend to get involved. 

Steward Stress

You've got a big grievance case coming. The company is stonewalling you by not sharing information. You can't locate certain records at the union hall. The chief shop steward is on vacation. And your kids are both sick with the flu. This has got to be a formula for a Mylanta moment.

Maybe all of this doesn't happen at once but there are times when a shop steward finds that his or her life is out of balance. It can stem from the pressure of work, the pressure of the union job, the pressure from home or all of the above.

The first place to look for help is the local union where some of the stressors can be minimized or eliminated. Good local unions put a premium on the work that the steward does so it can take some steps to help the steward. That means the local must have specific areas of support and investment for the steward such as classes to teach skills, mentoring programs to pair experienced stewards with new ones, regularly-scheduled stewards meeting where issues can be comfortably discussed, recognition for stewards such as special badges, hats, shirts or jackets, and public thanks to stewards at membership meetings and in newsletters. 

Take a good look at the formal structure of the local union. Does the local designate a particular officer, such as a chief steward, to answer questions and make the right phone call when a steward needs help? Is the recordkeeping of the local up-to-date so that the steward can research issues easily?  Is there an easy-to-use system of grievance tracking so that the steward does not get behind on time limits and the local insures follow-through when the grievance moves out of the hands of the steward? Are the lines of communication within the local clear so that a steward does not feel undercut by an officer or another steward?

Even with the best local union support structure, the steward will probably feel overwhelmed. Grievance handlers deal with members who can be supportive or difficult. When dealing with a particular difficult member or issue, you must remember to distance yourself from the case emotionally. While you can certainly sympathize with the member, you also need to be objective so that you will be able to resolve the problem.


When pursuing the case, you must remember that it is not about winning or losing. It's about resolving issues. If you go into the first level meeting with the expectation of winning you will be disappointed and frustrated if the grievance is denied or you are offered some compromise. You might even miss the signals that could be sent that there is a resolution to the problem. 

Use the skills of time management so that you aren't paralyzed by the workload. Maintain a "to do" list so you can actually see progress on your work. Break jobs down into smaller pieces; use worksheets; and keep a notebook or project planner. All of these aids will help you keep you focused on your goals and priorities.

Most important of all, take a time out. Give yourself a break. Maybe that means turning off the cell phone or blackberry and using free time for things you want to do around the house or with the family. Don't look at free time as time that needs to be devoted to union work. You need balance in your life. Don't forget to exercise to help let off steam. Some people learn breathing exercises; some practice yoga. 

You'll never be a successful steward unless you learn to balance your life. 

The Five Key Tasks for Stewards

For new stewards, the first few days on the job as a union representative are critically important. You have got to demonstrate to the membership that you can get the job done. Your members must feel comfortable coming to you to resolve work-related issues.

At the same time, your supervisor and other management personnel are going to watch you and probably test you. You will need to be prepared for these trials. Here are five strategies that will help you win respect from members and firm up your position with management.

1.  Establish your position. When workers go directly to management, to another steward or to a higher union officer with a grievance, without first going through their assigned steward, we call that process bypassing.  Bypassing is a problem for many stewards, especially new ones.

Granted, some contracts call for the employee to speak with the immediate supervisor to solve problems informally. Whenever possible, encourage the member to bring you along to make sure they treated fairly. Often, when members go into meetings with their supervisors they are unaware of their rights and the stipulations of the contract.

2.   Beware of management’s tests.  Remember that if you are a new steward, management will often test you to see how well you represent the member. That test may be in the form of denying you reasonable time to do your job or not giving you an extension of a time limit on a first step grievance if you request it. Your supervisor may try in some way to interfere with your investigation of a grievance by denying access to records. Or the supervisor may simply say “no” at your grievance meeting even though your member’s grievance is a clear case of injustice and a breach of the agreement. Expect to be tested. 

3. Establish the union. When they hire in, new workers are often given expensive “orientation” from management, but may not be exposed to the union view. Not realizing the struggle that went into winning these gains, many of them may believe the wages and conditions they enjoy came from the goodness of someone’s heart.

