Journal of Nursing Education

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The Nurse As Grievance Officer

Robert E Leftwich, RN, PhD

Abstract

In the 1960s and 1970s the emphasis in nursing education began shifting from associate degree and diploma programs to university-based education for nurses. Many nurse faculty members found themselves teaching in universities for the first time in their lives. Whether their previous work experiences had been in technical training programs or in clinical practice, they were now confronted with a new and very unfamiliar environment called a university.

To make matters more complex, many schools of nursing were being developed in universities where the faculties were unionized. One of the first persons a new faculty member would meet on that first day of employment was probably a union representative who explained one's rights and responsibilities as a member of a unionized faculty.

As nurses clarified their values about the issue of working as a unionized professional and began to settle into their new professorial roles, they were recruited for union leadership and service. The purpose of this article is to describe a vital role for which nurses are well prepared to function through their professional training and practice. The role is that of grievance officer.

Rise of Academic Unions

Before examining the role of a grievance officer, it is important to consider two basic questions: (1) Why have university faculty joined labor unions?, and (2) Is faculty unionism compatible with professionalism?

To answer the first question one only needs to examine the histories of universities whose faculty have unionized in the last ten years. The historical backgrounds are similar whether the universities are privately or publicly financed. There is always a long history of inappropriate administrative decision making, misappropriations of budgets, abuses in personnel management, job insecurity as demonstrated by capricious firing of faculty on a regular basis, chronically low faculty salaries and poor fringe benefits, and lack of due process in faculty governance. In summary, administrative incompetence stimulates faculty to unionize. Fair and responsible administration negates the need for faculty unionization.

The second question is one that is debated by faculties who support and those who oppose unionization. More and more, university faculty have come to understand that the political and economic atmosphere demands that they become very active and speak collectively regarding the preservation of faculty rights, economic welfare, and governance in academe. In that regard the collective decision-making process between faculty and the various levels of administration is not only professional but also very democratic. When considering whether or not collective bargaining and professionalism and scholarly inquiry are compatible, one must look at the likely results of the use of this process. The experience of faculty unions thus far does not show that collective bargaining produces changes in the working conditions of faculty such as to make them no longer professional (Osborne, Ryor & Shanker, 1977). Therefore, it appears that professionalism and unionism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Thirty years ago faculty unionization in higher education was virtually unknown. Today's professoriat numbers approximately 400,000 and these professors are scattered over 2,000 institutions. Many of these institutions have unionized faculties. The rise of academic unions has been so great that in states like Florida, for example, all public college and university faculty are organized under one state-wide union of faculties. With over 350 baccalaureate and higher degree nursing education programs in this country today, it is safe to assume that many university nursing faculty already belong to academic unions and that nurse membership will increase in the future as unionization increases in universities (National League for Nursing, 1978, pp. 25, 32, 51).

The Grievance Process

The most important feature of any union is its labor-management contract. For aesthetic…

In the 1960s and 1970s the emphasis in nursing education began shifting from associate degree and diploma programs to university-based education for nurses. Many nurse faculty members found themselves teaching in universities for the first time in their lives. Whether their previous work experiences had been in technical training programs or in clinical practice, they were now confronted with a new and very unfamiliar environment called a university.

To make matters more complex, many schools of nursing were being developed in universities where the faculties were unionized. One of the first persons a new faculty member would meet on that first day of employment was probably a union representative who explained one's rights and responsibilities as a member of a unionized faculty.

As nurses clarified their values about the issue of working as a unionized professional and began to settle into their new professorial roles, they were recruited for union leadership and service. The purpose of this article is to describe a vital role for which nurses are well prepared to function through their professional training and practice. The role is that of grievance officer.

Rise of Academic Unions

Before examining the role of a grievance officer, it is important to consider two basic questions: (1) Why have university faculty joined labor unions?, and (2) Is faculty unionism compatible with professionalism?

To answer the first question one only needs to examine the histories of universities whose faculty have unionized in the last ten years. The historical backgrounds are similar whether the universities are privately or publicly financed. There is always a long history of inappropriate administrative decision making, misappropriations of budgets, abuses in personnel management, job insecurity as demonstrated by capricious firing of faculty on a regular basis, chronically low faculty salaries and poor fringe benefits, and lack of due process in faculty governance. In summary, administrative incompetence stimulates faculty to unionize. Fair and responsible administration negates the need for faculty unionization.

The second question is one that is debated by faculties who support and those who oppose unionization. More and more, university faculty have come to understand that the political and economic atmosphere demands that they become very active and speak collectively regarding the preservation of faculty rights, economic welfare, and governance in academe. In that regard the collective decision-making process between faculty and the various levels of administration is not only professional but also very democratic. When considering whether or not collective bargaining and professionalism and scholarly inquiry are compatible, one must look at the likely results of the use of this process. The experience of faculty unions thus far does not show that collective bargaining produces changes in the working conditions of faculty such as to make them no longer professional (Osborne, Ryor & Shanker, 1977). Therefore, it appears that professionalism and unionism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Thirty years ago faculty unionization in higher education was virtually unknown. Today's professoriat numbers approximately 400,000 and these professors are scattered over 2,000 institutions. Many of these institutions have unionized faculties. The rise of academic unions has been so great that in states like Florida, for example, all public college and university faculty are organized under one state-wide union of faculties. With over 350 baccalaureate and higher degree nursing education programs in this country today, it is safe to assume that many university nursing faculty already belong to academic unions and that nurse membership will increase in the future as unionization increases in universities (National League for Nursing, 1978, pp. 25, 32, 51).

