Section 4: Grievances

October 7, 2015



11. What is a grievance?

A big part of the steward’s job is dealing with grievances. Start your learning here. 

A grievance is a violation of the employee's rights on the job – whether under the collective agreement or under legislation. Not all complaints are grievances. They need to clearly violate either the contract or the law. 

Grievances can be violations of:

  • The contract
  • The law
  • Past practice
  • Employees’ rights

Contract violation: If the grievance is a clear-cut violation of the contract, it will be easy to prove. If it involves an interpretation of the contract, it might be a little harder, so knowing jurisprudence (arbitration decisions) will help.
Violation of a federal or provincial law: Here you will have the option of filing a grievance or going to the appropriate government agency to get redress – or both. Examples include a worker refusing work they consider unsafe, or a worker complaining of racial or sexual harassment by management. In such cases, the steward should go through internal union channels, and a decision may be made to lodge a complaint with the appropriate government agency at the same time. See if your union has incorporated the relevant law in your collective agreement. Some unions specify and define the violation of provincial laws as grievances in their collective agreements.

Violation of a past practice in the workplace. This can be the basis for a grievance, particularly in areas where the contract is silent or unclear. Where a past practice has been violated by management, an employee may have a real grievance. The only relevance of past practice is to clarify (but not to alter) the collective agreement where it is ambiguous or unclear. 

To be considered as a past practice, the circumstances must have been:

  • Repeated over an extended period of time; 
  • Accepted explicitly or implicitly by both workers and management, e.g. by verbal agreement or in writing, without either side formally objecting; or
  • While violating the contract, neither side has demanded that this part of the contract be enforced.

A claim of past practice cannot be relied upon unlessViolation of employees' rights. Like “past practice”, the union must have a clear-cut, well-documented case. These kinds of grievances arise when management treats workers unfairly or unequally. These grievances are hard to fight and win so the local union should try to ensure that any problems concerning employees' rights are safeguarded in writing – in the collective agreement.

WATCH: Stewards talk about grievances and their role in the process

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When a member has a complaint 

The first thing to do is get the facts. Listen to their story. Ask yourself: does it violate the contract? The law? A past practice? Their rights? If the answer is yes, chances are the complaint you have is a legitimate grievance. 

Whether the complaint is a legitimate grievance or not, the employee is concerned enough to come to you with a problem. This concern demands action on your part to clarify or correct the situation. If you answered “no” to whether the problem violated the collective agreement, past practice, a law or the employee’s rights, then you have a complaint rather than a grievance. 

Complaints must be dealt with. If an employee alleges there has been a violation of the collective agreement, explain why it is not. A worker may think they have a grievance because they don’t understand the contract. They may claim that they are entitled to vacation pay, for example, when a careful reading of the contract shows that they haven’t enough service to qualify. 

A grievance is a complaint against management. So, it’s not a grievance if two workers have a personal disagreement. If Jane and Bob can’t agree whether the window should be open or shut, that’s not a grievance. The exception to this rule is harassment (see the chapter on Harassment).  

Benefit of the doubt

If you have a borderline case between complaint and grievance, give the employee the benefit of the doubt. Say you are not sure about it and then ask for help from the Chief Steward or the grievance committee. When you have discussed the matter with them, go back to the member and report on your discussion. It is important to keep the member informed at all times. Don't go out on a limb promising action when you are not sure. Rash promises often boomerang, labelling the steward unreliable.

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12. Types of grievance

A steward can classify grievances according to where they come from and how they arise. We also classify grievances according to who is affected.

Individual grievance

An individual grievance is a complaint that an action by management has violated the rights of an individual as set out in the collective agreement, law or some unfair practice. 

Examples of this type of grievance include: 

•    Discipline

•    Demotion

•    Harassment

•    Classification disputes

•    Denial of benefits, etc 

The steward – not the member – files the grievance. When an individual's rights have been violated and that person refuses to file a grievance, you should file the grievance on behalf of the union – especially if the contract specifically permits it. In this way, you will defend the collective agreement and protect the rights of all employees covered by it. Management's argument that you cannot file an individual grievance on behalf of the union is false.

Group grievance

A group grievance is a complaint by a group of individuals, for example, a department or a shift, that has been affected the same way and at the same time by an action taken by management. For example, the employer refuses to pay a shift premium to the employees who work an afternoon shift when the contract entitles them to it. (If the grievance is asking for monetary compensation, make sure that all those involved sign the grievance. Arbitrators have been known to “award” the grievance yet only give compensation to those who have signed.)

