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Legal Rights for union members

Why this booklet?
What is a union?
Who are the representatives of the union?
What is a contract?
Typical contract provisions.
Right to representation in disciplinary meetings.
How do I protect my rights?

Two case studies:

Maribel's Story
Manuel's Story

Sample letters

Need more advice? Contact AUD: 718-564-1114 ,
AUDHome--> Legal Rights--> Your Job, Your Rights

Your Job, Your Rights

an introductory pamphlet on grievances and union representation

Disclaimer: the information presented on this website is general and intended for educational purposes. It is not a substitute for practical legal advice on any specific situation.

Why this booklet?

This booklet was put together to help unionized workers exercise their rights on the job to the fullest extent possible. It outlines some basic rights that unionized workers often have under their contracts and shows how you can enforce these rights.

While there are many different laws and rules you can use to protect your rights, the most important thing to do is always to organize your co-workers and take action. In the end, organizing as a group is the best way to fight for your rights and win.

What is a union?

A union is an organization of workers who unite to protect their rights on the job. There are all kinds of unions. Some are parts of huge organizations with members across the United States while others are local and independent. A strong union keeps members informed, active and involved. A strong union encourages workers to protect their rights, negotiate contracts and resolve workplace problems. Remember that a union is as strong as its members.

Who are the representatives of the union?

Most unions have several representatives. The Steward is one of your co-workers who is in charge of handling problems and answering questions about the contract and the union. Unions have local officers who are workers elected by the other workers to be in charge of running the local union. Many unions have business agents, a person who works for the union and who is responsible for helping you deal with problems with the employers. You will not see the Business Agent every day but should be able to call her or him and ask questions.

What is a contract?

A contract, or collective bargaining agreement, governs the relationship between the employer and the union. It is negotiated by the workers' union representatives and the boss. A contract gives workers rights they would not have without a contract; it also grants the boss certain powers to regulate the workers. If you want to help decide what is in the contract, tell your union representative your ideas or find out how to become part of the negotiating team.

Typical contract provisions

All contracts are different and you should check the provisions in your contract, but here are some of the clauses included in most contracts:

1) Just Cause: You cannot be fired or disciplined without just cause. The company must show that they had a reason to fire or discipline you.

2) Seniority: Most union workplaces have a seniority system. The amount of time you have on the job may determine your benefit levels. For example, the contract may state that if there are layoffs, the people who have been at work for the longest period of time must be laid off last and the people who have been at work for the shortest time must be laid off first. Different contracts have different types of seniority clauses.

3) Pay, Holidays, Sick Days, Benefits: The contract will set rates of pay for all workers and show which days are holidays and how many sick and vacation days people have. It will also provide for the employers payments to health and welfare and pension funds. If you have questions about what you are being paid, the answer should be in the contract.

4) Grievance Procedure: The grievance procedure is the way you challenge the company and enforce the contract. If your rights under the contract have been violated, you can ask your union to file a grievance against the company. The grievance procedure will not help you fight every unfair thing the employer does. It only helps enforce the rights that are in the contract, rights that you have by federal, state or local law, and rights that come from past practices of the company. Past practices are things the company has always done in the past but has stopped doing or failed to do in your particular case.

Right to representation in disciplinary meetings (Weingarten Rights)

According to U.S. law, most workers have the right to have a union representative present at any meeting or interview with management that they think may result in disciplinary action against them by their employer. If you think that you may be written up, fired, or disciplined in any other way as the result of an interview with a supervisor, you should ask that a union representative, such as a shop steward, be present. If the supervisor then refuses to let you have a representative present, you have the right to refuse to answer. (The rights of public employees may be diffferent in your location.)

How do I protect my rights?

What happens if I have a problem at work? Lets look at what happens to two workers as they try to resolve their workplace problems.

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Maribel's Story

Maribel works for Sweatshop Inc., a private homecare agency. She has worked there 12 years and speaks very little English. She wants to work full time but only gets 12 hours of work per week. Now, her manager says the company is going to cut her hours down to 8. Meanwhile, the company is hiring new workers and giving them 10 hours per day, seven days per week. Maribel knows this is not right, what can she do?

1. Maribel knows that every worker has a right to a copy of the contract. She asks her union representative for a copy. Her union provides contracts in Spanish as well as English. She receives a copy of the contract in Spanish.

