Grievances are the primary way of dealing with virtually any workplace disputes, even more so than actual negotiations. Under the law, and under the contract, employees can file grievances on just about anything that impacts the working environment. A grievance is defined as a dispute involving “any matter relating to employment” or involving any misapplication or violation of any “law, rule, or regulation.” This is a broad standard that permits grievances over almost anything related to work.
While many grievances concern contract violations there is no requirement that a grievance be related to a specific contract provision, and many times there is no contract language on point. A grievance can still address the subject. This would include violations of past practice, management misconduct or arbitrary action, safety & health issues, internal policies and rules, etc. You name it. If it relates to a work issue, it can be the subject of a grievance. The grievance procedure requires that contract language be referenced, but only if there is applicable language.
There are very few issues that are excluded from the grievance procedure and they are specifically identified by statute and limited to: prohibited political activities, retirement (& insurance), national security, exams, certifications, and appointments, classification of positions, and termination of probationary employees.
A grievance is generally initiated in writing with an employee’s supervisor. But, this can be done in several ways. The “writing” requirement can be satisfied through email and could include using a crayon on a napkin, as long as the necessary information is provided. There is no requirement that the grievance be filed “personally.” Therefore, an emailed grievance satisfies the “writing” requirement and would allow the employee to send the grievance to the supervisor (and others) even if they are not present at the time, while also creating a record of the filing.
Keep in mind that while individuals can file grievances without the Union, management must still notify the Union so it can “participate” in any meetings or resolution. Under those circumstances the Union is present to make sure that the contract is being followed. However once the grievance steps are exhausted it is only the Union that can invoke arbitration.
It is also important to know that you can file grievances “or” pursue other legal remedies, such as filing a ULP charge with the FLRA, or discrimination charges with EEOC, etc. But, you cannot do “both.” As a result, choosing to file a claim in one forum will ordinarily bar a subsequent filing in a different forum on the same subject, even if the original claim is later withdrawn or dismissed. The earliest filing bars the others. Therefore, when in doubt as to which forum to use, it is best to get advice before filing anything. One other thing: grievances can be amended to include new issues and this may be better than filing separate related grievances since it might otherwise be difficult to arbitrate multiple grievances without the employer’s consent to consolidate them. It also saves time, money, and work.