Get to those new members early. Even if they are on probation, a friendly piece of advice and support will be long remembered.

4. Represent the rank and file.  Always treat the member with respect and dignity.  Work with the member. It is a sign of empowerment and the strength of the union as a group. The operative word is always “we” not I.  The word “they” is always reserved for the company or management, not the union. If you truly believe that the union is not simply a servicing center for the membership, then these terms should be second nature.

5. Build solidarity.  Nobody said this job would be easy. But by being situated right in the middle of the structure amid the union, management and the rank and file, the steward can do a lot to build unity. In everything you do, you are setting an example for the rank-and-file that they have power and that power is the union. Your actions every day build the union.

Do I Take the Grievant With Me?

Here is a basic question that comes up all the time.  Should the steward take the grievant to the first level grievance meeting?  My answer is yes.

I am a strong believer in letting the member sees 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 the 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 cases 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.

Resolving Issues Early

A member comes to you and asks you why their grievance has not be resolved.  “It amounts to a few hours overtime,” they tell you.  “Why does it take four months to get paid?”  Good question, you say to yourself.   Why must it take so long?

An experienced steward understands the grievance process and his/her key role in making the procedure work.  It begins and hopefully ends with the steward and member.  No step two or three.  No arbitration.

This might sound like heresy but it is common sense.  Few grievances should ever go up the grievance ladder and even fewer should go to arbitration.  When a large number of grievances move up the procedure, there can be a serious problem with the grievance machinery. And that often signals a poor relationship between the employer and the local union.

Why should issues be resolved early? 

1.  Members see results quickly.  Minor issues should be tackled and resolved immediately.  This shows the member that the union can deliver.  Needless delay over a resolvable issue demonstrates weakness not strength.

2.  Justice delayed is justice denied.  This is an old saying which rings true today.  How does it look to a member when a resolvable issue has to be processed in a way that takes months?

3.  Resolving issues at an early stage builds up a relationship with your counterpart in supervision.  It means that the issue doesn’t go downtown or off the property and that makes the supervisor look good.  Early resolution can also serve as the confidence building process that allows for other issues to be tackled.

4.  Reducing the issue to a written grievance often forces both sides to posture and become inflexible.  

5.  Issues that could be handled by discussion can become costly grievances.  

This does not mean we shouldn’t file grievances.  On the contrary, we should treat every grievable issue as if it will go to arbitration. Stewards should perform a thorough investigation and advocate in the strongest possible terms when a grievance is merited and a step one meeting is necessary.

Why can't you get first step resolution?  Here are a couple of reasons:

  • Supervisors may not see early issue resolution as in their best interest. They might view sitting down with you to discuss issues as ceding over some of the power that they have.  
  • They may not know how to resolve the issue because they don't understand the agreement. The reasons are usually twofold: They do not come out of the bargaining unit so they don't really understand the connection between the contract and the work process.  Or, they haven't been trained by the employer.
  • They may also not be in the position to resolve issues informally.  Usually, these are the same supervisors who must call Labor Relations to get an answer on your first step grievance.  
  • Then there are supervisors who are hostile to any kind of reasonable request.  

But there is still a strong case for an informal discussion with management on workplace issues.  

Where they can feel comfortable, stewards should take advantage of “open door” policies to meet and discuss issues with supervisors.  Unless local union policy dictates otherwise, there is no reason why a steward cannot schedule a pre-grievance meeting with his/her counterpart in management.  

We already do some of this “meet and discuss” when we go into the supervisors’ office over the nonpayment of overtime or problems with work scheduling.  Some local unions have integrated a pre-grievance meeting into the process prior to step one.  If the two sides cannot resolve the issue, then it is reduced to a written grievance and presented at a step one meeting.  Also, you can initiate regular monthly meetings or use a labor-management meeting to discuss grievance issues. This practice can lead to a more formalized process that is incorporated into contract language.

Early grievance resolution is in everybody's best interest.

Watch Your Computer Use

One of the growing areas of concern for stewards and for members is the issue of company computer and e-mail use. 


Employers today use computers to communicate directly with employees and let employees communicate with each other. On paper, the ability to communicate quickly and effectively allows for employers to get work done in ways never dreamed of fifteen years ago.