Policy grievance

A policy grievance is a complaint by the union that an action of management (or its failure or refusal to act) is a violation of the agreement that could affect all who are covered by the agreement. For example, management assigns a steady day-shift employee to work on an off-shift without regard to seniority. The union might grieve in an effort to establish that seniority must be considered in such an assignment, even though the individual involved might have no complaints against the shift change. 

The point is that the outcome or the precedence of the grievance may have a detrimental effect on the local union at some point in the future and the union must change it. Normally you would not deal directly with this type of grievance other than to provide the necessary investigation. Policy grievances are normally filed by the local or national levels.

Union grievance

A union grievance may involve a dispute arising directly between the parties to the collective agreement. For example, the union would grieve on its own behalf if the management failed to deduct union dues as specified by the collective agreement. In these cases, the union grievance is one in which the union considers its rights to have been violated and not just the rights of individuals in the local union.

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13. Investigating the grievance

Settling grievances is one of the steward’s most important jobs. It might look difficult, but it really isn’t that difficult.

You need common sense, courage and some rules to follow.  

Get the facts

When a worker comes to you with a complaint, the first thing to do is to get the facts. (Only then can you decide whether it’s a grievance or not.) Listen to their story patiently, then ask them specific questions. 

Remember the “6 Ws”:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why, and
  • Want

Don’t be satisfied with vague statements like “The supervisor’s picking on me” or “They’re giving us too much work.” Ask the questions that will give you all the necessary information. Sometimes, members assume you know more about what is going on than they do – including the facts of their complaint. 

Get a statement

Once you have gotten the facts, investigate – promptly. Have grievors write down the full story themselves, giving names, dates and places. Advise grievors to use actual quotes in relating things they have heard or were told. The actual words may be important. Have the grievor sign and date the statement. It will be useful for refreshing the memory before any hearing.

Get permission

Remember, if your contract requires that you ask permission of the supervisor to leave your job in order to investigate a grievance, do so! It is your duty to uphold the agreement, but flouting your supervisor’s authority is not going to help you win grievances. 

Get witnesses

Collect statements from all available witnesses, signed and dated. Interview not only those witnesses who support the grievor but also those who don't. This can help you find out what really happened, and to know what you are up against.  

Write it all up

Once you have completed your investigation, you should make a written record to ensure that key points are not forgotten or distorted when passed from one person to another.  

Be patient

Months may elapse between the events giving rise to a grievance and its final settlement at arbitration. 


Management, most likely. A grievance is like a detective story – you must sift through all the evidence “before you know” who did what. It is very important to treat every investigation and every grievance as if it was going to arbitration. If it ever does, you'll be prepared!

Even if the matter is not taken to arbitration, a statement of the facts may be useful when preparing future bargaining demands.  

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14. Grievance preparation checklist

 Who is involved in the grievance? Get their 4-11

  • Name, contact info, Social Insurance Number
  • Work location, department, date of appointment, classification
  • Name of supervisor, supervisor's position and witnesses
  • The grievor's record (including absentee record, production record, disciplinary record and lateness record, age, family status)

Get the facts

  • When did the grievance occur? Date and time.
  • Where did the grievance occur? Exact location, department, machine, aisle, etc.
  • Why is this a grievance? What has been violated? The contract? Past practice? A law? Personal rights?  
  • What happened that caused the violation? What is involved? What is management's contention?

Identify the remedy you want

  • What do you want? What needs to happen to correct the injustice?
  • Typically, you want the employer to place the aggrieved in the same position they would have been in had the grievance not occurred
  • Ask for full redress

Review your material

  • Do you have all the facts? 
  • Check the facts with the contract, supplementary agreements, precedents or past practice, policies or department rules and arbitration awards

Seek out more experienced stewards and local union officers if you need help.

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15. Writing the grievance

Proper writing of grievances is very important and may determine whether a grievance is won or lost. 

There is a difference in writing a grievance for presentation to the employer and writing an investigative fact sheet for the union's record. The official grievance should contain only facts and a statement of claim – as distinct from your “facts sheet” which is for your use only. 

Tips for writing the formal grievance

  • Be organized
  • Be neat
  • Make copies (one for employer, union, employee, yourself)

If you specify the clause of the collective agreement in dispute, always include the phrase “and/or any other clause in the collective agreement which may be applicable.” This will give you more flexibility later. 

