Open Door – The Steward Pays a Visit

“I thought we had an understanding on this issue.” Jared was one the best shop stewards I ever worked with. When he started a conversation this way, I assumed there was someone listening nearby, and he was making sure they heard him speak up.

“Hi Jared. We’ve come to understand a lot together, I think. So you’ll have to be more specific.”

It was a pretty straightforward issue. The union had agreed in the last negotiation that we would add flexibility for supervisors to assign people other work they were trained to do in the event of an absence or product schedule change. One of the supervisors moved some team members around after an employee left sick. The grievance challenged that the language did not cover this event.

For the membership, the contract language meant a likely reduction in overtime opportunities. For the business overall, it meant reduced costs. Our union leadership valued the business savings, and worked with us in assuring membership that their safety would not be compromised. Jared was very influential in the final vote.

“When I delivered this grievance, I explained in detail why we felt it was important to clarify this part of the contract. I explained the specifics of this situation, and why the union feels it is not covered by the contract.” Jared was holding my first step answer, denying the grievance. “You told me you understood, you even repeated the reasoning back to me.”

“I do understand,” I told him. “I don’t agree, but I see why you  are trying to restrict the use of the language. You told me you understood the value to our business, but you don’t agree that this is how we can improve costs. That’s why the grievance process exists.”

By this time I had moved from my desk to the small table in my office. Jared sat down in the chair next to me. “The membership is not happy with how much overtime they’ve lost. We didn’t realize how well trained our own membership was in something other than their current jobs. We’ve all worked here so long we’ve learned all the equipment. And now that feels like it’s being used against us.”

I repeated the same key messages that we did at contract time. We are increasing all employees’ wages in exchange for this language. It will mean a reduction in overtime, which will reduce the overall costs at the facility. We will only assign people to work that they can safely do. “In this case we met all the principles, and therefore the intent of the language. You know the process from here. You can accept my response or move it to the next step.”

“And by the way,” I added, “it is always in your membership’s best interest to use the skills they have to optimize the outcome for the facility. Being well-trained to work in different areas may feel like a liability, but it’s critical to our success and will help this plant get future investment.”

Jared left the office, and never did bring the grievance to the next step. I assume he got a lot of pressure to do so, but he knew it would be a waste of the union’s resources.

Looking back, this is one of those cases where I thought I was communicating very well, but true to my introvert style, I was mis-read. The previous HR leaders were fist-thumpers and had an opinion before they knew the facts. I am more of a listen-and-think person, who doesn’t show the cards all the time. I’m not hiding them. I guess I just don’t realize that people want a better peek.

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