Workplace Mediation -- Unions Get Their First One Going

My guess would be (I don't keep hard statistics on this) that about half of the local unions I speak with tell me they cannot get buy-in from their executive boards to try mediating grievances. About a quarter of the inquiries I receive say 'yes' to mediation based upon positive, previous experiences. The final 25% also say 'yes.' But it is the first time the local has gone to mediation for grievances and, understandably, there remains some apprehension and skepticism. Testing the value of mediation involves thinking out of the box with workplace issues and requires a desire to resolve disagreements.

Curious union officials often find that mediation can evolve into a viable option for their members - an option that decreases both local union costs and executive/steward time commitments. And mediation is a method that members appreciate because it assures a speedier, more thorough and creative review of their personal concern.

A couple of facets of mediation vis-a-vis collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are worth noting, however.

The grievance and arbitration procedures in a CBA are critically important and must not be dismissed or circumvented. However, these procedures may be complemented by mediation, without risk. Mediation is non-binding and confidential. Mediation works when both parties agree to a solution and commit that solution to writing, for the record. Nothing unusual here. Find a solution, use it, move on. In theory the various steps in a grievance procedure are for the exploration of a resolution. Unfortunately, however, relationships are tainted with bad history, old agendas and with stubborn points of view that disallow clear thinking.

Mediation is not a hearing. The mediator does not analyze the strengths of one party's case over another. The mediator does not render a decision. The mediator does not have a client. And the mediator will not pass judgement on the merits of a grievance. The mediator does, however, act as a guide to explore all options, surface all areas of commonality, and assure everyone's interests are explored. Mediation is the facilitation of all points of view for everyone to consider and acknowledge.

Preparation for mediation is important and all vested individuals should be made aware beforehand of the process that will take place. There is little worse than surprising an e-board, or a manager, or an attorney, or an international/staff rep, or a grievant that "something new" has been inserted into the conversation. Experienced workplace mediators know these potential communications failures yield trouble and will assure that these situations are avoided.

Finally, neither the union nor the company representatives are bound to mediation in the future. However, I find most return to the process. And many return with their most challenging, ageless disagreements in hopes of resolution -  the revived hopes that seem to have disappeared before within the limitations of history, the grievance steps, and arbitration.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.