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Union fails to pursue grievance? That’s its problem

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If an employee’s union rep doesn’t file a grievance and your organization later fires the employee based on an incident that could have been the subject of the grievance, the union is most likely on the hook for any damages.

Recent case: Cheryl Beck worked for Fry’s Food Stores when she had an after-hours confrontation with a co-worker with whom she had once been romantically involved and who had since been promoted to a supervisory position.

The man complained, claiming Beck swore at him. She was covered by a union collective bargaining contract that said using “profane, abusive or threatening language” was prohibited.

Beck’s employer wrote her up and said another infraction would mean discharge. The union declined to file a grievance on Beck’s behalf although it had in several other cases involving men who had used offensive language.

Later, Beck allegedly swore at the store secretary. Fry’s fired Beck.

She sued the union, alleging it discriminated against women by not filing her original grievance while frequently filing grievances when males were written up for swearing. The district court awarded Beck almost $200,000 in damages plus attorneys’ fees.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award, reasoning that if the union had provided a robust protest at the outset, Beck wouldn’t have been fired the next time she allegedly swore. Since it did defend similarly situated men, the union should have pressed Beck’s case, too. (Beck v. United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 99, No. 05-16414, 9th Cir., 2007)

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