Probably the most important protection for stewards is called “The Equality Rule.” This rule acknowledges that your job is likely to involve confrontations with management—confrontations that could lead to discipline under the normal rules of employer-employee relations.
You can openly disagree and argue vigorously with management during grievance meetings; question management’s authority; and, demand certain actions of management, all without risking disciplinary action. The “Equality Rule” makes you a “legal equal” to the boss. But, it’s in effect only when you are doing your job as a steward, not when you’re acting as an individual employee. You’re acting officially when you investigate and argue grievances, request information and otherwise defend fellow workers or the union contract.
There are limits to what you can do, though. Threats of violence and actual violence are prohibited, as are extreme profanity, name calling, and personal attacks. Actions barred by your contract are not protected, either. To prevent supervisors from claiming you “exceeded the limit,” it’s wise to have another steward or witness with you during meetings with management.
Below are a couple pages excerpted from an NLRB filing in which two AT&T field managers testified in somber tones about the Equality Rule and their discomfort of being treated as an equal by an employee who also happened to be a union rep:
- Above is pages 30-32 of Generals Counsel’s Answering Brief to Exceptions; in which Attorney Carlson argues for the government that AT&T exhibited animus towards me and the union due to their apparent fear of me – though no discipline was ever issued by AT&T for all of their “bully” hysteria
- This is because I did not violate the Act by threatening violence or invoking, say, anyone’s questionable parentage in my colorful description of their intellect and their blatant disrespect for our contract; also
- I was enforcing the contract (management had been caught red-handed violating a grievance settlement);
- Rules of thumb:
- I don’t swear until management does first; and they always lose it when you got them on the ropes
- Never meet with management alone! This is for many reasons, but one big one: Management may defect from the conversation and accuse a steward of impropriety, risking that steward’s job. Always bring a fellow worker who has your back (and takes good notes!)
- When in doubt, aggress! At large unionized companies like AT&T, most supervisors are trained on the Equality Rule. It is a fact, however, that some forms of manager chafe at having to treat employees with basic dignity and respect, let alone one who is a union steward and therefore his equal. You may have to remind the boss that the Fifth Circuit said the NLRA protects “against discipline for impulsive and perhaps insubordinate behavior that occurs during grievance meetings, for such meetings require a free and frank exchange of views…”
- Make it clear to management that you are here on behalf of your member(s)/contract/grievance investigation.
- Keep the heated discussions away from other employees, when possible (managers sometimes start things in front of the troops)
- It is legal to tell a supervisor that employees may picket his church if he keeps pissing them off