What do you want? Full redress. Write “full redress” on the grievance form, which should cover all aspects of the grievor's claim.e organized

Sample grievance

A grievance might be written like the following:

"Statement of Grievance: The union is grieving because the actions of management violate Article 10.01 and/or any other clause in the collective agreement which may be applicable.

"Settlement Required: Full redress."

Grievance jitters?

Sometimes, members may not want to submit a grievance. That is normal. They might be fearful for their job. They don’t want to upset their supervisor. Maybe they don’t want to be branded a “trouble-maker”. 

It can be sticky. But it’s your job as steward to safeguard and uphold the contract. If you allow a bad practice to continue, it can eventually be considered a past practice and, therefore, damaging to the contract. Sometimes, this means filing a grievance even if the worker involved doesn't want to.  

What if the worker wants to drop their complaint? 

Investigate it as you normally would do with any other grievance. If you find it justified, sign it yourself, or get the grievance committee or union executive to sign it.

You can do this under your authority as a steward. It is an effective method, as it gets around the workers’ fear of signing or pulling their grievance. But it may place a heavy responsibility on you as a working employee. The employer may try to pressure you into withdrawing the complaint.

There is power in the union

An even better solution may be to present the written grievance as authorized by the local through an authorized membership meeting. In this manner, the steward, or president, or secretary of the grievance committee can sign it “authorized by the Local above the signature.”

When the grievance is filed in this manner, it comes from the large, impersonal union and the employer cannot put pressure on either you or your member. If you press a grievance that a worker won’t sign or wants to drop, your decision to carry it should be based on one dominant factor – what is best for all the membership!

Some reminders

  • Be comprehensive and keep it simple. The grievance should state the nature of the complaint, allege that the employer's action is contrary to specific articles of the contract, and demand full redress. The written grievance should be no more than a clear short statement of the main facts and the claim.
  • Keep working unless unsafe. Generally speaking, employees should be advised to "obey orders now and grieve later" unless the order is illegal, unhealthy or unsafe.
  • Stay within time limits. But, if you miss the timeline, don’t abandon the grievance. You may be able to overcome the employer’s objection to timeliness upon a number of legal grounds. The employer should advise the union and the grievor at the time the grievance is presented if they object. If the employer receives the grievance and processes it without stating a position that the time limits have been breached, an arbitrator would likely deem the employer has waived their right to object. If time limits have been breached and the employer specifically refuses to accept the grievance for this reason, it does not mean that the grievance is automatically lost. The grievor still has the right to request that the case proceed to arbitration at which time the arbitrator would decide whether or not the board had jurisdiction in view of the late filing. If you seek an extension of time limits from management, get their agreement in writing. Should management fail to comply with the time limits, move the grievance to the next step.
  • Investigate promptly. People forget.
  • Get the grievor's statement in full. Have it signed and dated. Get the grievor's full employment history and disciplinary record.
  • Compile relevant documents. Gather all available documents, e.g. letters, doctor's notes, etc.
  • Check in. Ask the grievor if there are other reasons for management's actions other than what management has stated.
  • Take notes. Make notes of meetings with management and write down their response. Sign and date these notes and pass them to the union representative who will be at the arbitration hearing.
  • Withdraw properly. If you are going to withdraw a grievance, do so “without prejudice.” You may indicate that you disapprove of the employer's action but, for example, don't wish to pursue the grievance because the grievor has quit and moved away.
  • Be in good faith. Remember that unions have a duty to represent employees in good faith. You do not have to carry every grievance to arbitration but you must make that judgment to carry a grievance or not in good faith. You cannot ignore the grievance or drop it for discriminatory or arbitrary reasons.
  • Be militant and reasonable. The steward has the right to do their job properly without fear of retaliation but there are some limits on their behaviour. The steward cannot, for example, counsel employees to disobey management orders – unless the request is unsafe or illegal, of course. 
  • Keep things confidential. The grievance will be used by the union to build a case for the grievor. The confidentiality of this investigation cannot be stressed enough. In grievance meetings, management will received a copy of the written grievance form and whatever oral arguments are necessary to prove the union’s case. Background information in the grievance report is to be used in the preparation of oral arguments by the union. In many cases, it could be detrimental to the grievance if all the information contained in the report were to be made known to management. 
  • Be wise. Grievances are often like court cases. One only admits what one has to admit. If a grievor is being disciplined for having been caught sleeping on the job by a supervisor, it would not be helpful to their case if the union were to inform management that the grievor often sleeps on the job and this is the first time they were caught.

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16. The Grievance Procedure

Every contract contains a section called the grievance procedure. Study it. Grievances can be lost by not following the correct procedure and by not observing time limits.

