Problem Solving 101

Now that you have a general idea of what stewards do, we can begin to talk about problems on the job and how stewards work to solve them.

Notice that we didn’t say “grievances.” Grievances are your last resort, not the first.

A grievance carried to arbitration is a lengthy, time-consuming, expensive, frustrating task that often ends up satisfying no one (except maybe the hired arbitrator we’ll be paying). And units that simply go straight to grievance soon find their members expect “the union” to take care of everything.

So, what are all these problems you’ ll need to help solve? Brace yourself.

  • Roger got stuck with a discarded hypodermic needle when he was emptying the trash.
  • Ellen says Carol finked on her to the boss.
  • Carlos was fired on the spot yesterday. Nobody knows why.
  • A new supervisor is demanding all the men in his shop wear neckties. Some of the men don’t even own one.
  • Doretha says the crumbling stuff in the basement looks like asbestos.
  • Wai Lin heard that management is going to start telecommuting in two departments.
  • Leroy, who works in your widget department, saw the purchasing manager at lunch with two guys from Acme Widget Co. They might’ve been talking about contracting-out.
  • A story in the Daily Planet says state funds have been cut in half and layoffs of public employees are “imminent.”
  • Brenda says she was denied a promotion because she’ s African American.

If you’re getting the idea that the whole work world is your turf, you’re not far wrong.

But no matter what the problem is or who brings it to you, you always begin by doing three (and often four) things:

  1. Get the facts.
  2. Analyze the facts.
  3. Determine a strategy.
  4. Mobilize the members.

If there’s a problem and we ignore it, then the union loses credibility, the contract is weakened, and every worker suffers.

But the same thing is true if the union jumps to conclusions and confronts a supervisor or files a grievance with faulty, false, or inadequate information.

Different problems require different strategies. Sometimes grievances involving an individual member’s indiscretion — lateness, absence, errors in judgment require you to respect the person’ s privacy. Other grievances require informing and involving the entire membership.

Get the facts. Analyze the facts. Determine a strategy. Mobilize the members.


In order to get the facts, you’ ll first need to interview the workers who know what the problem is.

Listening is the key to conducting a thorough interview. And interviewing is your main way of getting the facts. Here are some time-tested tips for interviewing workers about problems.

 Be relaxed and take your time. Control your feelings so you can concentrate on listening. Write down the important facts, including who, what, when, where, how, why, and the names of any witnesses.

 Show the worker you’ re interested. Look them in the eye. Encourage the worker to “get it all out” (both the facts and the feelings). Then facts and feelings can be put in perspective.

 Ask questions when you don’t understand something or when you need to clear something up. Ask “open-ended” questions that can’ t be answered yes-or-no.

Some good questions to ask:

  1. “Why do you think this happened?”
  2. “What’s an example of that?”
  3. “What do you think should be done now?”
  4. “When has this happened before?”
  5. “When did you first notice this?”

 Now and then, repeat back to the worker what you’ve understood so far. This checks your accuracy and often brings out previously overlooked facts.

 Avoid making judgments during the interview. You’ ll form your opinion later after you’ve gathered all the facts and analyzed them.

 Avoid making promises about future action. If it’s a discipline problem, you might say, “I agree the supervisor handled it badly. But I don’t want to promise that we will grieve this until we investigate the whole thing completely.” If working conditions are involved, say, ” I’ m really glad you told us about this. We’re going to give it our full attention.” Assure the worker that the problem will be investigated fully.

 If you don’ t know the answer to a question, don’t guess. No one expects you to know everything. Promise the worker you’ ll find out and get back to them. Then do it.

 Interview all the witnesses to the problem in the same manner. Never depend on a single version of what happened if you can avoid it.

When you investigate a problem:

  1. What
  2. Why
  3. When
  4. How
  5. Where
  6. Who
  7. Witness


Interviews are your main way of getting at the truth, but they’re not the only way.

In most cases, when representing your members, you have the right to any “necessary and relevant” information the employer has. You can request this information anytime in the grievance process, including the initial investigation. Make the request in writing, being as specific as you can, and giving a reasonable deadline.

Some of the materials stewards can request include:

Personnel filesPayroll recordsPerformance reviewsJob descriptionsInspection recordsDiscipline recordsCorrespondenceMemosAttendance recordsAccident records

The union is also usually required to provide information to management if asked to do so.


