Almost every collective bargaining agreement (CBA) includes a process for resolving disputes regarding the CBA’s application and meaning. This is typically included in an article entitled “Grievance and Arbitration” and it frequently starts with an informal process – i.e., an informal discussion between the union and the employer – and ends with a neutral arbitration deciding the issue.

To avoid long and costly disputes, contractors would be well-served to carefully read the grievance-arbitration clause in their CBA. While every CBA is different, there are several key elements to most grievance-arbitration clauses that, when better understood, provide contractors with a means of avoiding (or resolving) most grievances.

Remember the Limitations Period

The first key provision contractors need to understand is the time for filing a grievance. This is similar to a “statute of limitations,” the limitations period requires the complaining union to notify the contractor (or vice versa) when there is a dispute regarding the interpretation or application of the CBA. Some limitations periods are as short as 15 days.

The missing of a limitations period is grounds for the employer to claim that the grievance is procedurally improper and must be dismissed. While there are exceptions that may allow a union to file an untimely grievance, the contractor should preserve the timeliness objection as part of the grievance-arbitration process.

Follow the Required Steps  

Each grievance-arbitration clause typically includes a three to five step process for resolving contract disputes. The first step typically involves an informal discussion with the steward. The final step is typically binding arbitration.

While skipping steps is permissible if both parties agree, contractors should insist that the union exhaust all steps of the grievance-arbitration process. There may also be deadlines for moving the dispute to the next step. This gives the union another deadline that it must meet. Failure by the union to meet a deadline in the grievance process may be grounds for dismissing the grievance in its entirety.

Keep Your Eye on the Issues and Settlement

In additional to probing for procedural defects, contractors should be sure to use the grievance-arbitration process as a means for better understanding the union’s evidence in support of the grievance. A contractor can use that information in order to bolster its defense in the arbitration.

Bottom Line

As you can see, contractors who understand their CBA’s grievance-arbitration process will be in a better position to avoid costly and time-consuming grievances by quickly identifying any procedural defects in the union’s grievance at the time of filing or during the grievance steps. Even if procedurally proper, contractors can use the grievance steps to identify weaknesses in the union’s position for use during any arbitration or settlement discussions.

The best place to start is by reading and understanding the text of your CBA’s grievance-arbitration clause. Then, you will be in the best position to utilize the strategies outlined above.