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Obey Now, Grieve Later Is Still the Law

A recent arbitration loss (not by NATCA) has tested and proven the old adage once again: “Obey Now, Grieve Later.” It is instructive for all represented employees to know that even if you’re right about a policy or practice and your boss tells you to do something different, you should do what you’re told and grieve it later.

The AFGE arbitration decision (AFGE Local 1367 and Lackland Air Force Base) relates to an employee who was directed to follow a call-in procedure that was against the contract and company policy. He repeatedly chose to do what he thought was the proper policy per the CBA instead. As a result, the employer suspended him for five days and the arbitrator upheld the suspension. The arbitrator concluded that, as long as the order wasn’t illegal or involved substantial risk of injury or death, the employee was required to follow a clear order and then grieve if there was a violation.

In most workplaces, this rule holds true. An employee must obey a clear directive or risk insubordination. Generally, an employer doesn’t have to tell you what the consequences will be for refusing. However, it usually can’t hurt to test the situation and the supervisor’s resolve or meaning by asking for a clear directive and what the consequences would be for refusing. Pointing out what you believe the policy or rule means or requires ordinarily is permissible, but only up to a point. Sometimes, if an employee has continued to balk at an order and continues to argue (and not comply), it may be claimed that the employee is impliedly refusing. So, even arguing the point or discussing the dispute and not complying (if taken too far) could also be a form of refusal and insubordination, depending on the circumstances. Of course, if it is an important matter, especially involving safety or potentially illegal activity, some additional leeway would make sense.

For NATCA members who are involved in a situation that they believe is contrary to rules or safety, the CBA provides a useful alternative in Article 65. If an employee believes that he is being asked or required to take action that he disagrees with due to safety or rule, etc., the employee “shall comply with the instruction” but “the Agency” then “shall assume responsibility for the decision.” This means that a controller would place responsibility back on the supervisor if the supervisor was asking the controller to do something he didn’t agree with in his professional opinion, but the employee must comply first (and could then grieve later). In a situation that truly involved substantial risk of danger to life or property, an employee could still refuse, but he or she better have solid grounds, or be willing to face discipline.