The contract says that there is a seniority system -- people who have been on the job longer get to choose their hours before people who have not been on the job as long. She has worked much longer than the new people who are getting more hours, so the company has violated the contract!

2. Maribel asks around and finds out that Flor is the Union Steward for her department. Flor says that she will help Maribel file a grievance against the company. Flor tells Maribel that she is glad Maribel came right away because you must file a grievance within 5 days after you find out about the problem.

Flor explains that the contract has a three-step grievance procedure.

Step 1: Flor goes with Maribel to talk to her supervisor about the problem. Flor says the Supervisor is violating the rules in the contract and that Maribel wants to work 40 hours in five days. The supervisor says there is nothing he can do about it and denies the request.

Step 2: Flor and Maribel appeal the decision of the supervisor and meet with the company personnel manager. This time they are joined by Joe, the union's business agent. The personnel manager discusses the issue with Flor, Maribel and Joe and then offers a compromise:

Maribel will get 40 hours per week but will have to work weekends once every 3 months. Joe, Flor and Maribel go outside to discuss the offer in private. Maribel decides to accept the offer.

If Maribel had not accepted the offer or if the personnel director had denied the request, there might have been further meetings with a higher official of the company. If they still could not agree to anything, they would have gone on to Step 3: Arbitration.

Arbitration is the last step in a grievance procedure. It is like a mini-trial, where you argue your side and the company argues their side in front of an independent judge called an arbitrator. Arbitrations take a lot of preparation and are expensive (the union and the company usually split the cost). Most unions will send lawyers or experienced union officials to help out.

Collecting evidence. For any grievance, it is important to collect evidence. Maribel would want to find out who was working more hours than she was and how long they had been working at the company. Other important pieces of evidence include time cards, pay stubs and disciplinary reports. If you are disciplined or fired for an incident, write down the names of everyone who was there when the incident happened or when you were fired. If you know people who can support your story talk to them and ask them to speak to the union. Give all of this information to the union representative who is helping you file the grievance.

Group grievance. She would also want to find out if anyone else had their hours cut. If so they could file a grievance together. The more people who Maribel can find who have the same problem, the stronger their grievance will be.

Union's role. One important thing to remember is that when the union files a grievance for you, they take over your case. The union officials will decide how far to go with your grievance, including whether to take it to arbitration or not. And, they can settle your grievance without your permission.

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Manuel's Story

Not all problems work out as well as Maribel's did. Take a look at Manuel's story.

Manuel is an assembly line worker for Rusty Cog Manufacturing, a small factory that makes machine parts. Last week, Manuel's supervisor, Gladys, fired him. Gladys said that she just did not like his attitude. Manuel did not understand because he had always done a good job and had not been warned or written up; no one gave him a good reason why the company fired him.

Manuel did not have a copy of his union contract so he wrote a certified letter to his union requesting a copy (see Example A). Manuel received a copy of his contract a few weeks later, but if he had not he could have filed a complaint with the Federal Office of Labor Management Standards with a copy of the letter he sent to the union.

After reading the contract, Manuel found that for the company to fire him they had to show just cause. He knew that the company had violated the contract.

Like Maribel, Manuel went to his union steward, but the steward said there was nothing he could do to help Manuel. Manuel was frustrated and angry, he knew the company had violated his rights, but the union would not help him. What could he do?

If the union won't help Manuel, can he go to court and fight on his own? Usually not. Most contract rules can only be challenged through the grievance procedure established in the contract.

There are a few exceptions:

Discrimination: If you are fired or discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability or immigration status or because you are pregnant, you can file a discrimination case against the employer. To do this, you must show that you were treated differently by the employer because of one of the above characteristics. Filing a discrimination claim is a slow, difficult process.

Unpaid benefits: If you were not paid for benefits you deserved (sick days or vacation time), you may be able to file a claim with your State Department of Labor.

Minimum wage and overtime: If you are paid below minimum wage or do not receive overtime pay when you work more than 40 hours in one week, you can file with the Department of Labor for your state.

Organizing: If you are fired or disciplined for taking collective actions to improve workplace conditions, trying to organize a union or standing up for your rights, you can file a claim with the National Labor Relations Board.

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So what can Manuel do?

