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Strategic Grievance Management in Today’s Unionized Environment

Lori Aselstine, Director, Employee Relations and Strategic Human Resources Government of Ontario (retired)
Publication date: June, 2014
Strategic Grievance Management in Today’s Unionized Environment

The word “strategic” gets thrown around pretty loosely these days – it’s one of those business buzz words meant to instill confidence that we’ve thought this through and it’s all under control: trust us, we’ve got a strategic plan!

But there’s more to it than just calling something “strategic”.  The term “strategic” implies there is a thoughtful, organized strategy guiding your efforts; that a particular issue has been viewed in the broader context and your decision to proceed is based on the impacts that decision will have across the organization. More so than any other time in history, employers in today’s unionized workplaces need to view their union-management relationships, and their dispute resolution efforts, through a holistic, strategic lens. We can no longer afford to deal with issues and complaints in isolation. As bargaining agents become more sophisticated in using dispute mechanisms to further their corporate agendas, so too must employers.

There are three key elements to being strategic about conflict management:

  • Know where you want to be 3, 5 and even 10 years out in terms of your relationship with your bargaining agent partners;
  • Develop dispute resolution mechanisms and goals that help get you there; and,
  • Keep your eye on the end game – don’t be distracted along the way.

Analyze your response to each conflict or grievance in light of your future goals, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does this grievance tell us about the state of our relationship(s) at the local level?
  • Is the grievance really just an individual dispute, or does it represent a matter of principle to either party?
  • How is this grievance connected to other issues or disputes in the workplace?
  • Will settling (or pursuing) this grievance get us closer to (or divert us from) our longer term goals?
  • Might our response to this grievance jeopardize our relationship with the union?
  • Can we resolve the grievance in a way that results in an incremental change that will ultimately get us where we want to be?
  • Is this the right fact situation on which to arbitrate the issue – should we settle this and look for a more favourable set of facts to put before an arbitrator?
  • Could settling this grievance in the union’s favour represent an opportunity to trade off for something that is more important to the employer?
  • Rather than pursuing arbitration on this grievance, would we be better served by dealing with the underlying issue through dialogue with the union, whether through regular/standing union-management committees, or more formal mediation processes?

As valued strategic partners, labour relations professionals must be accountable for assisting clients to manage relationships with their unions. So make sure you’ve considered all the implications of a decision to settle, mediate or arbitrate – there’s just no sense settling a grievance if all it does is result in less clarity and further conflict. Look at every conflict as a potential opportunity to improve the relationship between the parties, or provide clarity to the principles and rules that govern the workplace. Now that’s strategic!

About the Author

Lori Aselstine

Lori Aselstine has over 33 years of experience with the Government of Ontario, most of which was in the human resources (HR) field. She held positions such as director of Ontario Public Service labour relations, director of Broader Public Sector labour relations and director of strategic human resources business. During her time with the Ontario Public Service, Lori established a reputation as a skilled relationship-builder and problem-solver. She retired in 2014 to work full-time on her organic farm.