So what’s the problem?


When we use electronic mail, or e-mail, on an employer’s computer, we are not guaranteed any rights of privacy. That has been established in a number of court cases. 

Most employers use computer systems that are tied to a central computer. That means that any message or instant message you write may end up on the company’s hard drive. Some email systems in use today will copy all messages that pass through them. Worse still, “keylogger” software enables employers to keep drafts of emails – those emails you wrote in anger and thought you trashed.

The American Management Association reports that 50 percent of company surveyed actively monitor emails and about 25 percent of them had terminated an employee for misusing email.

An even larger percentage of employers monitor employees’ use of the Internet. About 29 percent of employers surveyed also block access to what they deem to be "inappropriate" Web sites. These may include Facebook, MySpace, twitter or other social media networks.


So here are the 10 rules about using company computers.


1. Do not conduct union business on company computers unless the local union has an agreement with the employer as to the type of labor-management activity that the computer can be used for. If, a local union has an agreement about filing grievances electronically, that should be the extent of using company computers for union business. Remember, you cannot be sure of what will end up on company servers for the boss to see.

2. Keep all confidential union information off the company computer. That would include fact sheets and results of any investigations you make.

3. Local unions should have complete control over any communications that it uses for union business.

4. Your password does not guarantee privacy against employer monitoring.

5. Always assume someone else will read any e-mail you send on a company computer.

6. Labeling e-mail private and confidential does not guarantee it will be treated as such.

7. Do not transmit anything offensive or view anything offensive you receive.

8. If you receive any questionable e-mail on a company computer, delete it immediately. Don’t forward it.

9. Even if your employer has a policy that permits use of its computers for personal matters, don’t do it. Surf the Web at home, not on the job. 

10. Play it safe. Do not use company computers for personal business, period.

When You Need a Paper Trail

Let's face it. We'd love to be able to resolve workplace problems in a face-to-face meeting. No formal grievances filed. No hearing. Grievant paid. Record clean. If only it worked that way.

Much of the time we need to use the written word and particularly letters or electronic mail. So here are some important hints on letter writing so that you clearly document your request or understanding. 

1. Put it on letterhead if you have it. If not, create a top line with the local's names and address so that the employer knows it's union business. 

2. If the union and the employer use emails or faxes for official communication make sure that your note has a requested receipt so you have proof the employer received it. Most email programs allow you to put in a command for receipt. Your faxed note should also request an acknowledgement. In either case, also send or hand-deliver a hard copy saying that it is a second copy originally delivered by email (or fax) on whatever date it was sent. Mail communications should be sent certified mail, return-receipt requested.

2. Date the letter. Along with a hand-stamp on the envelope, you will have proof of compliance with time limits. 

3.  Think of the content. Letters can be used in evidence to support the grievance. For example, you may be requesting information. If it is withheld, then the union might enter the letter as evidence of the employer's non-compliance with procedures. Don't put anything in the letter that you might not want entered in the record.

4. Who is it sent to? Include the full name and title of the employer officer who is to receive the letter. Don't chance anything by sending the letter to a title, without the proper name. Some grievances can be denied if it is sent to the wrong person. If you are not sure, check with the union and the employer.

5.  Why are you writing the letter? Explain the reason why you are making the request. You do not have to be so specific that you tip your hand. If you need attendance records of certain employees, you might give the reason that you are processing a possible grievance based on an employer charge of alleged attendance abuse. 

6.  Make sure that your exact request stands out from the rest of the letter. Use a separate paragraph for the request or use boldface type.

7. If you have a series of requests, number each one. Do not run them together because it will give the employer an opportunity to skip some of the requests.

8. Give them a deadline. "Please respond to this request by November 30, 2010." If they do not, call them on December 1 to ask where is their response. 

9. Include immediate contact information where you can be reached if the employer has a question. Give them a cell number, an email address or the union phone number. And don't forget to check voice mail or your email. You do not want them to respond for further information by the mail. Time is too important.

