A Grievance Procedure That Works for You

March 1, 2015

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(This article first appeared in the March-April 2015 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

With contract negotiations underway, the APWU negotiating team, like you, is concerned about the future of the Postal Service and the thousands of members we represent.

We are troubled by the Postal Service’s plans to close plants and consolidate facilities, and by the cuts in service management has already implemented. As we have stated in articles, media interviews, at rallies and in the halls of Congress: We believe management’s cut-to-survive strategy is a way of shutting the door on true service to the American public. Every cut the Postal Service makes is also an attack on postal employees.

We must fight hard to defend our rights at the bargaining table, and we must fight to make sure management provides the rights and benefits we have already secured in our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The provisions of our contract have been violated at every level by managers who rarely admit they did anything wrong until an arbitrator or judge forces them to reverse their policy and face the consequences – often by the payment of large settlements.

Even the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) acknowledged that postal supervisors routinely violate the contract. In a June 2014 Management Advisory Report (HR-MA-14-008), the OIG reported that the South Florida District paid more than $7.6 million for grievance settlements last year. The OIG found that “supervisors did not appropriately assign overtime, required employees to work outside their skill sets, moved carriers from their regular routes, performed employees’ duties, denied access to union representatives, and took other violative actions to address overtime and staffing issues.”

But the OIG report didn’t result in discipline or even retraining for the supervisors involved.

These incidents follow the pattern seen all over the Postal Service: Managers violate the contract and point their fingers up the line, saying the postmaster, plant manager, district manager, area manager, or someone at headquarters told them to do it. Management pays the fine – then does it all over again!

Their actions avoid resolution for years and put a strain on the parties’ money and resources.

Break the Cycle

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Postal Service is acting in bad faith. When they abuse the grievance procedure, they chip away at the union’s power to address – and correct – contract violations. It’s obvious management believes that if they keep the union buried in grievance paperwork it will distract us, and we will give up our greater goals.

While policing the contract and grieving violations is important, we need to stay focused on our overall mission to:

  • Stop Staples from taking clerk work out of post offices. Transferring our work to low-wage private retailers will undermine the sanctity of the mail and be used to justify a lower pay rate for window clerks.
  • Mobilize communities to save their Postal Service, by fighting post office closings and consolidations.
  • Organize the unorganized in the Postal Service and in the private sector for all postal-related jobs.
  • Flood the halls of Congress with demands for legislation that will protect universal postal service and stop the threat of privatization.

Perhaps the best way we can protect our contractual rights from the type of serial violators identified in the OIG report is with an updated grievance procedure. Resolutions passed at APWU national conventions have called for the union to negotiate a process that addresses and resolves grievances quickly. After reviewing arbitration statistics over the past few years, I believe that our arbitration processes need a major overhaul.

We are exploring various methods to improve the process. These include:

  • Off-site electronic video hearings;
  • Arbitration-by-mail, where both parties submit a joint file and opening statement to the arbitrator, who would then make a timely decision based on what is in the file.

We have heard from other unions that use these procedures to handle cases efficiently.

Article 15.3 of the contract includes a mediation process, but it has been dormant for years. Mediation is a quick and inexpensive process that could potentially resolve multiple grievances in a single day. We could modify this process and revive it so it works for both parties.

In any grievance-arbitration system, justice must be swift. In addition to the ideas mentioned above, we are exploring other ways for the union to streamline grievance procedures. For example, we could use local arbitrators to reduce travel costs and/or make sure all arbitrators work the full six hours they agree to in their contract.

I’m reminded of an old proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. The second best time is today.” As national negotiations continue, we are looking to “clear some of the brush” from Article 15, so we can move forward to timely resolutions on day-to-day issues.

The grievance process should not carry such an enormous burden on locals and the national organization. We must address the current backlogged, inefficient system and consider viable alternatives. We must develop a procedure that responds to contract violations with fair and timely consequences, but this does not mean giving up on negotiated rights and benefits. If the Postal Service refuses to hold managers accountable, the APWU will.

I’m sure that many members are concerned about the time and resources the union spends in the grievance-arbitration process – not to mention the anxiety delays cause our members as they wait for a conclusion to their grievances for months – even years.

As contract negotiations continue, please continue to send us your ideas about what we can do to make Article 15 work better for you.

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