The collective agreement is the ultimate compilation of rules and procedures for the workplace. They are tirelessly negotiated and ratified by the entire membership before they are put into place. The language can evolve and shift over years and even decades. Provisions, like paid leave for jury duty, have been in our collective agreement impressively unchanged since 1948! Some clauses are fairly straightforward and others are only straightforward to the Union.
Since I took over the Chief Shop Steward role in 2014, the Union has filed 337 grievances and dealt with over 35 different labour relations professionals who have come and gone from the refinery. A significant reason for the insane number of grievances in that time span is due to their high turnover rate and every new face trying to read and interpret our storied collective agreement in their own way.
Which is fair, it is their job. And there is job security in conflict.
To make matters even more complicated is the extensive past practice, previous grievance settlements, and non-grievance resolutions that are not captured in the collective agreement and are generally referred to as "institutional knowledge". This is all information either locked in a filing cabinet somewhere or buried in the mind of an overworked union executive member. While the Union is always willing to sit down with our management counterparts and provide that historical context, they are reluctant to trust our perspective. It might have something to do with the asinine idea that exists in management circles that the union wants the company to fail, or at least doesn't care if they fail and it is not our job to help make the place successful. It's ludicrous. When the refinery does well, everyone benefits. Or at least they should.
How do we educate members and management alike on all these institutional knowledge pieces to avoid reinventing the wheel and the needless conflict that comes with it? The first step is a partnership built on trust. But we're not there yet. There needs to be a willingness to enshrine established practices into the collective agreement permanently and do away with these half-official appendixes that were already mutually agreed to. Laying out job duties or complement numbers won't tail-spin the refinery into financial ruin, that is an archaic way of thinking.
In the meantime, the Executive works to empower the shop stewards through education and information accessibility. We've undertaken steps to digitize old records and catalogue past Letters of Understanding , grievance settlements, and gentlemen's agreements that have helped shape the refinery's tradition of teamwork from years passed.
Members are encouraged to ask questions, attend meetings and keep reading the conciliator as we modernize our communication opportunities so common practices don't get lost to history. Our collective agreement is sacred, allowing "one off" deviations is disrespectful to the bargaining process and can create dangerous precedent. Policing the collective agreement and holding the Company accountable is a duty for the entire membership.
Richard Exner, Chief Shop Steward