(This article first appeared in the July-August 2017 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine)
By Industrial Relations Director Vance Zimmerman
What does a grocery store chain started in Texas in 1901 have to do with you? That chain of grocery stores – Weingarten’s – ultimately gave us some of the most important rights we have as union members today. Weingarten’s gave us our right to have union representation in meetings with management.
The story from 1975 is an interesting one. The employee originally involved, Leura Collins, was not even disciplined in any fashion. After one of her co-workers accused her of taking money from the cash register, an internal investigator for Weingarten’s was asked to observe the store. Upon completion of the observation, he found nothing wrong.
At that point, the store manager told the investigator that Collins was reported to have taken a box of chicken home for which she did not pay full price. The manager and the investigator called her into an office for questioning, where she asked multiple times for representation by her union, the Retail Clerks Union. She was denied each time. Ultimately, it was determined that she did nothing wrong.
Collins did, however, report her experiences to her shop steward, leading to an unfair labor practice charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB found that Weingarten’s had violated Collins’ “mutual aid and protection” rights of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act by denying her request for representation.
Weingarten’s appealed the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, which was denied, thus affirming and establishing our rights to union representation in meetings with management where an employee feels their job might be in jeopardy or the meeting may lead to discipline.
Know Your Rights
These rights are now known as Weingarten Rights. I know that many of you already know your rights, but it is never a bad thing to have a refresher on what they are. Many of you may also be new to the Postal Service, or to a union environment, and may not have stewards or officers located right in your workplace to remind you of these important rights. Not only are your rights to representation guaranteed by law, but they are also addressed in our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the Joint Contract Interpretation Manual (JCIM) in Article 17.
Weingarten Rights are not like the much more widely known Miranda Rights. Every time you watch a crime drama on TV you will see someone being read their Miranda Rights. Unlike Miranda, management is not required to inform you of your Weingarten Rights at any time. You are required to know and invoke these rights on your own.
So when can you invoke your Weingarten Rights? You have the right to request union representation (more commonly known as “request a steward”) whenever you reasonably believe a meeting may lead to discipline. Again, you must request the representation! Your shop steward cannot request it on your behalf.
There are a few times when representation is not required. One of the exceptions is when management tells you in advance that the meeting is an “official discussion.” However, if they start questioning you, the meeting is now an investigation and you are entitled to representation if you request it. Another exception would be when management is actually handing you the discipline (a “Letter of Warning,” “Notice of Suspension,” etc.).
You have the right to consult with your representation in private prior to the start of the meeting with management. The rights also allow your representative to participate in the meeting; to ask clarifying questions and actively help you. As the JCIM says, “The employee has the right to a steward’s assistance, not just a silent presence, during an interview covered by the Weingarten rule.”
When called into a meeting with management, requesting your rights can be as simple as saying, “I want my shop steward here.” You should ask before the meeting starts, “Can this meeting lead to me being disciplined?” If they answer “yes,” you need to request representation. You should learn this statement or carry it with you at all times:
If this discussion/meeting could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, I respectfully request that my APWU representative, officer, or steward be present at this meeting. Until my representative arrives, I choose not to participate in this discussion.
Your rights to representation extend to meetings with the Postal Inspection Service and Office of Inspector General Special Agents. They extend to interviews management may try to conduct over the phone or anywhere else off postal premises.
We are very fortunate to have rights under our CBA to meet with our stewards during work time – on the clock. Most private sector unions do not have this right. All of these things can take place on the clock: meetings with management, a pre-meeting consultation with your union representative, discussing contract violations and possible grievances with your steward, as well as the actual steward filing and meeting on grievances.
Being able to do this on the clock is very important to our grievance process. It allows for your direct participation in contract enforcement and problem solving in the work place. It is not the union or steward’s responsibility to see every violation and act on it. You have a significant responsibility to your union and all your coworkers to help your stewards and officers by requesting time to report violations to the union.
Requesting union time and meeting on the clock with the steward is vital to our process! When you see a violation, you should request “union time” from your supervisor or manager. They are required to grant you time with a steward. It is management’s responsibility to arrange this time and to call the steward over or into the office – not yours.
It is not enough to just pass by a steward at your office, window or breakroom and casually say you may have seen a violation. You must request official time to meet with the steward. Break times are not appropriate for you to talk to a steward. Management should not be requiring it, nor should you be thinking it is okay to ask the steward to do union work on their breaks and lunches. Both you and your union representatives are entitled to breaks and lunches.
Enforcing the contract and invoking your rights are not spectator sports. They require your participation and action. Remember, if you are ever in doubt, always request representation.