Facing discrimination at the workplace, whether based on age, race, national origin, religious beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation, any person’s first natural instinct may be to call a lawyer. However, if you are a member of a union, you most likely will need to take another course of action before you can take your claim to court – you likely must first file a grievance with your union before going to court. This grievance process is the way in which the union addresses potential violations of a collective bargaining contract and it also gives the employer time to hear and remedy most employee complaints without litigation.
And it is this union’s collective bargaining agreement that is paramount in defining unionized employee’s rights. All unions are party to a collective bargaining agreement between the union and the employer that lays out the terms of employment such as wage scales, work hours, overtime pay, employee training and grievance mechanisms. As a victim of discrimination, the grievance and arbitration procedures for reporting discrimination will be outlined in your collective bargaining agreement and they are your exclusive remedy, at least until you exhaust all of your appeals through arbitration. At that point, you likely can file a lawsuit against your union or your employer for discrimination – but only after you have fully exhausted the grievance process. Also, as the exclusive representative of workers in a bargaining unit, it is the responsibility of unions to fairly and competently represent all employees within the bargaining unit, and if a union fails to do so, an employee may have a lawsuit against the union for breach of the duty of fair representation.
Some of the most prosperous industries in the New York City area include professional and business services and health and education services. Each of these industries has unions to protect and negotiate for their employees, a large number of whom are located here in Brooklyn. For example, in New York State, several prominent unions include the United Federation of Teachers, located here in Brooklyn, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, for the growing number of artists and performers in Brooklyn, District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employee union, the Freelancer’s Union, based in Brooklyn, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, and the 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, which has a regional office in New York City.
As employment lawyers, our practice members often hear from union members who have failed to exhaust their remedies under their collective bargaining agreement before rushing off to court, often frustrating their right to recovery in the process. So above all, pay attention! The grievance procedure is hierarchical and takes place in steps; each step has a time requirement in which paperwork must be filed and individuals responsible for various aspects of the process must act. If you fail to bring a grievance within a certain time period, which could be a matter of days from the time that you suffered the discriminatory act, your grievance may be dismissed on a technicality without ever being given the chance to be heard by an arbitrator or a judge.
Always be sure to read your union’s collective bargaining agreement and know your rights as an employee in a unionized industry. Your union was founded to stand behind its workers and attend to their needs; take advantage of this fact and don’t be afraid to take a stand.