Once you’ve gathered all your facts, it’ s time to analyze the information. If you’re a new steward, you’ ll probably meet with your chief steward, your union rep, and maybe even your union’s attorney.

  • WHAT is the real problem? Is this what it seems or a reflection of something deeper?
  • WHY did (or does) the problem occur?
  • WHEN did the problem occur (if it’s an incident)? How long has it been going on (if it’s a safety or health hazard)? If there’s the possibility of a grievance, be sure to scope out the step time limits for filing. Has this occurred in the past?
  • HOW did the problem come about? Misunderstanding? Provocation? Carelessness? What mechanisms are driving the problem?
  • WHERE did (or does) it occur? Be specific. Location can be important.
  • WHO is involved in the problem? List every-one involved or affected by the problem, not just the principals.
  • WITNESSES to the problem. Reliable? Intimidated? Biased? Highly credible? All in agreement? None in agreement?

Now that you’ re sure of the facts, of what actually happened or what is actually going on, you can establish the category of the problem and decide what strategy (big plan) and tactics (smaller moves) can best be used to solve it.

Most complaints will fall into one (or more) of five general categories:

  • Violation of the contract.
  • Violation of federal, state, or municipal laws including wages and hours, fair labor standards, equal opportunity, and civil rights.
  • Violation of the employer’s personnel policies, work rules, or administrative procedures.
  • Violation of “past practice.” Practices long accepted by the union and the employer acquire a legal validity of their own. (This principle can work against the union as well as for us.)
  • Violation of equal treatment. (These are really like No. 2 above, but with a kind of special character conferred by a whole host of laws and agencies like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other democratic measures widely accepted.)

If the problem fits one or more of these categories, further action is probably called for and the case is potentially winnable.

Even if the worker’s problem doesn’t meet these standards, unions have a wide range of persuasive options available to them. You’ ll learn these as you go along.

But unfortunately, you will be confronted by some problems that the union can’ t resolve. It is your responsibility to handle them fairly, defend the worker’s rights, and build support within the union so you can come back to fight another day.


Okay, so now you’ve gathered all your facts, interviewed all your witnesses, and analyzed the problem (health and safety, work rules, discipline incident, whatever).

With your other union leaders, you’ ve decided that a problem really exists and requires further action. So now it’s time to file a grievance, right?

Most problems on the job are solved without resorting to formal grievances.

Now is when “armed with all the information you have carefully assembled” you are ready for an informal meeting with management to explore the situation. Sometimes this is called a “pre-step” meeting. At this stage, you’re usually dealing with a relatively low-level supervisor. But even if this first encounter is largely exploratory, you should prepare carefully for the meeting.

  • You should have discussed the problem with your fellow stewards, your chief steward, and perhaps your union rep.
  • You should have a preliminary strategy and at least a tentative solution in mind. If it helps, you can write out a “discussion plan” and refer to it during your talk.
  • Remember, you’re there to learn management’s side of the story as well as to outline the union’ s side. Pay attention.
  • While you’re there on union business, you are one-on-one with the supervisor and you have the protection of federal law. Don’t give the supervisor grief. Don’ t take any.


Here are eleven important rules you should keep in mind whenever you deal with management.

1.On union business, you are management’s equal. Without acting pompous or self-important, you must insist on being treated with respect at all times.
2.Discuss issues, facts, and procedures, not personalities or rumors.
3.Be positive, while still maintaining a businesslike demeanor.
4.Don’t ramble or get sidetracked. Firmly center the discussion on the problem at hand.
5.Don’t lose your temper; use it! Never allow yourself to become overexcited, hostile, or angry. Besides interfering with your ability to think clearly, you will be discrediting yourself as a negotiator and representative.
6.Be imaginative and creative. Don’ t be bound by narrow interpretations of facts. Don’ t lie or sacrifice credibility, but don’t give up.
7.Listen for the main point of management’s position. This is the area in which your possible solution may be found.
8.When you express disagreement with management, do so with dignity, thoughtfulness, and firmness.
9.Take careful notes on management’ s position. Interrupt if necessary to make sure your notes are complete.
10.Remember that this is not an ego trip. We’re seeking a solution to a human problem for the good ofeveryone concerned. Try to leave management a way to retreat with dignity.
11.Ask questions. For one thing, this breaks up any attempt to turn it into a management ” lecture.” And it sometimes brings out new information you can use or exposes weaknesses in management’s position.

We are stronger together.