Unions make serious mistakes when they fail to cover every formal meeting in their unit or when they fail to train their stewards in how to tap the full potential value of these meetings. A good argument can be made that these meetings are more strategically important to the growth and strength of the union than grievance meetings or bargaining sessions.  Here is why we say that and how to get the most out of these meetings.

1.   Attending and being active at these meetings boosts union visibility.  Unlike like a grievance meeting where generally only one unit employee is there to see the union work on his/her behalf, formal meetings often have 10 or more unit employees present. Increased visibility reminds people that the union is working for them, encourages them to think of the union when they need help, and enables them to put a face on the union.  So, no union rep should ever attend a meeting without introducing himself individually to everyone in the group that he does not already know, and checking in advance on who is not yet a union member.

2.   Speaking of nonmembers, union leaders should spread the word among their stewards that the law permits them to solicit new members during any down time in these meetings.  The Authority has held repeatedly that if employees are not expected be doing work, the union can recruit them even though the union rep is on official time and the employee is on duty time.  Check out AFGE, Local 1960, 61 FLRA 562 (2006) where the FLRA stated that where “employees, at the discretion of management, have been assigned periods of time during which the performance of job functions is not required (i.e., paid free time), … such time falls within the meaning of the term ‘nonduty status’ as used in [§] 7131(b)[,]” and “solicitation of membership during such time is permissible.” Id. Thus, employees may be in a nonduty status, and may be solicited, despite the fact that they are being paid during the period at issue.”

3.   Given that the union gets to make a statement about the issues raised at a meeting, its rep should always invite employees to come see him/her if they have any problems or even questions about an issue raised.  To boost the chances of that happening, reps should give them their work location, phone number and/or e-mail address as part of their closing statement. Have them print all that out on a mini-flyer to hand out if necessary.

4.   Formal meetings give the union rep a chance to see who the natural leaders are among the unit employees and gauge how well others respect them.  Once identified, they should be encouraged to get more involved in the union.

5.   These meetings enable the union to learn about the agency and existing practices.  At times, the union will come across a past practice it was unaware of while at other times it will discover some manager trying to deviate from past practice without notifying the union.  Given that most employees have no idea that a group manager’s plans to make some change can be blocked by the union until negotiations are concluded, the union has a chance to demonstrate its effectiveness on the spot in front of lots of employees.  For example, if a supervisor announces that weekly reports suddenly must be filed earlier in the week that is likely a change that must be negotiated before implemented.

6.   Closely related to the past practice information is the potential to get an early indication that top management is about to do something new that LR has not shared with the union yet.  For example, often first line managers know about a pending change in top management or even a potential relocation of the office before LR does.  Similarly, a manager might refer to a document the union did not know existed that it might want to now request.

7.   Participation also enables the union to stop any manager’s effort to bypass the union and deal directly with unit employees to set working conditions in their group. For example, if one or more employees retire leaving some undone work behind, the manager would be bypassing the union if she asked the employees in the group how they think she should distribute the undone work among the remaining employees.

8.   These meetings position the union rep to create a positive relationship with the group manager. For example, when a manager blunders by announcing a change in a past practice, violating the contract, or bypassing the union, there are a variety of ways to handle that so that the employees see the union being active on their behalf and the manager sees a union rep as not embarrassing him/her. (Generally, union reps should not publicly attack the manager in these meetings because in the eyes of the employees the rep is an outsider in relation to their group and many employees probably like the manager.  Every group has an element of family to it and the union rep is just a neighbor.)

9.   The meetings are an opportunity to educate employees on their basic rights in contract, regulation, practice or law.  For example, if a manager announces there is going to be mandatory overtime, the union rep can quickly remind employees what the contract says about mandatory overtime and even encourage anyone for whom the overtime will be a problem to come see him/her.  Contributions such as this encourage employees to see the union rep as having the power of an expert—and that boosts the union’s image.

10.  The meetings give the union rep a great excuse to follow-up with the employees a few days later.  Reps should think about sending everyone in the group an e-mail asking if they have thought of any additional questions or concerns about the topics discussed.  They should not only invite them again to make contact, but also send them any information they might find helpful.  A great example would be for the rep to announce that after the meeting he/she met with the manager who agreed to postpone a certain change until it is fully discussed with the union.  But do not be reluctant to do something as simple sending the employees an excerpt from the collective bargaining agreement that relates to the topics they discussed.

In sum, formal meetings are a chance to get more members, potential future leaders, information about what is going on in the unit, relationships with first line managers, visibility and even credit for helping employees.  Try to find any other meeting the union has with that much strategic potential—and that is why they are so important to attend and so important to train for.

(This was first posted in November 2013)

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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