The union contract empowers us as educators to do our jobs well. It includes articles and rights whose sole aim is to ensure that we have the resources, support and structures in place to do our best to educate our students. It gives us an important voice in the workplace and a mechanism for addressing problems.
The contract allows us to keep class size to an agreed-upon number, provides us with preparation time, gives us a say in our own professional development, provides a time for parent communication, includes vital whistle-blower protections in relation to special education referrals, protects the integrity of our grading system, ensuring that a supervisor can’t change the grades a teacher has given without written notification, and much more.
But inevitably, in the real world, disagreements and problems come up. What should you do if you feel your contractual rights have been violated?
First, speak with your chapter leader about possibly filing a grievance. If you cannot reach your chapter leader, you can speak to your district representative, or call or stop by your UFT borough office. The union is here to support you. Filing a grievance is the way members object to the Department of Education’s violation of the contract or of established DOE policy and practice as embodied in bylaws, circulars, personnel memoranda or Chancellor’s Regulations.
Article 22A of the UFT teachers contract defines a grievance as a complaint by a UFT member “that there has been as to him/her a violation, misinterpretation or inequitable application of any of the provisions of this Agreement, or that he/she has been treated unfairly or inequitably by reason of any act or condition which is contrary to established policy or practice governing or affecting employees.”
Don’t delay. While time frames to file grievances vary from contract to contract, most grievances must be filed within 30 school days of the incident; after that, there’s little the union can do through the grievance process to correct the situation. Be aware that some grievances, such as those regarding per session and reorganization issues, have a shorter time frame.
Your chapter leader can explain the grievance process to you, including possible ways to resolve your complaint without having to resort to a grievance. If your complaint is not resolved, the chapter leader can assist you in preparing and filing a formal grievance.
If your complaint is technically not a violation of contract provisions, your chapter leader can still help by suggesting other methods of resolving the conflict, whether through informal meetings or more formal avenues such as consultation. Even if the chapter leader doesn’t agree that your complaint is covered by the contract, as a UFT member you still have the right to initiate a grievance.
It is important to note that the same article also emphasizes it is the “declared objective” of the UFT and the DOE to encourage “the prompt and informal resolution” of employee complaints and that resolution should occur at the earliest possible step.
At Step 1, the chapter leader, at the member’s request, uses the union’s electronic system to file the grievance, with copies given to you, your district rep, and the principal or appropriate supervisor. You should keep copies of all supporting documents relevant to your grievance.
Upon receiving the grievance, the principal must arrange a grievance conference with you and your chapter leader. Be prepared for this meeting.
In most cases, let the chapter leader do the talking. The chapter leader will present your case, the part of the contract you believe has been violated and the remedy you seek. If the principal offers a resolution that’s different from your proposed remedy, you should have a private conversation with the chapter leader about the issue before accepting or rejecting the resolution.
Sometimes just the act of talking things over gets results. In cases in which the issue is a misunderstanding or your principal was not aware of the problem, the grievance can be resolved in a mutually acceptable way in that Step 1 grievance conference. Sometimes supervisors back down when it’s clear that the union won’t drop the grievance.
If the matter is not resolved, the principal must issue a written decision within five school days of receiving the grievance. If the grievance is denied, the reasons for the denial must be in the decision. Upon receiving the decision from your principal, be sure to immediately send a copy of the decision and any additional relevant documentation to your district representative.
If the principal denies your grievance, the union has 15 school days to file a Step 2 chancellor’s level grievance. The union must investigate the denial, but it can appeal to the chancellor’s representative at Step 2. Only the union may appeal or initiate grievances at Step 2.
The UFT’s grievance committee in each borough meets to decide which of the grievances denied at Step 1 should proceed to Step 2. In making its decision, the committee discusses the merits of each case, keeping in mind that arbitration decisions set precedents for all members.
It is important that you provide the borough committee with all relevant documentation through your UFT district representative. The member has the right to appeal the borough committee’s decision to the Grievance Department.
The UFT borough office will assign a grievance advocate to represent you at the Step 2 hearing at the DOE Office of Labor Relations. The chapter leader also has the right to be present at the hearing and should attend. Following the hearing, the chancellor’s representative will issue a written decision. The decision is usually issued via email to your DOE email address. The union also receives a copy of all chancellor’s level decisions.
A grievance dispute that was not resolved at Step 2 may be submitted by the union to an arbitrator for a decision. The UFT Grievance Department reviews all Step 2 decisions to determine whether they have sufficient merit to proceed to arbitration. By contract, the UFT has 200 arbitration hearing dates per year.
Filing grievances is one of the important things the UFT does for members. Even when you have a terrific supervisor, knowing your rights under a legally binding contract is important.
New contractual rights
Under the 2014 contract, violations of the new systemwide paperwork standards can be grieved now.
Also, for the first time, a UFT member may file a grievance in response to the DOE’s failure to provide curriculum in the five core subjects.
Contract enforcement works when employees take the initiative to formally object to a violation by filing a grievance. We have rights. It is extremely important that we use our professional voice and see that those rights are respected and enforced.