A typical grievance procedure might have three or four steps. These steps will tell you which level of management is to be approached at each step, the time you have to submit the grievance and appeal to the next stage where necessary. Those closest to the dispute, both on behalf of the union and of management, should first try to reach a settlement. If they are unsuccessful, then representatives with more authority from both sides are brought in as the grievance progresses through the steps, ending in arbitration.

There are advantages to settling the grievance at the lowest step possible. For the steward, settling a grievance at the first stage will add to your reputation and authority with the members and your supervisor. The higher up you go in the grievance procedure, the harder it will be to settle the grievance because each side will have more to lose. Management does not like to have to overrule their personnel and will stand behind them. This could lead to a time-consuming and expensive fight in arbitration.

TIP: Steward be nimble, steward be quick!

  • Try to settle the grievance as soon as possible. If there is a time limitation on grievances don't be afraid to invoke it. If none exist, keep after the supervisor or file a grievance charging the supervisor with stalling. If you ask to have the settlement applied retroactively to the date the grievance was presented, this will reduce any tendency on the part of management to stall.

Each step of the grievance procedure will likely have a time limit. Management has a stated period of time within which it must give a reply to the union; the union has a stated period of time within which it must announce any intention to appeal the grievance. If management fails to comply with the time limits, move the grievance to the next step.

Sometimes, however, you will find that either the union or management may raise a point during a grievance hearing that requires further investigation and may make it difficult to reply or proceed to the next stage within the time limits. In this case, either party may request an extension or waiver of the time limits, subject to the other party's agreement – always in writing.

In some contracts the first stage of the grievance procedure is a verbal presentation involving the steward, the grievor and the supervisor. The grievance is only presented in writing if settlement is not reached at the verbal stage, or if either party considers it necessary. When proceeding to the second stage, the written grievance must be submitted within the time limitations set out in your agreement for the first stage.

Even if settlement is reached verbally, however, it is still important for the steward to keep a record of the grievance for union files – it might prove useful should the same or similar situation arise once more. This is handy information for the committee in negotiations.

In some contracts, the first stage of the grievance procedure might require formal presentation of a written grievance when you, the grievor, and the supervisor meet.

Tips for presenting a grievance 

  • Settle the grievance on the spot whenever possible  
  • Know the facts and stick to them
  • Plan carefully and be decisive
  • Keep within the grievance process time limit
  • Never skip a step – management might seek dismissal from an arbitrator and say the process wasn’t followed
  • Anticipate the employer's objections
  • Be confident and positive 
  • Be militant – and reasonable
  • Stick to the point 
  • Have notes or any memory aides at hand
  • Throw the burden of proof on management
  • Try to understand the other side’s point of view, but never lose sight of your own
  • Disagree with dignity
  • Avoid threats, insults and bluffs
  • Control your temper – but feel free to give as good as you get
  • Maintain unity if you bring the grievor to the meeting. Use your discretion if the situation warrants meeting with management alone
  • Don’t rush to “trade” this grievance outcome for that one; consult your union reps
  • Don’t reveal facts prematurely; wait until the right moment. That moment might be at Step 2 of the process, or even 3
  • Remember, stewards are equal in status to the employer
  • Don't brag about victories over management. Give the other person a chance to save face – you may want to save yours someday
  • Take notes. Take all the notes

Remember, workers don’t file and process grievances, the union does. Employees usually don't have the requisite experience. They may not know the process and they may not know how to handle the supervisor (plus they don’t have the protection of being a union representative). They might be “too close” to the complaint and get locked into a personal conflict. Lastly, management may scare the grievor into dropping it by bringing up some other irrelevant matter.

A note on the steward-supervisor relationship  

A good working relationship between steward and supervisor makes both your jobs easier. In union-management relationships, the supervisor (backed by management) and the steward (backed by the union) are equals – sharing responsibility for successful labour relations.  

The two of you will have to discuss and settle many knotty problems. A friendly but business-like relationship right from the start will help a lot. But of course, your first aim in any grievance session is to win justice for your fellow workers whose rights have been violated. 

Remember, supervisors are people too! They respond to pressure – and to common sense.


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17. Arbitration


Arbitration is the final appeal and is a hearing before an impartial third party chosen by the mutual consent of union and management. If the union and management cannot agree, there is provision for the provincial, territorial or federal Minister of Labour to make the appointment.

Some contracts provide for a single arbitrator, usually named in the collective agreement. The single arbitrator hears the case and then writes the decision which is binding on both sides.

