Union Grievance, Lawsuit or Both?

November, 2020

It is no secret that collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions provide better wages and benefits for its employee members.  However, in addition to wages and benefits, union contracts contain an important protection that at-will employees do not enjoy:  discipline or termination only for “just cause.”  That phrase, located in the grievance procedure, basically states that the employer must justify or prove that the discipline given to the employee was appropriate.

But many union employees do not realize that many times, the facts or circumstances that give rise to a grievance also can support a claim under law that can be brought in state or federal court.

Let me give you the stereotypical example.

A female union member is harassed by her male boss.  She endures a sexual hostile work environment where her boss constantly makes inappropriate and offensive comments about her dress and her body.  He continually asks her out for dates which she refuses.  The boss then gives her successive unsupported and unfair poor performance reviews before he fires her.

In this example, she would have a grievance under the union contract stating that her termination was for lack of just cause, citing the non-discrimination clause in the contract.  The grievance would follow the steps in the contract up to and including arbitration.  The arbitrator would then make a decision as to whether the employer has just cause for the termination.

But, even though she filed a grievance on that same set of facts, that female union member could also file a complaint before the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities/Equal Employment Opportunities Commission that the termination violated both state and federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment on the job.  Her claim would be that her poor performance reviews and termination were a pretext for illegal sexual harassment.  After exhausting those procedures, she could then proceed to state or federal court.

Connecticut provides that protection for union employees under Connecticut General Statute Section 31-51bb, which states:

“No employee shall be denied the right to pursue, in a court of competent jurisdiction, a cause of action arising under the state or federal Constitution or under a state statute solely because the employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement.”

Based on my experience, filing both a grievance under the union contract and a lawsuit many times leads to a quick resolution or settlement.

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