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
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.