Other contracts provide for an Arbitration Board made up of one nominee from the union and one nominee from management. Following consultation, the union and management nominees choose a mutually acceptable chairperson or, failing that, an arbitrator appointed by the Minister of Labour. In this instance, it is the three-person board which will hear the case, with the chairperson retiring to write the decision. The decision of the chairperson is submitted to the board members who will sign in agreement or submit a written dissension. The majority decision of the board is binding on both parties.

The arbitrator or board only has authority to interpret the agreement as written. They are not allowed to amend, alter, add to, or take away any provisions contained within the agreement.

The arbitrator or board is also restricted to dealing with the grievance as presented. For this reason, many unions require the previously mentioned general statements of the grievance on the grievance forms so they are not restricted to a single clause or section of the agreement at a later date causing them to restrict the scope of their case.

WATCH: CUPE's Hayley Thomas explains arbitration

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18. Interpreting the Contract

Contract clauses can always be interpreted in different ways, and the guidelines below might explain some of those differences. They aren’t firm rules, however. There will always be exceptions, but you should find that most of these will help you decide whether you have a grievance or not.  

What was the intent of the parties who wrote the agreement? 

  • Example: A contract may say that holiday pay will be allowed to all employees who work the day before the holiday. What if management closes the workplace the day before each holiday so that no one could ever receive holiday pay? An arbitrator might rule that the intent of the contract’s authors was for eligible employees to get that holiday pay, and that, therefore, the management violated the contract by preventing them from qualifying. 

The contract should be interpreted as a whole.

  • One part may support your position; another part may deny it. You cannot pick out the part that supports you and ignore the rest. Your interpretation must be reconciled to the other provisions of the contract, and it must be consistent with them.

If the wording of the contract is clear and definite, it will generally prevail.

  • Example: If the contract specifies that workers will receive two hours for an emergency call, even though they had received three hours for a number of years, an arbitrator would be forced to uphold the wording of the contract, not the practice.

If the wording of the contract is vague and indefinite, the interpretation of the parties and their practices will carry considerable weight. 

  • Example: The contract may say that an employee receiving an emergency call will be paid extra – without saying how much extra. For the past five years, workers have been paid three hours for this work. It may be assumed that both parties to the agreement recognized that three hours was the proper pay in this instance. Past practice will be considered by an arbitrator only to resolve an ambiguity in the agreement. 

Decisions made in similar cases in the past affect decisions in present cases, particularly if the same parties were involved. 

  • Arbitrators are not bound by precedent, but decisions of other arbitrators carry considerable weight. If the previous settlement was wrong or made in error, then you should show how the error was made.

Express (written) provisions imply the exclusion of everything not mentioned. 

  • Example: If the contract states that paid holidays will be given on New Year's Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, it implies that paid holidays will not be given on other days, such as Victoria Day or Boxing Day.

Implied (unwritten) provisions may exist if they are consistent with the express (written) provisions. 

  • Example: One part of the contract may provide for rest and lunch periods during the regular shift; another part may provide for emergency workers but makes no mention on rest of lunch periods. The implication of both express provisions, interpreted together, is that the emergency workers should have the same allowance.

When both general and special provisions concern the same thing, the special provisions will generally prevail. 

  • Example: If one rule says all employees who drive company cars to the work location get one hour allowance, and another rule says that employees who drive company cars to the work site and are permitted to take them home get half an hour allowance, the special rule about cars taken home gets priority over the general rule about company cars.

A reasonable interpretation will prevail over one that is unreasonable or absurd. 

  • Example: If you can show that under the management’s interpretation of the holiday rule no men would be eligible for some holidays, while under your interpretation most men would be eligible under most occasions – your position would be upheld.


A note on management’s rights

A common management position: If something is not specifically limited in the collective agreement, management has the residual power to do it. 

Some arbitrators say a specific provision in the contract is necessary to limit management’s rights. Others take the view that limits on management rights are not necessarily restricted to those contained in specific provisions. They may be “implied obligations” or “implied limitations” under some general provision of the agreement such as the recognition clause, or seniority provisions.

Arbitrators have also been known to modify residual rights by imposing a standard of reasonableness as an implied term of the agreement. Certainly, many arbitrators are reluctant to uphold arbitrary, capricious or bad faith managerial actions which adversely affect bargaining unit employees. It should also be noted that even where the agreement expressly states a management right, or gives it discretion, management's action must not be arbitrary, capricious or in bad faith.

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