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From Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Four, Number Five

A well organized grievance file can be one of the union’s best assets.

Are you satisfied with the way you keep grievance records? If you’re not, you should be: your records could make the difference between a co-worker losing a day’s pay, missing out on a promotion, or maybe even losing a job. What you do with your notes and paperwork can be critical to the union’s ability to help a worker win justice, avoid disaster, or just plain get a fair shake.

Veteran stewards and union staffers will tell you that unless they are accurately written down and carefully filed, even the best facts and evidence are useless to the union if management is determined to have its way. These experienced hands know that a well-organized grievance file can be one of the union’s most effective resources –and you, as steward, are key to making sure it’s built correctly.

One Grievance, One File
As a steward you will want a file –paper, on the computer, or both –for each grievance you are working on. It’s a file that must be available for use by higher-ups in the union chain of command if –and when –the grievance moves through the steps of the grievance procedure. Not only that, it may well become part of your union’s files and serve as a vital resource for new stewards and officers preparing for their duties.

Routines differ from union to union, but most have grievance files. Some locals have organized their files by cutting up the contract and pasting each section on a separate folder, either on paper or on a computer. Others may keep them chronologically, by department, or in other ways, but most locals have a central index so they can track down specific cases by the issue, by the grievant, or by both. Whatever the system, it depends on the facts and information gathered, at least initially, by the stewards. This information, in fact, serves as the very foundation of the union’s case.

If you’ve worked around computers at all you’ve probably heard the term GIGO. That stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. If the data you put in a computer is bad, the output will be bad –worthless, in fact, like garbage. The same holds true of what you put in a grievance file.

So, what would be the contents of a grievance file? For each grievance, you might want the following facts:

  1. Notes on your initial talk with the grievant or grievants. Obviously, you need the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the case. You need names spelled right, job titles, accurate notes on what people say happened when –all the basics you collect when beginning the grievance process.
  2. Your working file would contain all your notes on conversations with the grievant, the supervisor or supervisors involved, and witnesses. Be sure to write down the dates and times of these conversations, even if they’re just on the phone. The exact time and date of a conversation can be very important later on in piecing together the chronology of a case.
  3. The file should contain notes on your own thinking as to which parts of the contract apply to the situation. Don’t tell yourself you’ll remember. Jot it down.
  4. The file should contain any documents you have requested from management and copied for possible use as union exhibits. You’ll be want these in a safe and secure place, because management’s not likely to respond well if you have to come back to them and say you’ve misplaced your copies and need them researched and copied again. If you can, scan the documents and save on a computer.
  5. The file should contain your notes on, or copies of, relevant supporting evidence. This could include relevant arbitration cases or grievance settlements and federal, state, or provincial laws or regulations (health and safety, family leave and so forth).

As you build your file keep in mind that the material you’re accumulating may not be called into play for days, weeks, maybe even months into the future –even years, in fact, if it becomes a part of the union’s permanent files, to be used as a resource for other stewards who end up handling similar or related cases. So that means the file has to be organized in a way that someone else can pick it up later and make sense of what’s inside.

Are Your Notes Clear to Others?
In the same way, while you may be able to read your notes without difficulty the day after you make them, would they make as much sense to you weeks or months down the road? And would they be decipherable by someone else? The file may be called into use some day when you’re not available to elaborate on what one of your notes really means. So be sure to go over them with a careful eye before turning them over to another union official or putting them into a file for possible use sometime in the future.

Finally, keep the file in a safe place. A lot of stewards have a secure place at work where they can keep their union paperwork, while others have space at home. If they’re on a computer, be sure you have your system backed up. The best research and the best notes in the world are no good to you, or a grievant, if they can’t be located when needed.

-David Prosten. The writer is editor os Steward Update. With thanks to Solidarity in Action: A Guide for Union Stewards, published by the Labor Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.