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Home » Officer Columns » Grievance and Arbitration: Powerful Tools for the Workplace

Grievance and Arbitration: Powerful Tools for the Workplace


by Joe Parente, AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA)

Grievance and arbitration are powerful tools for defending a member in the workplace. Most collective bargaining agreements contain a grievance and arbitration provision. For the most part, these provisions come into play when there is a dismissal, either for “just cause” or “artistic reasons.” Usually, there is some sort of committee in place to deal with these situations, whether it’s the orchestra committee, a grievance committee, or a peer review committee.

It is important to note that, when a grievance is filed, there are almost always time restrictions governing the filing and subsequent steps in the grievance process. Because of these restrictions, it is extremely important that the union be informed of management’s actions as soon as they occur in order to ensure proper filings in a timely manner. Many grievances die on the vine simply because they were not filed within the prescribed time period contained in the collective bargaining agreement. The sooner the union gets involved, the better the chances of resolving the issue, perhaps without even having to file a grievance.

All locals have the responsibility to represent their members, not only at conventions and conferences, but also in negotiations, grievances, arbitrations, etc. But, sometimes a local is unable or, even worse, unwilling to supply such services or representation. Every union member has the right to be represented by its union. Not merely represented, but represented well. It is not valid for a union to avoid arbitration by using the excuse that it does not have the money to hire a lawyer. A local officer can and should be able to pursue a grievance through arbitration. Other than the grievant and committee, the union should interview anyone who may have witnessed or has any information relevant to the alleged offense. At some point, a decision has to be made to continue the process or drop the grievance.

Keep in mind that arbitration may very well not be the answer. The longer the process continues without going to arbitration, the better the chances are of resolving the issue, because the union can maintain at least some control of the situation. Once it goes to an arbitrator, the union has lost all control and anything can happen. While the union has a duty to fairly represent a member, it also has a fiduciary responsibility to its entire membership to not use union funds to pursue a grievance that has no merit.

There are some common misconceptions about grievances and arbitration that may need clarification:

You do not need a lawyer to file a grievance or go to arbitration.

A member does not have the right to have his/her own lawyer at arbitration. An employer has the right to deal only with the union in arbitration proceedings since an arbitrator interprets the contract between the employer and the union.

A grievant, committee, or an orchestra, for that matter, does not have the right to demand proceeding to arbitration. That decision, after thoroughly investigating and evaluating the issue, falls completely on the union. A union is only guilty of unfair representation if its conduct is “arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith.” Simply dropping a grievance is not, in and of itself, unfair representation.

The union should be informed immediately if an employer takes action against a member. Gathering as much information, as quickly as possible, is critical to solving the problem. Remember, reaching a favorable resolution is the primary goal. A grievance can always be withdrawn if a resolution is reached.

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