10.  Make sure you copy (cc) whoever is necessary. In most cases it will be the chief shop steward, chief union grievance officer and/or president. And don't forget to send them the copy.

Whatever the reason for writing the letter -- a grievance letter or appeal, an information request, a request for a time limit extension -- it is important to keep copies of your documents and then pass them on to the next person on the grievance ladder when the grievance is appealed.


You are called into a disciplinary meeting with a member and the first thing the supervisor says to you is to listen. “Your role here is to witness this hearing,” she says. “And if you say anything out of line, I’ll write you up for insubordination.” This may sound a little far-fetched, but for some new stewards, you may have heard similar words.

The point is that such language is out of line. It is also illegal.  Managers do not often understand that a special status is granted to the union representative -- a steward’s immunity -- once the union certifies the rep to act on the union’s behalf. That “protected status” allows you to act in ways that may be confrontational, a behavior that would appear to be insubordinate if you were acting in the role of employee and not steward.

In fact, much of your role will be perceived as confrontational by the other side.  You will be challenging the employer’s authority by simply asking questions or making statements. Yet you cannot perform your union job enforcing the contract and guaranteeing due process to the member without being an advocate.

Let’s start out by saying that much of your work can be done in a calm and reasonable manner. That is often the best way of handling member’s problems.  A member is emotionally involved in the situation; most likely you are not.

But that doesn’t mean that you should be passive in your role as a union representative. You are the member’s advocate and therefore can say things that an employer would not find acceptable from an employee in her work role.

Private sector law, such as the National Labor Relations Act and court cases based on that law provide the necessary explanation of where your advocacy rights come from.  Here is what an often-cited NLRB case says about your role as a union steward:

“The relationship at a grievance meeting is not a ‘master-servant’ relationship but a relationship between company advocates on one side and union advocates on the other side, engaged as equal opposing parties in litigation.”

State law, in most cases, follows this language as does the Railway Labor Act and subsequent arbitration cases.  

Labor advocates refer to this relationship at the “equality rule,” although you won’t find a law that specifically calls it that. As a union representative, you are the employer’s equal in grievance resolution and that allows you to be an active participant and advocate unless your contract specifies a circumstance where that role is limited, such as in a security hearing or a drug and alcohol test.

This stands to reason, particularly at a disciplinary hearing where the member is entitled to due process rights. Since the employer handles the process – the hearing, trial, and/or investigation – he must be held to a high standard and only the union representative can do that by being actively engaged in the process.

So how far can you go? The Supreme Court says that “robust debate” is protected. That has been interpreted to mean that in your representation role you can speak loudly, use gestures, and engage in what the courts call “salty language.”  

This line is not a clear one so the rule of thumb is stay calm and get the job done without the robust debate, if possible.  A line is crossed when you use extreme profanity or racial epithets, make threats or hit someone. To minimize any charges of this sort, it is always wise to have someone with you if you expect the discussion to get heated.

Bottom line is that you should act professionally in your representational role. You are there to resolve the issue for the member.

How to Listen

Listening is a skill.  Unfortunately, we are far better talkers than we are listeners.  But you can’t be a good speaker without being a good listener.  One skill relies on the other. In grievance handling, the shop steward needs to be able to listen and, at the same time, observe the member.  Much of what you need to know may be conveyed to you through body language or inference, not in direct speech.

So the first piece of advice is to stop all that you are doing. Stop talking. Turn off your phone and minimize all other distractions. If you are in a room full of people, get out of it and into a quiet area.  You both need to focus.

The member must tell you the complete story, not just the piece he or she wants you want to hear. This is the time to encourage story telling. You will be able to ask questions later but you need to hear everything. So the best place to start is to ask the open-ended question that you hate to hear the supervisor ask in a hearing: "Tell me what happened."

Face the member and make eye contact in a non-threatened manner. Be relaxed but make sure that your body language indicates your concern. Nod your head and make comments like "I see" or "I hear you." Let the member know you are listening.

This means you also need to leave your emotions behind. You may not like the person. You may have your own personal problems that need attending. What is being said may anger you. Leave your emotions outside.

As the story unfolds, do not argue mentally. This throws off your concentration and places a barrier between you and the speaker.

