The Importance of Documentation
As shop stewards we spend a lot of time talking -- preaching unionism; communicating important information about our job; educating members about critical legislative issues; or just telling members what they missed at the monthly union meeting.
We live in a talking culture. We forget to put things down in writing.
That's not what they teach in business school or in law school. Supervisors and lawyers have been trained to put everything down on paper.
It allows them to control what is called the record. If you go into a grievance meeting and your supervisor takes notes, chances are those notes will form what is called the record of the meeting. Your memory and their memory can be faulted. Notes cannot.
That is why it is important to get into the habit of buying a small notebook and using it in all of your capacities as a steward. Most important, use it while you are handling complaints and grievances.
In your interview step with the member, write down what he or she says. Don't worry about spelling. Just get it down. Some local unions have even put together a grievance interview sheet to help the steward write down the story. However you create your record of the incident or grievance, just get out the pen and paper and write it down.
The very act of writing the member's story down conveys a professional image of your role to the member. And just as important, the member will be more truthful in giving you the whole story -- warts and all.
Sometimes members think they are helping the steward by embellishing a story to make it more convincing. Our role as steward is to get the truth and get the member justice. The act of writing contributes to that goal.
Taking notes in the grievance meetings conveys a sense of no-nonsense and professionalism to your employer counterparts as well.
Let's take this issue of writing a step further. How many of us have been in the situation where the employer has created a paper trail in order to build a case against our member? Verbal warnings and letters may be indicated on some kind of disciplinary sheet in the member's personnel file.
What does the member usually do if they are assessed a verbal or written warning? In all too many cases the member does nothing. Stewards and the local union itself must counsel all members never to accept discipline that the member and/or the local union feels is unjust.
That doesn't mean every letter of warning has to be arbitrated. In many cases, it is sufficient to challenge that letter with the member's and/or union's version of what happened. This challenge should be put in writing and attached to the record or it should be properly entered directly on the discipline sheet, if possible.
If these warnings are not challenged in writing, they stand as accepted. Management has made an art form out of progressive discipline. The union needs strong ammunition in any disciplinary situation, because the next incident could trigger time off or termination.
There are times when a member comes to his or her steward with a complaint about a supervisor who seems to be picking on the member. He or she gets the worst assignments. Or the supervisor always seems to breathing down the member's neck.
Issues such as employer harassment are ones which usually boil down to the member's version of the story versus the supervisor's version.
As soon as a member comes to you with a harassment issue you have got to tell the member to document each and every incident in which the harassment occurs. Just as management builds disciplinary cases against our members, we have got to build the case against the offending supervisor.
Tell the member to write down the incident, when it happened, what happened, and were there any witnesses. By putting together a record of the harassment, the member is directly involved in the grievance process and the local union will have the necessary documentation to make the best case.
Remember, get into the habit of writing down everything.
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