Examining the Friction Between the Union and Management: Why Filing Grievances May Do More Harm Than Good – Part 1

by | May 27, 2020 | Workplace Matters

My first hospital pharmacist job was at a union hospital.  That meant every pharmacist, every pharmacy tech, every nurse, every x-ray technician, every lab worker, every security guard— everyone who was not management, was in the union.

I didn’t mind being in the union.  They had various rules because of a signed contract that they had with the hospital.  I didn’t even mind paying union dues.  Because the union provided me with job security, a decent wage, good benefits, and a safe work environment.

We were a small pharmacy department.  We totaled 16 people— 8 pharmacists, 6 pharmacy techs, 1 secretary, and my boss.  Again, except for my boss, we were all in the union.

My boss was relatively new.  He wasn’t the person who originally hired me.  But he and I got along very well.   As I mentioned in previous articles, he talked me into going back to school so that I would get an advanced degree.  He also eventually hired me as the Assistant Director of Pharmacy.

My boss had been in his position for about six months.  He was quite innovative and had a lot of dynamic ideas for the pharmacy.  He respected the profession and wanted to create an image of deep admiration for the pharmacy throughout the hospital.

He wanted his staff to be professional. He wanted us to dress the part.  That meant we were to be well groomed, no blue jeans, no sneakers, and white jackets.  And male staff members had to wear ties.

Now this didn’t seem unreasonable.  Furthermore, most male staff members didn’t have a problem wearing a tie.  Except for one lone male pharmacist.

At first, the pharmacist complained that the tie was too confining, and that it was difficult to button his top button. This seemed like a flimsy excuse.

“Okay,” said my boss, “You can wear the tie with the button open in the pharmacy.  But when you go to the floors, please button the shirt and wear the tie in the conventional way.”  The pharmacist was not happy with this response.

Then the pharmacist complained that the tie caused him to get a rash on his neck.

“Okay,” said my boss, “Bring in a doctor’s note saying that wearing a tie causes you to get a rash on your neck and you don’t have to wear a tie.” The pharmacist never did.  But he still wasn’t very happy with the response.

The pharmacist filed a grievance against my boss.  Now personally I didn’t think this breached the contract.  After all, it wasn’t a safety violation or workplace issue.  Therefore, I didn’t think the pharmacist stood a chance at being successful with his grievance.

But the union was very strong.  And the hospital would rather concede this instance rather than lose a major battle.  Thus, they permitted the pharmacist not to wear a tie.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  On the following day, when the pharmacist reported for his shift, the union representative reported as well.  She then proceeded to go up to every male pharmacist in the department, and forcibly (but nicely) have them all remove their ties from their necks.  After all, if one pharmacist was allowed not to wear a tie, why should the others have to wear one? She then stormed out of the pharmacy department with the ties.

My boss was horrified.  He quickly called the hospital’s Human Resources (HR) Director and reported the issue.  The HR Director listened sympathetically to my boss’ complaint.  But in the end, he said that there was nothing he could do.

What started as an isolated incident of one person not wanting to wear a tie, turned into a solidarity issue pitting the union against management.  The tie became the symbol of rebellion.  It represented management’s desire to tell the union what to do.  And the union’s defiance not to do it.

This was my boss’ first encounter with the union.  As a result, he was not very happy.

Hiring The Best Person To Do The Job

In a previous article, I discussed going back to school, getting my degree, and becoming the Assistant Director of Pharmacy.  I wasn’t my boss’ first choice, though.

Instead my boss first asked the most senior pharmacist if he wanted to take on additional managerial tasks (ordering, making a schedule, preparing a budget, etc.). My boss would teach the pharmacist how to perform these tasks.  Then they would be his (the pharmacist’s) responsibility.

My boss made it clear that he couldn’t promise him any position or pay him any extra money.  But if the pharmacist accepted this offer— well, who knows what might happen in the future.

The pharmacist declined.  He felt that if he wasn’t going to be paid, then why should he do these extra things.

Then, my boss asked me.  I didn’t have to think about it.  I immediately said, “Yes”.  Thus, for the next several months, my boss taught me all about  pharmacy  management.  I became responsible for these extra tasks in addition to my regular work.

Eventually, he talked me into going back to school.  After 3½ years, I had my Master’s Degree and a good background of pharmacy management.  He created an Assistant Director position and offered me the job.  I accepted.

