Navigating the Grievance Process

By Jeff Loesel, Manager, ALPA Representation Department, and John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Last year, ALPA’s Executive Council was tasked with assessing the value of creating an Association-wide resource to observe dispute-resolution practices among the union’s pilot groups. After careful consideration, ALPA’s president established the President’s Grievance Committee to offer guidance, provide resources, and promote best practices. Part 3 of this series of Air Line Pilot articles examines the grievance process and what it entails. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

One of the defined purposes of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which governs the dispute-resolution process for pilots employed by U.S. carriers, is “to provide for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements covering rates of pay, rules, or working conditions.” Likewise, the Canada Labour Code (CLC) states, “Every collective agreement shall contain a provision for final settlement without stoppage of work, by arbitration or otherwise, of all differences between the parties to or employees bound by the collective agreement, concerning its interpretation, application, administration, or alleged contravention.”

While the grievance process required under both these statutes follows a standard sequence, it differs in the way it’s administered from carrier to carrier—a reality that helped prompt the creation of the union’s new President’s Grievance Committee. For example, some pilot groups have negotiated pregrievance processes to help reduce the possibility for a backlog of cases. Others are using ALPA’s DART program, a system designed to promptly answer line-pilot questions, to facilitate grievance-filing efforts.

Under ALPA’s structure and the broad direction given by the statutes, ALPA master executive councils (MECs) have extensive discretion to identify their own best policies and procedures, an effort the President’s Grievance Committee was formed to support on a union-wide basis as well.

Getting Representation

In most cases, the initial information about a potential contract violation comes from an individual line pilot. If you’ve encountered a contract or policy violation at your carrier, speak with a pilot representative from your local council or a member of your Grievance or Contract Enforcement Committee. Contact information for these individuals is listed on your pilot group’s ALPA webpage or found through the ALPA app.

The union rep working with you will want to know the details about the events that occurred. For a contract issue, they may want a screenshot of your schedule; notes from a conversation you had with a crew scheduler or other management employee, including the name of the employee with whom you spoke; a copy of the reserve pilot assignment list; an ACARS message; or other documents that may be needed later in the process to prove the violation of the contract language or documented past practice. A grievance also must assert what the desired remedy is; namely, what resolution would make the pilot “whole” for the violation that occurred.

The next step typically entails an informal meeting with pilot management to discuss the matter. The exchange during this conversation may result in a remedy to the situation without the need for filing a formal grievance. Some contracts require pilots to complete this step prior to filing a formal grievance. If the concern isn’t resolved to your satisfaction, you may wish to press your case by filing a grievance.

A grievance can be filed for an individual, a few pilots, or the entire pilot group depending upon the nature of the infraction. Sometimes the grievance will be filed directly by the MEC, on behalf of all affected pilots, to expedite the resolution process.

Once the grievance is filed, a Grievance Committee member will request an initial hearing with pilot management. The hearing allows the two parties to review the facts of the case and establish a better understanding of each side’s position. Depending upon the outcome, a second-level hearing may be necessary. Keep in mind that each airline has its own levels of review at this stage of the grievance process.

One of four possible outcomes can be expected. At the conclusion of a hearing, a grievance can be

  • awarded, meaning management agrees with the pilot position as well as the remedy being sought;
  • settled, in which the two parties reach a compromise to resolve the issue;
  • denied, either on the merits of the grievance or the relief sought; or
  • withdrawn.

The outlined grievance process normally requires management to issue a written response following the meeting, noting which of the four outcomes management believes should apply and the rationale underlying management’s decision.

Appealing to a Higher Authority

If the dispute is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the process ends. However, if the grievant or pilot group objects to the grievance decision, which may include objecting only to an insufficient remedy, the MEC, after consulting with its Grievance Committee and ALPA lawyers, may want to appeal to the traditional arbitration tribunal called the system board of adjustment in the U.S. or to a single arbitrator in Canada.

As outlined in the RLA, a carrier with employees represented by a labor union is required to establish a system board of adjustment. The composition of the board, the limits of its jurisdiction, and the way it operates are all subject to the process provided in the collective bargaining agreement.

System boards normally consist of an equal number of labor and management members plus a neutral arbitrator. When deciding whether to pursue a grievance with a system board, a Grievance Committee must consider the cost of retaining an arbitrator, the impact the case could have on the pilot group, and the likelihood of successfully resolving the matter.

During a system board or arbitration session, both sides have a chance to assert their positions, call and cross-examine witnesses, and introduce or object to evidence. In contract violation cases, ALPA must prove that management’s action violated the contract or some past practice and must outline the damages and/or an appropriate remedy. In disciplinary cases, management has the burden of proof and must establish that the pilot failed to perform their duties or violated a rule or policy and that the assigned discipline was appropriate.

After careful consideration, the neutral arbitrator will present a proposed decision. In the U.S., if at least half of the other board members support this conclusion it’s issued as the decision of the board. A system board’s decision is conclusive, and its award is binding. In Canada, the sole arbitrator would issue a final and binding arbitration decision after following a similar hearing structure.

In recent years, ALPA pilot groups have begun to include the dispute-resolution process as part of their larger strategic plans. This addition originated from the reasoning that gains negotiated in collective bargaining—no matter how beneficial they may be—are worthless if management chooses not to honor them. Contract terms that are routinely violated can be a serious concern for ALPA pilot groups, making it imperative that they include considerations for contract enforcement as part of any strategic-planning effort.

In addition to MEC Grievance Committees, ALPA’s labor/labour relations counselors, who are ALPA lawyers, work with members and pilot groups during the grievance process, offering guidance and advice. With this support, the affected pilots have access to the resources and information they need to make the most of dispute resolutions. The grievance process underscores the importance of ALPA members being familiar with the terms of their labor contracts so that they understand when their rights are being violated and are readily prepared to defend them.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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