The following article contains valuable information about what you can expect
from your Union and about what you can do to keep it strong.
An effective Union exists when it is made up of an informed and active membership.

Getting Your Dues' Worth
A Guide For Union Members 
Who Want To Get The Most Out Of Their Union 
By Mindy Pines

Benefits of Union Membership

Whether you're in a public or private sector union, large or small, all unions have basically the same responsibilities. They negotiate contracts to improve pay and working conditions, handle contract violation grievances and defend workers from unfair discipline and termination. 

The union contract   If your contract grants you little more than the law does, you'd better get a better negotiating team. All workers -- union and nonunion-- are covered by national and state laws dealing with issues that include such things as anti-discrimination, health and safety, minimum wages and overtime pay requirements. 

With a contract, workers should get more than they're entitled under the law. Contracts usually provide for holidays, leave time, health benefits, vacations, transfers, promotion and layoff procedures. In addition, most spell out the requirement that workers be disciplined for just cause only and that the discipline be applied uniformly. 

Management cannot unilaterally alter pay or change conditions of employment. And since constitutional rights do not extend into the private workplace, a union contract may be the only protection private sector workers have against employer violations of their civil liberties.

Should management impose unilateral changes, the union should either follow the formal grievance procedure, file formal charges with the National Labor Relations Board or both. In the case of a public employees' union, charges should be filed to the Public Employment Relations Board or state equivalent. 

Grievance procedures   Contracts should provide for a grievance procedure if the contract is violated. It should also call for arbitration before a neutral party should grievances not be resolved. Once a worker files a grievance, the union has an obligation to investigate. 

Remember, grievances pertain to contract violations by management, not conflicts between members. These are usually handled through internal union procedures that are spelled out in the union's constitution. 

Protection from discipline without cause Except in a case of gross misconduct, a contract should provide for progressive discipline before a worker can be seriously disciplined. That means that warnings, advice on how to improve and opportunities to improve must be provided. A union contract should ensure due process for all workers. 

When You're in Trouble

What to do when the boss is out to get you If you think the boss has it in for you, you're probably right. But if you're not at fault, and even if you are, your union is there for you, or at least should be.  Your union can't protect you from warranted discipline, but they should at least make sure you get due process and fair and equal treatment. 

From the moment you suspect trouble, start to document it. Write down who, what, where, when, why. Don't exaggerate. Stick to the facts and be as accurate as possible. It will help your credibility later. Thorough note-taking will make your representative's job to defend you easier as well as protect your rights to fair representation. When you call your union, jot down who you called, the dates and times. Keep notes on what's discussed. 

Rights to representation at discipline meeting By law, all union workers are entitled to have a steward or union representative present during any meeting with management that may result in discipline. This right is the result of a Supreme Court decision and is referred to as your Weingarten right. 

You must ask that the representative be called into the meeting and have a reasonable belief that discipline will result from the meeting. You have the right to know the subject of the meeting and the right to consult your union representative prior to the meeting for advice. 

Do not refuse to attend a meeting if a representative is requested, but denied. If you do, you may be charged with insubordination. Attend, but insist upon your right to have a steward or union representative present. If this fails, do not answer any questions, but take notes. You cannot be disciplined for not answering questions until your representative is there. 

Your Union's Duty of Fair Representation

Your union has a legal obligation to represent you fairly and responsibly. This is referred to as the duty of fair representation. 

Grievances   The union's duty of fair representation does not mean that they necessarily have to take grievances forward. They have to investigate them and have substantial reasons for dropping a grievance. 

If management offers a settlement, the union can decide to accept it even if it's not satisfactory to the you. However, they cannot drop a grievance for arbitrary, discriminatory or bad faith reasons. They cannot refuse to pursue a grievance because of a worker's political views or because the worker isn't a member. It would appear discriminatory not to pursue a grievance they'd previously pursued for another worker under identical circumstances. 

If your union drops your grievance, you are entitled to an explanation. When you ask for one you should request it in writing. 

Collective bargaining   Unions have a lot of discretion and leeway in determining what's to be negotiated and included in a collective bargaining agreement. Nonetheless, a union's bargaining efforts must still be in good faith and not be the result of arbitrary or discriminatory reasons. 

The specific procedures and requirements pertaining to membership involvement in contract proposals and ratification are described in each union's constitution. If a union fails to follow their constitution, it can be found to have breached its duty of fair representation.

How to Help Your Union Help You

In some unions, rank-and-file stewards have tremendous responsibility. In others, members depend entirely upon paid staff. Some unions are more democratic or militant than others. You will get more from your union if you're informed, active and demand that to which you're entitled than if you're uninformed and complacent. 

Tips for handling grievances, discipline, etc. From the minute you smell trouble, take notes. Write down the whos, whats, wheres, whens and if you know, the whys. Note down what is said to you and what you say. Your representative cannot read minds. He or she depends upon your ability to communicate. 

Consult your contract and note down any provisions you suspect have been violated. Your representative probably administers many different contracts. This will save time and help you to think out and present your case. Know the grievance procedure and required timelines. 

Keep to the facts. 

Note dates, times, persons contacted and what's discussed. If your representative doesn't get back to you as scheduled, call again. 

If there's still no response, call your representative's boss. Remind them of the duty of fair representation.

When Your Union's Not Working for You

If your representative doesn't return phone calls, repeatedly drops the ball, misses meetings or calls to cancel an appointment because he or she has to go to his or her mother's funeral the third time this year, then you'll need this section. 

Unfair practice charges   If you believe your union has breached its duty of fair representation, you can file unfair charges against it with the National Labor Relations Board or, if you are a public sector employee, the Public Employment Relations Board of your state. You can also sue your union in state or federal court. Unless you're well versed in labor law, however, you'll probably need a lawyer's assistance. 

Decertification petitions and elections Another action against the union to take is a decertification campaign. Just as unions are voted in to represent the workers, they can be voted out. 

A decertification petition must be filed with the Labor Board 60 to 90 days before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement and have signatures of at least 30 percent of the affected workers. The Board will hold an election to decertify or drop the existing union. Decertification elections can be to choose between the existing union and no union or the existing union, no union or a different union.

A Final Thought

There are some unions that do a better job of earning their dues than others. What will make the difference is your knowledge, expectations and participation in your union. As members, you are entitled to vote for union leaders. Participate whenever and wherever you can. 

Read your contract, attend meetings, ask questions and demand answers. 

For better or worse, your union is your voice in the workplace. You can make it better, though you may have to scream. 


Acknowledgment: Most of the above information was extracted from An American Civil Liberties Union Handbook: The Rights of Employees and Union Members, Second Edition, written by Wayne N. Outten, Robert J. Rabin, Lisa R. Lipman. 

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