To handle a grievance properly, you need a lot of information. Often your search for facts will lead you to make a request to your employer for information they have on file. Using your union’s legal right to this information from the employer can help you defend your rights and win grievances and arbitrations. This right is established by the National Labor Relations Act.
Employers have a legal obligation to provide information that union stewards need in order to handle a grievance or to negotiate changes in working conditions not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. Management may complain that such information requests are “fishing expeditions,” but this language has been upheld by the NLRB which has ordered employers to comply.
These kinds of relevant data requests can be extremely useful in nailing down management’s position so that they cannot shift their argument later in the grievance procedure or at arbitration. Refusals to provide information or unreasonable delays violate Section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act. The union can file an unfair labor practices charge with the NLRB if the company refuses to cooperate with an information request.
The obligation of an employer to provide information is extremely broad. It includes relevant documents, data, and facts. Information is considered relevant if it might be useful to the union or could lead to the identification of useful information.
Only shop stewards and union officers can request information from the company. Although shop stewards can request information, if the employer is intent on blocking the request or stalling, the backing of the Local can be crucial to winning an NLRB charge. So whenever possible, it is best to get your Union leaders on board with an information request.
When can you request information? The union may request information to:
- Monitor the employer’s compliance with the contract
- Investigate whether a grievance exists
- Prepare for a grievance meeting
- Decide whether to drop or prioritize a grievance
- Prepare for an arbitration hearing
To get the most out of your information request, here are some things to consider:
- Make your request in writing. Employers often stall responding to requests or do not provide all the information requested. You may need written evidence of when you made the request and exactly what you asked for. If you initially make your request orally, immediately follow up with a letter confirming your request. For example, you might begin your letter with: “As I indicated in our conversation earlier today, to process this grievance I will need the following records…”
- Be specific in what you ask for…but open the door for other information that could be relevant. You might say something like, “To process this grievance, I need the attendance records for the entire workgroup for the past year, disposition of other employees who have exceeded the absence rule, and any other company records that have a bearing on this grievance.”
- If you are asking for a lot of records specify that the various items can be provided separately, so the company doesn’t treat the request as all-or-nothing. “Please provide these records by end of business Friday, Oct. 31. If not all records can be supplied by that deadline, the union will accept a partial response with the understanding that the union is entitled to all of the documents as soon as it is practical to deliver them.”
- Anticipate the company’s objections and find ways around them. For example, employers do not have to provide records that disclose confidential information. But you may be able to pre-empt this objection by agreeing to accept records with confidential information blacked out, or you can submit written privacy waivers from the members whose records you need.
- Consider other sources. If the information you need can be obtained through another method a government agency, for example you can avoid going to your employer. This can be helpful if you know the company will stall you, or if you don’t want the company to get wind of your strategy.
Sometimes making an information request can yield results even though you never get the information. If the company doesn’t want to release the information, or if complying with the request would be burdensome, they may be willing to agree to a reasonable compromise on the grievance to avoid giving you the information. However, don’t make an overly broad or burdensome request just to have something to bargain with. The law doesn’t protect “fishing expeditions,” nor do you have the right to information that you cannot clearly link to the grievance in question.
Information requests are an important tool in the steward’s toolbox. You can’t argue a case well unless you have all the facts. Like every interaction you have with your employer, a professionally-handled information request raises your credibility with the company and, if the grievance goes to arbitration, with the arbitrator as well.