The next day, the most senior pharmacist filed a grievance against my boss for hiring me.

The pharmacist felt that he should have been offered the position.  After all, he was the most senior pharmacist in the department.  And by offering the position to someone with less seniority than he had, this was a clear violation of the union/management contract.

The hospital management did not see it this way for several reasons:

  1. This was a management position and not a union position.  The hospital felt that seniority was a system where benefits were bestowed upon certain employees who had longevity over newer employees within the union.  In this case, since this was a management position, seniority did not apply.
  2. Hire the best person for the job.  The position’s requirements were a deep understanding of pharmacy management tasks, the completion of several courses at an accredited school, and an advanced degree.  I had met these requirements.  The most senior pharmacist had not.
  3. The most senior pharmacist had been given the opportunity to better himself and become eligible for this position. He had been asked. And he had declined.

The hospital was willing to go to arbitration on this matter, if need be.  The union and the pharmacist withdrew the grievance.

I was now the Assistant Director of Pharmacy. This may have been a minor annoyance.  But I was excited to have the position.

Don’t Help Others Hang Yourself

Our pharmacy had started a new chemotherapy program at my hospital. My boss (Director of Pharmacy) and I (Assistant Director of Pharmacy) were very excited to embark on this new task.  We had one four foot hood and assigned one pharmacist to prepare chemo on a daily basis.

Our pharmacy had all the necessary precautions when it came to preparing chemotherapy. We had the usual gowns, gloves, blow-back needles, filter straws, masks, chemo pads and chemo waste receptacles.  Safety was an important issue.

Our policy stated that pregnant women (or soon to be pregnant women) would not prepare chemo.  In addition, no one (male or female) would be assigned to prepare chemo more than two days in a row.

I monitored which pharmacists prepared chemo very carefully.  I rotated the assignment amongst the pharmacists. I didn’t always perform an exact count.  But I was pretty certain that in any given time period that the tallies were fairly equitable.

After about a year, a pharmacist filed a grievance against me.  She felt that she was assigned to chemo preparation significantly more than anyone else.

After reading her grievance, what I found unusual was that she had no evidence to back up her claim.  If it had been me, who filed the grievance, I would have first picked a time period (ie. The last six months). Then, I would have listed the dates that each pharmacist prepared chemo. Next, I would have tallied results. Finally the data would have made it obviously clear that she has prepared significantly more chemo than any other pharmacist.

And if this were the case, I would be in the wrong.

But she didn’t do this!  Instead, her grievance was filled with phrases like “I feel”. Or “I think”.  However, there was no data to backup her claim.

The meeting to discuss the grievance was scheduled for the following week.  At that time, the pharmacist and her union rep would meet with my boss and me.  The HR Director would also be present.

A few days prior to the meeting, the union rep came to my office.  She asked me if I would count the number of times that each pharmacist prepared chemo in the last six months.  She asked if she could get her this information for the meeting.  I refused.

I told my boss about how the union rep came to my office.  I also told him about the information she requested.  He smiled.

He agreed with me.  He told me that if it were him that he wouldn’t have given her information either.  But, just for our purposes, he asked if I would tally the number of times each pharmacist prepared chemo for a six month period.

At the meeting, the pharmacist spoke about vague concepts.  She peppered her statements with her feelings and thoughts.  Plus there were a lot of comments about what a terrible person I was. What was missing was any type of proof to support her claim.  There was no documentation whatsoever.

When it was my turn to speak, I opened my folder, and removed a one-page document.  I provided each attendee a copy.  It listed each pharmacist and the number of times that they prepared chemo in a six month period.

Almost every pharmacist prepared chemo 18-20 times.  However, one pharmacist prepared chemo only 14 times. (This was four times less).  It was the pharmacist who was filing the grievance.  Her claims were unfounded. The grievance was dismissed.

I learned a valuable lesson as a result of this event.  I was not about to help others hang myself.  I realized that they might win the grievance, but I wasn’t going to help them do it.

Final Thoughts

I’m convinced that some grievances are completely justifiable.  Others are not.

I’m also convinced that some unions and management teams defend or oppose certain grievances.  They know that there is absolutely no way to win the grievance.  So they’ll defend or fight it in an attempt to get other things.

Finally, some outcomes affect just the individual who files the grievance.  But sometimes they affect much more.

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Creating Happy Pharmacists

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