Working Together to Reduce the Arbitration Backlog

March 1, 2017

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(This article first appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

By Secretary-Treasurer Liz Powell

Presently, there is an arbitration backlog and the reason is simple. The grievances appealed to arbitration are usually caused by management, resulting in the issues and problems being grieved by the union. With this system, management generally does not care if arbitration cases are heard and unless there is specific language to require the arbitration cases are heard, as per the negotiated time limits, there will continue to be a backlog.

Unfortunately, each one of the cases appealed directly affects an employee and justice delayed is justice denied. The backlog also gives management an excuse to not resolve blatantly unfair discharges, discipline cases or important contract issues which are clearly in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 (the law which created the current USPS and permitted postal unions to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions) did not require the negotiation of a grievance arbitration procedure, but the parties were free to agree to such a system. The parties did adopt grievance arbitration language in the first contract.

Arbitration is the use of an impartial third party to resolve a dispute. In U.S. history, labor arbitration was used to settle industrial disputes between labor unions and employers. Primarily promoted by the government during World War II, arbitration was seen as a way to resolve labor disputes without having to contend with strikes that could possibly interrupt war production. Arbitration clauses were then regularly negotiated in future labor contracts to limit work stoppages by disgruntled, abused or exploited employees. In postal arbitration, the parties agreed to be bound by the decision of an independent third party who renders a final decision on their disputes involving discipline as well as contract interpretation and application.

In an effort to make the negotiated grievance arbitration language work more effectively, the APWU and the USPS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding Grievance Reviews and Arbitration Scheduling Procedures (see box below).

The memo requires a review of all cases appealed to arbitration and Step 3 (the last grievance step before arbitration) to determine if the discipline or contract issues can be resolved. Since the implementation of this MOU began in December, 177 Letters of Warnings were rescinded and purged as per the 2015 contractual MOU, hundreds of cases have been settled/resolved and 212 discipline cases, including removals, were scheduled for hearings in the month of January and February, in addition to several contractual issues.

All cases unresolved during the review process will be scheduled for arbitration under the revised scheduling and hearing procedures in addition to the arbitration scheduling done by the APWU Industrial Relations Department.

The APWU will continue to monitor the progress to determine if there is a substantial impact on the arbitration caseload and reports will be made known to local and regional officials.

Welcome Assignment

Normally, I report on the administrative function of handling union funds, but we as union officials must always remember the core duties of this union which are enforcement of the collective bargaining agreement as well as promoting the interests of postal workers by building and maintaining a strong, functioning union. In enforcing the collective bargaining agreement, national and local officers are charged with holding management accountable for the contract language, memorandums and letters of intent signed by the parties.

During my tenure as Northeast Regional Coordinator, one of my primary responsibilities was to oversee arbitration scheduling for that region by working with the National Business Agents and locals, to insure their cases were heard in a timely manner. A few months ago, I was assigned by President Dimondstein to be the lead officer at the National Level for implementation and enforcement of a new MOU concerning grievances and arbitration of disputes between the USPS and the American Postal Workers Union.

I welcome this new assignment, and would encourage other officers to not limit their work with their local or state union to just their elected positions and duties. As important as the finances of the union are, we must assure that our primary mission to represent our members is accomplished.

The union always needs capable activists to assist in the enforcement of the contract and to help build the union. Union officials who have the knowledge and talent should not hesitate to work or be assigned to assist in other areas of union work. So when you can, and where you can, work for your union in every way that you can. 

Grievance Review and Arbitration Scheduling MOU

Below are key provisions of the Grievance Review and Arbitration Scheduling MOU:

  • Representatives will be assigned by the parties on the national and regional level to monitor compliance with the MOU.
  • All arbitration appeals and Step 3 grievances will be reviewed.
  • Cases that can be heard without witnesses will be identified.
  • APWU and USPS will jointly determine arbitration dates and locations prior to soliciting arbitration dates.
  • There will be time limits for scheduling letters, identifying advocates and pre-discussion of cases.
  • When time permits, multiple cases will be heard on each hearing date.
  • Advance approval will be required to refer an expedited case to regular arbitration.
  • Arbitration awards and settlements shall be complied within a timely manner.

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