The chief responsibility of a Union steward is to represent the interests of Union members. Whether representing the Local as a whole or an individual member in a disciplinary action, the premise is the same. The Union acts as the intermediaries between the agents and management, and attempts to provide fair treatment to the agents.
As important as this representation is, and despite it being a right guaranteed to all agents via the Collective Bargaining Agreement and labor law, specifically the Federal Labor Relations Authority, it is frequently interfered with by management. Proper representation is sometimes denied intentionally and sometimes through ignorance. The denial that will be addressed by this article is that of a deliberate nature.
Recently, the Union has faced problems with the Service regarding scheduled oral reply dates. For the lay person, who may be unfamiliar with the disciplinary process, part of the disciplinary action includes the right to present a written, an oral, or a written and oral reply, to a person in management other than the management personal who made the original proposal to discipline. Although the previous description of due process may sound confusing, it is dealt with frequently by agents and their stewards when addressing all discipline, ranging from a one-day suspension to termination.
When information is requested by an agent or his or her representative, an opportunity to reply orally to the charges is frequently included. The date for the oral reply is scheduled after the written reply has been received or the allotted time to issue a written reply has expired. The agent and his Union steward have no idea when the oral reply will be scheduled. It is therefore nearly impossible to schedule for the oral reply until after the Service has proposed a date for the reply.
Now, it would be expected that the Service would understand that the steward who began the process with the agent would be the one who is present at the oral reply. The steward, who is assisting the charged agent, inarguably knows more about the case and its defense than anyone else. He/she essentially becomes an expert on that particular case. The Service seems to agree with this. Citing a recent proposal for discipline issued by the Service, “you are entitled to be represented in this matter by an attorney or other representative of your choice.” ( Emphasis added.) This is actually pretty generic language and exists in all disciplinary proposals in one form or another
As mentioned before, the stewards are unaware of when the oral reply is going to take place. In two recent cases, stewards who were representing agents were unable to make the dates initially proposed by the Service. In both cases, the impediment was not due to personal plans but rather previous commitments within the Service. In short, work was preventing the stewards from attending the oral replies on the initially proposed days. Did the Service appreciate this reality? No, on the contrary, in one case the Service stated that another steward could represent the agent (despite it being a termination case), in the other case the Service offered the following opinion,
“The workforce has the right to be represented by the union. They do not have the right to be represented by a specific union member. Sector has more than done its share to facilitate meetings but we are at the point where we are getting unreasonable request for rescheduling because a specific union steward is not available. A specific incident is having the Deputy reschedule a meeting because ______was not available.
We need a common sense approach to these issues.” (sanitized correspondence between a Service representative, and Local 2366 Executive Officer.)
The rescheduling that the Service is referring to was due to the Union steward having previously scheduled, Service related plans for both of the proposed dates. The “unreasonable request” was merely, “I am not able to attend that day, due to _____ in fact I am tied up with other commitments for the rest of July. August would be better. Can we do it on another date?”( Note, this is not an exact quotation but, essentially, the message that was exchanged while leaving out details which may reveal the steward’s identity.) What is unreasonable about this? This is all in-spite of the Service frequently rescheduling, or just plain ignoring, meetings made by the Union to communicate with the agency. Somehow, the Service sees this rescheduling, which is not a common occurrence on the part of the Union, as a problem which needs a common sense approach.
Ok, here is a solution: assign a full-time Union representative for the Del Rio Sector. This would certainly be a great help to the agents and the Service, especially if they intend on continuing with the rash of termination proposals. It would assure that the steward had no conflicting work plans, which the Service apparently has such great qualms with
Or, (now this may sound “unreasonable”) deal with the fact that the agents who act as stewards may have other obligations. Because they do not know when the oral reply will be, the best they can do is make an effort to be present. Pending that, the appointment will have to be rescheduled. No steward is telling the Service to reschedule solely for the sake of doing so. To not allow the Agents their representative of choice (the steward who has been working on their case from the day of the proposal) the Service is sabotaging the agent’s opportunity to present the best defense. And the very least an agent should be promised is the best defense.