Help the member along by recapping what they say. At appropriate points in the interview you can say, "So this happened and then this happened."  Phrases such as these allow the member to confirm what they told you and give you the assurance that you are getting the story correctly.

Listen to what is not being said. Sometimes you can learn just as much by determining what the speaker leaves out in the discussion as you can by listening to what is said. Omission of fact may signify that the member is being pressured by a manger or a coworker into telling only a part of the story. Your credibility as a grievance representative demands that you know and understand fully what happened.

Listen also to how something is said. We frequently concentrate so hard on what is said that we miss the importance of the emotional reactions and attitudes related to what is said. Those attitudes and emotions may be more important.

Avoid jumping to conclusions. Hear the member out. Your conclusions may be correct but there can be some piece of the story that you need to hear that makes a difference in how to handle the problem. Often when a person reaches a conclusion about a person or incident, their mind closes out other information including possible mitigating circumstances.  Keep an open mind.

Once you have gone through the larger story and you have a general understanding of the nature of the problem, you should begin to ask more specific questions to get the details you need to investigate the problem. Continue to evaluate the facts and evidence. 

After you have concluded the interview you will need to gather facts from other sources in order to corroborate what you have been told.  Thank the member and tell them you will get back to them. Make no other promises until you fully investigate their story. Once you have concluded your investigation, you must decide how you will handle the situation. Then get back to the member and discuss your next move.

Verbal warnings


How many of us have been in the situation where the employer has created a paper trail in order to build a case against our member? Verbal warnings and letters may be indicated on some kind of disciplinary sheet in the member's personnel file.

What does the member usually do if they are assessed a verbal or written warning? In all too many cases the member does nothing. Stewards and the local union itself must counsel all members never to accept discipline that the member and/or the local union knows is unjust.

That doesn't mean every letter of warning has to be arbitrated. In many cases, it is sufficient to challenge that letter with the member's and/or union's version of what happened. This challenge should be put in writing and attached to the record or it should be properly entered directly on the discipline sheet, if possible.

If the employer refuses to accept the union protest, the union can write a letter to the employer stating that “the reprimand is unfair and we reserve the right to challenge both its content and use in any future disciplinary hearing.”  The language puts on record that the union does not accept the disciplinary action.

If these warnings are not challenged in writing, they stand as accepted. Management has made an art form out of progressive discipline. The union needs strong ammunition in any disciplinary situation, because the next incident could trigger time off or termination.

About Robert Wechsler

I am a labor educator and historian and believe deeply that we can never forget the contributions of those who came before us as we confront the new issues that we face today. I began work for the Transport Workers Union of America on the third day of the New York transit strike in 1980. I have been their Education Director for 20 years and their Research Director for nine years. I am currently working on projects for the New York Transit Museum, the largest museum in the world devoted to mass transit.


Recent Posts

  1. A Dozen Rules for Writing Grievances
    Wednesday, April 27, 2011
  2. Steward Stress
    Wednesday, February 09, 2011
  3. The Five Key Tasks for Stewards
    Tuesday, January 18, 2011
  4. Do I Take the Grievant With Me?
    Monday, January 03, 2011
  5. Resolving Issues Early
    Monday, December 13, 2010
  6. Watch Your Computer Use
    Wednesday, December 01, 2010
  7. When You Need a Paper Trail
    Tuesday, November 16, 2010
    Thursday, November 04, 2010
  9. How to Listen
    Wednesday, October 27, 2010
  10. Verbal warnings
    Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Recent Comments

  1. Christopher Mikkelson on Do I Take the Grievant With Me?
  2. Linda on The right to representation in disciplinary hearings
  3. Robert L. Payne on Verbal warnings
  4. Robert L Payne on The right to representation in disciplinary hearings
  5. Deirdre Gilbert on Insubordination -- a dozen questions to ask
  6. Lorri Greif on 10 Hints for Grievance Meetings
  7. Tracy Geise on Welcome
  8. John Remington on Preparing the disciplinary grievance
  9. Brian Greenberg on Welcome


April 2014

Monthly Archives

Blog Software
Blog Software