The Grievance Process

The most important feature of any union is its labor-management contract. For aesthetic purposes, academic unions sometimes refer to this contract as a collective bargaining agreement. Professors seem to think that this term is less blue-collar oriented than the term contract. By whatever terminology, a contract is still a contract and contract law prevails in the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement. The contract spells out specific employee rights and benefits which have been agreed upon by the faculty union and the administration (e.g., labor and management). Both parties are legally bound to implement the contract as mutually agreed upon.

The heart of the contract is the grievance procedure. It is the mechanism which is used to enforce the contract. The union is responsible for pursuing grievances vigorously and effectively. The goal of grievance work is informed resolution or settlement of grievances. The union grievance officers play a key role in identifying, preparing, counseling, and presenting grievance cases through the resolution process. Grievance officers are union members (faculty) who have been authorized to process grievances for the union. As such, they perform a vitally important function in protecting faculty welfare through enforcement of the contract.

Grievance officers have three goals in implementing the grievance procedure. One goal is to understand and differentiate between problems covered by the contract and those that are not. The second goal is to learn how to assist grievants in proper use of the grievance procedure. The third goal is to make a full and good faith effort in resolving grievances on behalf of the union. The skills required for accomplishing these goals generally fall into two categories: (1) critical thinking skills, and (2) interpersonal skills. Many hours may be required to gather sufficient data in order to engage in useful discussions with the administration regarding the alleged grievance. At the time of filing a grievance, the professor must state in writing what kind of resolution or settlement he/she is seeking. As the grievance officer works up the case for the grievant, a decision must be made about the appropriateness of the resolution sought.

Interpersonal skills are critical to the resolution of a grievance. One-to-one confrontations and negotiations between the union grievance officer and the university administration's grievance officer are the means for resolving grievances. Early resolution of grievances is possible only if these two individuals are able to work effectively together. Frequently, much time is spent by the grievance officer trying to build trust and good faith bargaining with the administration in order to secure a fair and reasonable settlement of a grievance.

Why Nurses Make Good Grievance Officers

Baccalaureate and higher degree education in nursing teaches many of the skills that are required in grievance work. Interpersonal, critical thinking and leadership skills are the most important competencies for successful grievance work. Nursing practice is based on the nursing process which is a systematic, scientific protocol for problem-solving. The assessment phase of the nursing process employs many sophisticated skills for collecting data related to nursing problems. The same skills are needed for working up a grievance case. History taking and screening of information obtained is essential for compiling the complete data base for a grievance. The interpersonal processes for obtaining the facts in the case require the same skills as those needed for implementing the nursing process in clinical practice. Working with uncooperative grievants and administrators is no different from working with uncooperative patients, families, physicians, and hospital administrators. Knowledge and skill at handling the political machinations and power plays in health care are easily transferred to the university setting where the same behaviors are commonplace.

The professional nurse has experience in serving as an advocate for patients, families, and co-workers in clinical practice. The nurse does not find it unusual, therefore, to serve in an advocate role for faculty colleagues as a grievance officer. The nurse is also skilled in the processes of negotiation, collaboration, and compromise - skills that are requisite for effective performance as an advocate for faculty and as a grievance representative.

Factors to Consider Before Accepting a Position as Grievance Officer

Although nurse faculty members are well-prepared for grievance work, they should consider the following aspects of being a grievance officer before accepting such a position with an academic union.

TENURE: Tenure status in a university is a prime consideration in one's career. Before agreeing to serve as a grievance officer for a union, faculty should examine the tenure history in their respective universities to see if union officers have had difficulty in obtaining tenure. Regardless of faculty performance criteria for tenure, the tenure process is largely political in nature. If a non-tenured, probationary faculty member performs too competently as a union grievance officer and negotiates impressive settlements for faculty, the administration will perhaps look unfavorably upon the faculty member when the person's tenure review comes around. The union grievance officer's performance may be held against him/her because it threatens the administration and tenure may be denied. Therefore, it is advisable for all union grievance officers to be tenured faculty members so as to be protected while performing service for the union.

TIME: Grievance work is extremely time-consuming. In preparing a single grievance case it is not unusual to spend 50-100 clock hours. Prospective grievance officers must decide whether or not they can devote the time to grievance work that will be required. Much time will be spent at night and on weekends in preparing cases and counseling grievants.

ADVOCACY: Prospective grievance officers should consider what it would be like to constantly serve as an advocate for the faculty in unpleasant confrontations with the administration. The nature of the work naturally places the grievance officer in an adversary relationship with the administration.

PERSONAL GAINS: In considering whether or not to serve as a union grievance officer, faculty should take time to analyze what motivation and personal gains they see in such service. From the author's personal experiences and the experiences of fellow grievance officers on other campuses, it is clear that grievance work is a thankless job much of the time. Grievants are frequently dissatisfied with the settlements that are negotiated for them. One colleague stated that in five years he had never had any faculty members thank him for his work in negotiating retentions, promotions, salary increases, and cash settlements for them. The administration, likewise, rarely expresses any appreciation for the quality and quantity of work that a grievance officer performs. The rewards of grievance work are largely altruistic. However, the work also affords an opportunity to develop skills in labor relations and provides a variation in work routine as a faculty member. The experience as a grievance officer may also advance one's professional career by opening new leadership opportunities. The experience is of great value if one's career goal is to eventually become an administrator.

Conclusion

It is clear that nurse faculty are prepared to serve as grievance officers in academic unions. Due to the relative newness of both university education in nursing and academic unions, many nurse faculty are just now beginning to experience life as unionized professors. Opportunities abound for nurses to establish themselves as university faculty leaders through service as union grievance officers.

References

  • NLN Nursing Data Book Statistical Information on Nursing Education and Newly Licensed Nurses. New York: National League for Nursing, Division of Research, 1978.
  • Osborne, W. R., Ryor, J., Shanker, A. Three union leaders talk about the academic future. Change Magazine, 1977, 9(3), 30.

10.3928/0148-4834-19830901-12

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