Grievances Help Enforce Meaning, Intent of Contract

Q: I’m a new teacher and I would like to know what a grievance is and when and how should I file one?

A: Is your class size bigger than it should be? Did your principal fail to schedule enough preps? Did an administrator deny you a personal business day off for religious observance? Have you been saddled with too many teaching periods in a row? If you can’t resolve these matters informally, file a grievance.

A grievance is the means by which an employee contests the actions of an employer that he or she believes has violated a contractual provision about salary, working conditions or due process rights. Grievances help enforce the meaning and intent of the contract, and any UFT member should grieve any infringement of contractual rights, since that protects the rights that all members enjoy.

Contract Article 22 in the teachers contract (and comparable articles in other UFT contracts), Grievance Procedure, explains the process and time requirements for filing grievances. It states that employees covered by the contract can file a complaint called a "grievance" when there has been "a violation, misinterpretation or inequitable application" of the provisions of the contract, or when the employee has been treated "unfairly and inequitably by reason of any act or condition" that violates past policies or practices which affect employees.

In other words, you can file a grievance only if you have been the victim of a contractual violation or of practices or conditions in your school that affect you directly. This means that you cannot grieve because you witness a violation that affects one of your colleagues. Nor can your chapter leader grieve on your behalf without your permission, except in certain situations that affect all members and are spelled out in the contract, such as safety grievances or class-size grievances.

Although you must initiate your own complaint, you should seek the advice of your UFT chapter leader. He or she will advise you about the grievance process and may attempt to resolve the matter informally with the principal either before or after starting the grievance process.

In most cases there are time frames for filing a grievance and for decisions to be rendered. For example, once a grievance is filed the principal usually has five school days to respond to Step 1 of the grievance process.

You may appeal that decision in writing to the superintendent within three school days after receiving it, but be sure to consult your chapter leader to make sure you’ve cited the proper clauses of the contract. In most cases, the superintendent has 10 school days after receipt of the appeal to hold a hearing and render a decision. That written decision will be sent to you, your UFT district representative and the union. This is Step 2 of the grievance process.

Within 15 school days of the Step 2 decision, with some exceptions, the union — not the employee — may appeal the decision to the chancellor. Either the district representative or a UFT Grievance Department advocate will contact you. The chancellor’s Office of Labor Relations usually has 20 school days to hear the arguments and render a decision.

At each step of the way, attempts should be made to resolve the dispute to the satisfaction of both parties. However, when this is not possible at Step 3, the union — again, not the employee — will consider bringing the case before a neutral arbitrator. If so, the UFT has 15 school days after receipt of the chancellor’s decision to file a notice of arbitration.

The grievance process is necessarily legalistic to protect all the parties involved, and a grievance is often won or lost because of technical reasons. The most commonly cited technicality is lack of timeliness. The aggrieved party must file the complaint within 30 school days after he or she has knowledge of the infraction or inequity.

However, grievances arising out of school reorganization have special time limits to ensure those matters are resolved as quickly as possible. Grievances about teacher programs and assignments must be presented within two school days after the employee has knowledge of his or her program. The entire process is then expedited to prevent unnecessary disruption of students’ programs and impeding the continuity of education at the beginning of the school year.

Complaints regarding class size can be filed after 10 school days, during which the school administration is supposed to solve overcrowding problems informally. This allows a school to reprogram students and equalize classes. If, however, the school fails to do this, then it is appropriate for the teacher to notify the chapter leader so the chapter leader can file a class-size complaint directly with the superintendent. This is an important grievance that enforces the class sizes the UFT fought so hard to establish (see Articles 7M and 22B5 of the teachers contact).

The grievance process was established by labor unions to allow employees to seek redress for the discriminatory, arbitrary and capricious acts of an employer. However, it is not always necessary to file a grievance. Resolutions are often a smart alternative because both parties enter into a "win-win" situation. Consult your chapter leader regarding this alternative. Many chapter leaders have been trained in this process.