Choose union leader wisely, your future is in their hands

In the last while, I've had to take a crash course in navigating the ins and outs of a union. Someone I know was falsely accused of something, and his union filed a grievance on his behalf. It didn't go well.

The one thing I learned was this. Choose your president wisely. Because that person may be the only one defending you when you need it most.

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When you join a union, you give up your right to legal representation. You can't call a lawyer, you can only rely on the people within the union to represent you. Further, any issue you have with the employer now belongs to the union - you might not even be able to see things written about you. The union is fighting the grievance, you're just along for the ride.

There are many well-meaning people within unions, who volunteer to be shop stewards and on the local's executive. But when push comes to shove, these well-meaning people will be the only people protecting you. They will be up against human resources people who are trained in employment standards and employment law. Depending on which union you are in, you might have a plumber or secretary on your side, and a human resources lawyer on the other. Not really a fair fight.

Throughout the process, it's the union making the decisions. Again, it's not about you, it's about the grievance. They decide if it proceeds, they decide how to defend it, they decide what will be agreed to. You might have some input, but ultimately it's the union's decisions that determine the outcome.

If you don't agree, there are very few avenues to protest. The rules around what you can complain about are very strict. If you aren't happy with a decision, you can appeal it. If the appeal fails, you can appeal to the next level within the Union.

If they don't agree, you're only option is the Labour Relations Board.

If you decide to go that far, the rules are very limited, and you have to be very precise in what you present. The LRB has what is called a Section 12 complaint,

which is based on the union acting in bad faith, discriminating against you or acting in an arbitrary fashion. If you can't prove the union has acted in one of these three ways, tough luck. And the standard of proof is pretty high.

When you are accused of something by an employer, you would hope to be treated fairly. You would hope that a complete, unbiased investigation is conducted, that you have a chance to tell your story, that anyone who you have as a witness will be asked about what happened and that you have a fair chance to set the record straight. It's up to your union to make that happen. And if they don't, unless you can prove they violated Section 12, you don't have a leg to stand on.

So I come back to my original point. Choose your president wisely.

You need to think of that person as your lawyer, not as your friend or colleague. That person will be the one defending you if the time comes. That person will have your fate in their hands. That person will determine your future.

Choose wisely. It matters. Brad Sherwin, MBA has over 25 years' experience in marketing, public relations and business strategy. He is currently the Director of Marketing for a national nonprofit organization.

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