Issues Of Insubordination
One of the most troubling and difficult issues for the shop
steward is the issue of insubordination. Many contracts say in
clear language that an employee can be disciplined and discharged
For employers, insubordination is considered one of the
deadly sins, right up there with theft and violence. They will
be hard-nosed and unforgiving on the issue. That is why
for almost every discipline case involving insubordination arbitrators hold
to the rule "obey now, grieve later."
But in the heat of an argument or in situations where a
member may be provoked beyond all common sense, the thought of
filing a grievance over the issue may be furthermost from their
Let's go over some of the basics here. First,
insubordination is usually defined as the failure by an employee
to perform a task or comply with an order given to him or her by
a supervisor. An arbitrator will usually look at an employee's
compliance with a reasonable order as basic to the conduct of the
employer's business. Arbitrators take the issue of
insubordination very seriously and consider it a major infraction
beyond the rules of progressive discipline.
Simply put, refuse a reasonable order and you can be
Life, however, is never that simple. There are a number of
issues which must be taken into consideration in any
- Was the employee given a direct order? Mere instructions,
suggestions, and/or advice are not the same as a direct order. A
smart supervisor will say in no uncertain terms, "I am giving you
a direct order to complete that job."
- Was the member aware that he or she was given a direct order?
A member may not have understood that the language used by the
supervisor was a direct order.
- Was the language clear? For example, a member might be told
to stop smoking. As part of their job, they may go to another
location in the facility and light up another cigarette. Caught
smoking a second time, the supervisor might discipline them for
disobeying an order. But how clear was the original order? The
employee might have thought that he had to stop smoking at his
original work location only.
- Was the order audible? Many of our members work in very
- Was the member given forewarning of the consequence of a
refusal to follow the order? A smart supervisor will use words
that clearly indicate a disciplinary consequence will follow the
refusal to obey the order: "If you do not comply with my order, I
will take you out of service."
- Did the employee willfully disobey or disregard the order?
Most cases demand that the refusal to follow an order be willful.
A member may say that she was provoked by a supervisor, by
abusive language for example. If a member comes to you with that
kind of defense, you must dig down deep to find out why. In most
cases, provocation is viewed by an arbitrator as a way of
lessening the discipline, but not overturning it. An exception
to this might be if the order was an affront to the basic dignity
of the member. Racist or anti-union comments in the form of an
order, for example, have no place in the shop and should be
reported immediately to the union for action.
- Was there an ongoing dispute between supervisor and member?
If this can be documented over a period of time, the issue may be
harassment. But to prove harassment, you need clear
documentation from the member of instances where he or she was
- Was the supervisor being unreasonable? The supervisor may
have had a tough deadline to meet for production and a small
incident sets him or her off. The likely target becomes the
member who just happens to appear in the cross hairs.
- Was the order reasonable and necessary to the safe, orderly
and efficient operation of the business? Did the order violate
the contract, workrules, past practice, past arbitration
decisions, or the law?
- Did the member feel that complying with the order would
endanger himself or herself and his/her coworkers? The right to
refuse dangerous work is upheld by the Occupational Safety and
Health Act. You must make your members aware whether they are
covered by this language or state statute that is similar. If the
work is unsafe, a member must report it and ask that it be made
safe. Rather than an outright refusal, safer language might be,
"I will comply with you request when the unsafe condition is
- Was the member set up? This has happened often enough to
make us suspicious of employer motives. If you are suspicious of
the situation, make a thorough investigation. Check for
witnesses and motive. Recreate the incident as accurately as
- Did the charge of insubordination arise out of the member
executing his/her role as a union officer? If the member is a
shop steward and got into a shouting match with the supervisor at
a grievance meeting, the steward's conduct is protected. In
cases of union duties, the steward or officer is an equal of
management in labor-management issues and cannot be disciplined
for exercising that role.
As a shop steward, you need to thoroughly investigate all
charges of insubordination. In certain cases, you may be able to
lessen the punishment, particularly if the employer is
inconsistent in applying standards of behavior to your unit. But
that means your local needs to keep excellent records. Also, a
good work record may mitigate punishment in borderline
The bottom line is that as a communicator, you must tell all
members never to refuse a properly worded direct order. Check
with the union before considering disobeying the order, even
those health and safety orders. Lastly, a member can safely obey
most orders and grieve later.
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Copyright © 1999 Transit Employees Association of Texas.