Defending The Members: Is It A Grievance?


When a members comes to you with a problem, you need to decide what kind of problem it is:

  • A grievance
  • A legal complaint
  • Neither of the above, but a problem requiring action

Below is some information to help you identify a legal complaint and the different kinds of grievances.


When a problem is not covered by the collective agreement, you may still have protection under some legislation.

If this is the case, check with other Stewards or committee members to find out whether the member can file a complaint under one of the following acts:

  • human rights commissions (e.g. complaints of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, etc.)
  • occupational health and safety regulators (e.g. complaints dealing with air quality, the hazardous operation of a machine, etc.)
  • the labour standards acts (e.g. severance notice, maternity leave)
  • labour relations board (e.g. dismissal for union activities)

But when such complaints are filed, we also need to include the issue in future bargaining. If we have in our collective agreement a clause governing such situations, we can then grieve and hopefully get a quicker solution to the problem.


The majority of grievances fall under the collective agreement

A grievance is the means by which we charge the employer with some kind of violation. Most grievances you file will relate to the collective agreement. Any of these reasons is justifications for filing a grievance:

  • not having respected the collective agreement
    • an alleged violation of the collective agreement
  • having interpreted the agreement as the employer saw fit
    • an incorrect interpretation of the agreement
  • having unfairly disciplined an employee
    • unjust discipline

Other reasons for filing a grievance

There are other kinds of violations which may also require you to file a grievance. In these situations it is best to get a second opinion from a more experienced Steward or from a local union officer.

Violation of past practice in the workplace

  • when the agreement is silent or unclear on the issue.

But, to be considered as “past practice”, you’ll have to prove that the practice was:

  • repeated over an extended period of time
  • accepted by verbal agreement or in writing by both workers and management without either side formally objecting

Violations of worker’s rights

  • occurs when management treats workers unfairly or unjustly
  • the violation is not covered by legislation (i.e. is not a legal complaint) and is not yet covered by the collective agreement

These are hard to fight and win so the local union needs to have a clear-cut, well-documented case.

We should all work to ensure that common practices in the workplace and any problems concerning workers’ rights are safeguarded in writing under the collective agreement.

Kinds of grievances: Who is affected

We can classify grievances according to how they arise – but we can also look at them according to who is affected. What follows are some examples – which may vary from province to province.

Individual grievances

Most grievances affect an individual member and are signed by them. But in filing the grievance, the Steward is helping everyone by defending the agreement and the rights of everyone covered by it.

Group grievances

Several members have been affected in the same way at the same time, so the grievance is filed for the entire group. For example, management changes the starting time for all day-shift workers.

Policy grievances – a grievance which affects the whole bargaining unit

Here the union, not the individual, files the grievance. This occurs when management is in violation or incorrect interpretation of the collective agreement which will affect everyone in the future. For example, management assigns a day worker to work on an off-shift with regard to seniority. Even when the worker does not object, the union might grieve to establish that seniority must be respected in such cases.