Ask The Lawyer

By Debra Roth

Being a union member has advantages

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In theory, your rights as a union member should be the same as your rights if you are in a bargaining unit and not a union member. Being a union member means you pay dues. Nonmembers do not pay dues but are supposed to receive representation rights and other benefits related to the union being the exclusive representative of employees in the bargaining unit.

While federal-sector labor unions have an obligation to represent all employees in the bargaining unit fairly, dues-paying members are likely to be more knowledgeable about the union and how it works and are likely to receive services from the union with a smile and enthusiasm that may not necessarily be present if the union is representing someone who is not paying dues. One of the biggest advantages of being in a bargaining unit is a grievance procedure that includes the availability, at the union’s option, of having grievances resolved by an outside arbitrator. Because arbitration is expensive and because it  is difficult to challenge a union’s decision against arbitration, being a dues-paying member is a factor in your favor to obtain the arbitration option, if needed. Arbitration is widely viewed in the labor relations community as more favorable to employees than is the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The collective bargaining agreement lists rights and entitlements for employees in the bargaining unit that have been negotiated between the union and agency management. Topics include telework policies and procedures, sick leave (including requirements for issuing a leave restriction letter), performance management and specifics of the grievance procedure. Absent from the list are pay, assignment of work and a few other non-negotiable items.

Anyone in the bargaining unit should read the collective bargaining agreement. Managers who oversee bargaining-unit employees should also be familiar with the agreement. This is one of the best ways to help labor-management relations. Clear and consistent application of the requirements of the agreement by both management and labor, including employees in the represented labor force, leads to fewer grievances and unfair labor practice allegations.

One of a bargaining-unit member’s best rights is the right to representation by the union on matters of workplace concern. This right takes place in three primary ways:

The first is the grievance procedure.  The deadlines, matters covered and steps for processing the grievance are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement.

Management knows that once the grievance procedure is exhausted, the union has the right to invoke binding arbitration by an outside arbitrator. This has a sobering effect on management to carefully consider a union grievance and to grant relief if the grievance has merit. This stands in stark contrast to the agency administrative grievance procedure available to employees outside the bargaining unit; this procedure is not subject to outside review and does not receive the same level of respect.

The second is representation for formal meetings concerning personnel policies and other working conditions. The union need not request to be present at a formal meeting. It is management’s responsibility to recognize that a meeting meets the formal criteria and to invite the union to the meeting.

Finally, bargaining-unit employees are entitled to union representation if they are to be interviewed and the interview could result in disciplinary actions.

This last category of representation is often referred to as a Weingarten right, named after a Supreme Court case. The employee must specifically request union representation and the employee must reasonably believe disciplinary action will result.

Comments

  1. Dan Lilly Says:
    June 4th, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    In theory, you commentary sounds alright. But in real life, in the field, it’s a “rose colored glasses” viewpoint. I’m a 25 year federal employee and I served as a union steward for 12+ years. I recently left the union after the local president went against the wishes of the majority of the members in our office and appointed a steward with no experience, who now seems to regret being steward.

    I’ve seen good and bad stewards like I’ve seen good and bad management. When I left the union I heard the “we don’t have to represent non-members” nonsense. You allude to it in your post. It was never an attitude I subscribed to as a steward. If any bargaining unit is “left out to dry”, ALL bargaining units lose.

    I was involved in a case that went to arbitration. The employee was determined to lose. He went against every bit of advice both me, and the local president at the time, gave him. It started with the basic comply, THEN grieve. It cost him his job.

    The union in Washington has done many good things for all bargaining units. The union in the field, on the front line, with individual members? Let’s just say it has a lot of work to do