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Discipline Education Series: Using the F-bomb as a Union Steward

Apr 07, 2017
Discipline Education Series: Using the F-bomb as a Union Steward image

Using the F-bomb as a Union Steward

A recent case illustrates the leeway union stewards have in representing the union on the shop floor. This right stems from the union’s duty to negotiate and administer the CBA.

At a recent conference, 5 prominent labor arbitrators discussed the case and why the union president was not insubordinate or engaging in insubordinate activity.

The company was downsizing and bargaining unit members were bumping down, so there was tension in the plant. There were 6 pending grievances on work assignments;  the union had already won 2 in arbitration.  

To avoid filters, we will use the abbreviation. The union president walked by a supervisor who was doing bargaining unit work, and said to him, "You never F-ing learn your lesson, do you?"

The supervisor then told him to leave the area, and the grievant replied, "You’re not my F-ing boss.” The grievant walked away.

At the investigatory meeting, the grievant admitted to both statements. The company issued him a 10-day suspension for insubordinate attitude. At the hearing, the company argued that cursing a supervisor is not activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act (Section 7).

The union argued that the grievant was acting in his capacity as union president, and he should be made whole. Second, such language is common on the shop floor. The company admits to this latter point, but points out that it has never condoned profanity directed toward a supervisor.

Decision & Analysis
Four of the 5 arbitrators would throw out the discipline. One would reduce it to a written warning. Here is the analysis by the first four.

Read it back without the profanity.
If you read the grievant’s statements without the F-bombs, he was clearly acting as the union president addressing a work jurisdiction issue. Everyone would say that he’s doing his job. He is supposed to identify contract violations. For the second time in a day, he catches a supervisor doing bargaining unit work.

Is the F-word being used as an adjective/adverb?
The F-word is used in a variety of ways. One arbitrator explained that management has a different case if he had called the supervisor a mother-F.  In this case, he used the F-word as many of us use it. The profanity is modifying the action.  

He was not insubordinate.
He actually complied with the order. If there was a rule about insubordinate attitude, maybe there’d be some basis, but there was clearly not an insubordinate act.

Maybe an employee who happens to be union president can be insubordinate, but here, he is acting in his capacity as union steward and he is on equal footing with the company. The company is arguing that they can discipline him for insubordination in the way that they could discipline him as an employee. That is simply wrong under the NLRA.

What is the culture?
When these cases arose in the early days, with veterans returning from the war, there was a lot more tolerance for this language, maybe because it was so common. Today, we might be more sensitive because language can ramp up a tense situation. In this case, the union president’s role serves as insulation from discipline.

5th Arbitrator
The 5th arbitrator on the panel would impose a warning. A union president doesn’t have to be a diplomat, but he should not be contributing to the coarseness of the workplace. The warning is there to tell him to remember the labor-management relationship.