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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2007

Let’s Hear It for Our Grievance Officers

Greg Allain
It takes all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise to make any organization work, and that is definitely true of our academic staff associations. But when it comes to kudos (a very important organizational exercise), all do not share the limelight equally. For instance, bargaining committees work intensely for a relatively short time (I’m highlighting “relatively” here, since prolonged and painful negotiations are known to occur), and when their crucial task is completed and a new collective agreement is signed, their members are publicly thanked and congratulated, as well they deserve. But there is another group of members who work day in and day out, throughout the year, upholding members’ rights and making sure signed collective agreements are respected by employers: you’ve guessed it, I’m talking here of our grievance officers, the unsung heroes of our associations.
As I’ve mentioned, theirs is a continuing responsibility. And not everyone is cut out for the job either: special qualifications are required. A strong sense of justice is an obvious prerequisite, but it also takes qualities such as persistence and fearlessness to advocate passionately for grievors without being intimidated by administrators or institutional lawyers. Of course, a good grasp of the contents of the collective agreement is crucial, as is the capacity to be an empathic listener, when the time comes to understand and document the nature of grievances.
In December 2006 CAUT held its annual senior grievance officers workshop. More than 40 people attended the event, with a good diversity of participants by region, size of institution, age and gender. In one of the opening sessions, the results of CAUT’s second annual grievance survey were presented. The survey results provided an interesting overview of the points of friction between members and administrations and issues confronting our grievance officers. The most frequent objects of grievances are disciplinary matters, compensation disputes, renewal, workload, promotion and tenure cases.
The first two are core contractual issues common to many workplaces. But renewal, workload, promotion and tenure are more particular to our academic environment, requiring our grievance officers to have additional special skills and knowledge. The other main subject matters giving rise to grievances were management rights, leaves, work environment, academic freedom, discrimination, intellectual property and personnel files.
The survey also identified a number of emerging issues. As more contract academic staff are organized, the number of contract renewal cases has dramatically increased. The growing importance of human rights law, in particular the duty to accommodate, has led to an increase in grievances about enforcing the rights of colleagues with mental and physical disabilities. Arising from the session’s discussion, but not the survey itself, was the observation from a number of workshop participants that member vs. member disputes seem to be on the rise, presenting unique challenges very different from the usual member vs. employer situations.
Finally, the survey touched on the number of grievances and the percentage that make it to arbitration. Grievance filing rates vary enormously across associations, from zero at one institution to an annual high of 21 at another. A steadier trend is the percentage of grievances that actually make it to arbitration — a very small proportion. This indicates that aggressive and effective grievance handling (i.e., filing as many grievances as necessary) can yield good results for members without entailing the expensive and time-consuming process of arbitration.
What else can we surmise from this modest survey? For one thing, grievance officers should have significant input into the process of planning for bargaining: they can often best identify some of the more troublesome clauses of the current agreement, inappropriate employer behaviour that may need to be checked by new collective agreement language, and new, unforeseen, emerging trends in the workplace. As workshop organizer and CAUT education officer Paul Jones said, grievance officers are like “canaries in the coal mine,” often the first to encounter new workplace dangers.
There is much we don’t know and CAUT is planning a more comprehensive grievance survey. This will entail asking associations for precious time to fill it out, but on the other hand, it should yield very useful data on existing and emerging trends across the country, and the high response rate to the current survey shows that our members are willing to participate in these data-collecting exercises when they feel the resulting information will be worthwhile.
To continue the excellent grievance work being done by associations across the country, another
challenge has to be faced. As the cohort of senior academic staff who have been taking care of grievances retire, the issue of renewal must be addressed. It will be absolutely vital to find and train new members to take on these responsibilities. But help may already be on the way: at the recent workshop it was heartening to see new faces eager to learn the ropes and seasoned grievance officers keen on sharing their experience and insights.
Finally, just a reminder that CAUT offers a hands-on/on-site grievance handling workshop to associations. This free workshop is designed to help newcomers to this area of association work handle grievances in a productive and efficient manner. So let’s hear it for our unsung heroes, the grievance officers!