Talk to other people in the union. Do not give up if your steward will not help. Find the business agent for your shop and talk to him or her. If that does not work, make an appointment to see an elected local union official, such as the president or business manager, and complain to them. If you still do not get satisfactory representation you may want to write to the international union, to which your local union belongs.

File the grievance anyway. No matter what the union officials tell you, file a grievance. Find out how to do this from your contract or other workers or send a letter like Example B. Do it quickly because some contracts say you can only file a grievance within a certain amount of time. Keep a copy of your letter or your completed grievance form and mail it to the union by certified mail. Then go through the process of investigating and collecting evidence.

Put pressure on the Union. Your union has a duty to represent you fairly. They have to investigate your grievance and cannot neglect it. They cannot play favorites and cannot refuse to help you with a grievance because they do not like you or because you do not like the union leaders. The union cannot legally discriminate against you.

Unions can refuse to file grievances that they do not think are valid but they must investigate them and must treat all workers fairly and equally in making such decisions. You should ask why they will not file your grievance and remind them of their duty to represent you.

Go to the National Labor Relations Board. If the union still refuses to help you, you can go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and file a complaint against your union. You must do this within 180 days of the time the union refused to do anything about your grievance. Claims against unions are not easy to win so you will need proof and evidence that the union treated you unfairly. You can also file a private lawsuit. Call AUD for advice and information.

Find proof. Finding proof in a case against a union is similar to finding proof in a grievance against a company. Find out how the union has treated other people. Gather your grievance evidence together and take it to the union, if they still will not act for you, you can show it to the NLRB as proof that you had a good case that deserves to be heard.

The NLRB will look at your evidence, investigate your claim and decide whether or not to act on it. They are very slow. If they do not take your case, you can still take action by yourself in the Federal District Court, but you will need a lawyer.

Take action. Whether your union is helping you or not, the best way to win a grievance is often to take action. -- Remember, taking action on the job can be risky, even if you are within your rights. Be prepared, know your rights, and make sure to act as a group. You may also want to get some outside assistance or advice from experienced organizers. Some of the things you might want to do are:

1. Circulate a petition and present it to the boss.

2. Make buttons and have people wear them to work. Write slogans on them such as "No More Contract Violations" or "We Support Maribel."

3. Give your supervisors the silent treatment and talk to them only when you have to for work.

4. Get a group of workers together at break, at lunch or before or after work and march into the boss's office with a list of problems. Do this every day until you get a solution. Be sure to do this at a time when you are not supposed to be working.

5. Write a leaflet and give it to customers when you are not working. (Be careful with this one, there may be legal issues.)

There are all kinds of ways to show the boss that you are tired of being treated badly and want a change. Be creative. If you make noise and have people on your side, you might get what you want without the traditional grievance procedure.

Run for Union office. If your union officials are doing a bad job representing you, maybe it's time for a change. Local unions have elections for officers; you and your coworkers can run for local president, executive board, steward, or another office. A change in local leadership can make a big difference. Rules for these elections will be in the local union constitution. You can get a copy of your union constitution and by-laws from your union or by contacting the Federal Office of Labor Management Standards. Be sure to contact AUD for information and advice about your democratic rights.

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Sample Letters

Use the sample letters on this website to enforce your rights:

To get a copy of the union contract.

To file a grievance.

To follow up on a grievance.

Some Resources:

Association for Union Democracy, 104 Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11225; USA, (718) 564-1114 ,,

For links to the following government agencies, see the AUDLinks page.

Make up your own list of local phone numbers and addresses for the following agencies, all should be listed in the phone book:

National Labor Relations Board

Public Employment Relations Board (for state employees)

Unemployment Insurance Division, Department of Labor

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (discrimination claims)

State Dept. of Labor, Division of Labor Standards (minimum wage or overtime complaints)

U.S. Department of Labor, Pension Welfare Benefits Administration

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)

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NOTE: This booklet was first published in 1998 by the Workers' Rights ProjectŠ, a project of The Association for Union Democracy and The Latino Workers Center. It has since been edited by the Association for Union Democracy. This booklet is licensed by The Association for Union Democracy under a Creative Commons License (attribution, non-commercial, share-alike). Use the following credit line on the materials you use:
"From the website of the Association for Union Democracy. Email: 104 Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11225; USA; 718-564-1114"

Please notify us at if you use this material.

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Use the following credit line on the materials you use:
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