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From Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Seven, Number 3

Perhaps it happens in your workplace: Management avoids taking responsibility when they know they are wrong. They drag the process out and treat group problems as personal, individual gripes, hoping the workers won’t unite and will eventually drop the issue. When the grievance procedure becomes a web of rules and delays, members start to lose faith in the process. That’s why it’s important to handle grievances less like the fictional TV lawyer Perry Mason and more like the legendary union hell-raiser Mother Jones.

Not a Third Party Approach

Perry Mason wasn’t concerned with building unions—just with winning his case. He carefully planned out his case and got all the facts, something stewards should always do as well. But he won every case with clever cross-examination and startling new evidence at the last minute. That made great TV but isn’t realistic. And it’s not how stewards are likely to win grievances.

Sometimes stewards think that since management is being “lawyerly” they should do the same. Lawyers focus on what happens at hearings without involving members in supporting grievances. This encourages workers to view the union as a “third party” that comes in to solve problems. Doing a thorough investigation, writing the grievance properly and meeting all deadlines without involving members
doesn’t build the union and it’s often not enough to win. That’s where Mother Jones comes in.

“The first thing is to raise hell, says I. That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.”
-Mary Harris “Mother” Jones

Activist Approach

Mary Harris Jones (1837- 1930), an Irish immigrant, organized workers in the coal, textile and railroad industries. Among the campaigns she led was the remarkable 1903 Children’s March against child labor, where she mobilized people, gained national attention, won public sympathy and stigmatized her opponents. She focused on identifiable targets, like Wall Street and then-U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

Mother Jones used direct action to solve workers’ problems that were widespread, deeply ingrained and resistant to negotiated settlement; workers across the nation were inspired to demand, and win, improved conditions. When a campaign using direct action succeeds, all workers feel it is their victory. If it loses, workers learn important lessons they can use to fight another day.

Perry Mason’s Approach vs. Mother Jones’s Approach

Consider these two different approaches, in the box at left, for tackling injustices at work – Perry Mason’s focus only on the grievance hearing and fancy tactics or Mother Jones’s looking at the whole situation and using the members’ involvement and power to get resolutions.

A worker has a problem so the steward takes the case for that individual -If the contract isn’t violated the steward discourages filing a grievance or taking other action.
individual -If the contract isn’t violated the steward discourages filing a grievance or taking other action. The steward emphasizes how the problem, whether a contract violation or not, could affect everyone and with other members evaluates using the grievance procedure and other ways to get a resolution.
The steward, like a lawyer, handles the case alone, relying on cleverness and relationships with management.
The steward involves the grievant in every step of the way, giving the grievant assignments and involving other stewards and co-workers.
If the workers lose the grievance, they blame the steward or “the union,” not the employer. If they win they hail the steward as a “hero” until the next problem arises (if that long).
Win or lose, if the steward has successfully involved the grievant and co-workers, everyone saw and heard how management acted and understands the result. The steward involves members in developing new plans to build power to challenge the boss face to face.
The steward gets angry at the workers for being ungrateful.
The steward, together with the workers, analyzes what went wrong and right with their plan and learns how to do better the next time.
The resentment and frustration within the union membership let management take advantage of the lack of unity to get away with even more injustices.
A strong union membership constantly challenges bad employer decisions, even if some battles are lost. The boss thinks twice before taking a wrong step because he knows the workers will be hot on his trail every time.

-Steve Thornton. The writer is a retired union organizer who writes for