Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994

In a previous post, I provided the current management rights clause between AESES and the University of Manitoba  (Management (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Manitoba). This is a continuation, of sorts.

The title indicates what the content of this post will be about.

In 1994, I worked on a project at Dafoe Library at the University of Manitoba (Canada) for a few months (one of the few positions I had because I was probably blacklisted because of my previous union and radical activity in my workplace in School District No. 57, Prince George, British Columbia). I sent in the following to the union newsletter. Unfortunately, I could not pursue any further the debate since the project had ended–and consequently my union membership.

The following is a verbatim letter to the editor of the AESES newsletter. The next post, probably next week, will be the business agent’s reply to my letter in the same newsletter.

Unions need to instruct members concerning the legal limits of the union’s capabilities, and members need to know what they can legally expect from the union. Unfortunately, from my own observations, many members do not know what the limits of union power are as it presently exists. They do not even have a clear grasp of the grievance and arbitration procedure. The following is thus meant both to inform members of the procedure and to generate some debate over the nature and function of unions.

A grievance is frequently defined as any difference arising from the interpretation, application, administration, or alleged violation of a collective agreement. If a grievance is not resolved in the grievance process, it may end in arbitration (a sort of court which determines whether the grievance is valid). The problem is that most arbitrators in Canada interpret the collective agreement as merely limiting management’s general right to manage work–including the lives of the workers–as it sees fit. With few exceptions, management retains its general right unless specifically restricted in the agreement.

Some union executives may disagree, claiming that the collective agreement expresses the joint and equal will of both parties (management and the union); the collective agreement is a contract like any contract and is binding on the parties. Such a view fails to account for the specific nature of the employment contract. The employment contract entails the control by management of employees’ activities. Indeed, arbitrators differentiate independent contractors from employees primarily (though not exclusively) on the basis of the level of control: an independent contractor is not under the control of an employer, but an employee is. In other words, an employee is a subordinate.

Moreover, if the employment contract were similar to other contracts, both parties would likely claim a breach of the agreement roughly the same number of times. However, the vast majority of grievances are initiated by unions. Why is that? The answer has already been formulated above: management need not initiate grievances because it has the general right to manage work.

However, many issues important to workers which emerge during the term of the collective agreement are not covered by the collective agreement. Given that arbitrators’ authority is restricted to the collective agreement, it is unlikely that workers will win grievances that end in arbitration if no provisions exist in the agreement which restrict management’s general rights To be sure, arbitrators have some leeway in applying arbitral jurisprudence, but they are ultimately restricted by the collective agreement which exists.

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