One of my least pleasant but certainly most important roles as a steward was to represent a fellow employee who was going through the process of being terminated. I was in a lot of termination hearings over the years and I never saw two alike. But my duties as the Steward were always the same. My most last one was no exception.
This driver had been involved in an intersection accident, a tier 3 accident which fit the criteria of a “serious accident” for which you can be discharged without going through the 3 step disciplinary process of warning, suspension and then termination. This driver wasn’t in my center but I was leaving the building late one morning when the shit hit the fan and I was called in to represent him. I grabbed my union book, told my center manager I was going to need help with my air stops and put on my game face. I met my newest friend and we went into the office.
A Steward has to remember that he is on equal footing with management in any office situation. You have some things that you can do to control the meeting. The first thing I always do is get out my notebook and start writing. I make sure I’ve got a clean sheet of paper, I take names and I note the time and place. If management is being bullish, you can knock them down a peg before they even get started by asking something they don’t expect. “Are you still in this office, I heard you were going to the midnight hub?” That takes the point off their arrow for a minute and gives you a chance to settle in.
The company has to lay out their case first. If the company just lays out their case then, without hesitation, I take the driver outside and ask him what happened. If management starts right off fishing, asking the driver what happened yesterday, I object. I ask point blank, “Why are we here?” The Steward has the right to know the purpose of the meeting and if that means you and the manager have to step outside and talk first, then that’s what must happen. Then, when the questioning begins again, I call a halt and take the member outside. I tell him what they suspect and get his side of the story. Then I can advise him on what to say and sometimes, on what not to say.
In this case of the driver involved in the tier 3 accident, I told him up front that this was going to end in his termination. He looked scared. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it wasn’t over by any means, that we would fight to get him reinstated and that the most important thing for him to do was to take responsibility for his role in the accident. It wasn’t the fault of the setting sun in his eyes, it wasn’t the fault of the 20 year old truck with no power. It wasn’t the other driver’s fault even though they could have stopped but didn’t. Be factual, keep it simple. If the driver is in the meeting and gets a bad case of motor mouth, I take him outside again and tell him that a pause in the conversation does not mean it’s his turn to talk. Look at your hands, look at the walls, look at me, I don’t care what, but don’t feel the need to fill every pause with another explaination. You can say too much. It’s hard to take back something you said, it’s easy to add more later if you didn’t say enough.
Meanwhile, I’m taking notes. Lots of notes. That serves two purposes. It slows the meeting down and it gives me a good picture later of exactly what was said. As soon as possible, certainly within 24 hours, I wll go back over my notes and if necessary, write up a summary in a more clear, concise form. That way I can give it to the BA when I turn in my grievance. Note taking is vital to good representation.
Once all the facts are on the table and it’s obvious the company is going to terminate the driver, I again step outside with my driver and explain what is going to happen. They are going to take your ID. They may escort you off the property and if they do, go quietly, don’t talk about the case, not now, not later. No phone calls to the manager, I don’t care what your wife says, don’t call anyone but me or the Business Agent. I fill out the grievance and I get his signature on it. I leave the “contract article violated” section blank until the company announces what article they are using and then I can take out the grievance and fill it in. Before going back in I punch the grievance in the time clock. I give the grievant my phone number and the phone number of the business agent and tell him to write up a statement. Don’t wait a week, write it up today. You can go over it with the BA and fine tune it later, but write it up while the details of the accident are fresh in your mind. If the termination is for an accident, I urge the driver to take home a copy of the 5 seeing habits and the 10 point commentary. Study them, be able to recite them if called upon to do so at the termination hearing. Don’t talk to anyone about the accident. Don’t call the other driver and try to get them on your side or ask them to write a statement. Be positive.
The next step is the termination hearing and while this is basicly handled by the BA, the Steward’s role is important here also. I call my grievant every week to make sure he is doing OK. I urge them to file for unemployment. It gives him something to do and a way to maybe get some money. I tell him to wear something nice to the meeting. Keep it simple, no gaudy jewelry, no wild clothes. Look like a driver, not like a person enjoying a vacation. Be polite, not combative. It’s OK to be nervous, this is an important meeting. On the day of the meeting, when my driver shows up, I try to hang with him. Make him feel that he has a friend. It’s not just him against UPS, it’s us. The BA is usually busy and I try to dance between the BA and the driver. Every fired employee will ask you what his chances are. I try to be honest but not overly optimistic. It’s better that he be pleasantly surprised than cruelly disappointed. The hardest part of the job sometimes in being honest.
In the termination hearing with the business agent, I like to have the member sit between us. I again take notes, I listen, I let the BA do his job. I’m always asked by the BA if I have anything to add and I always do. Sometimes, it’s to remind the company of the hard work the driver has put in over the years and of the cost of training new drivers. I say something positive about the driver sitting so nervously beside me. I try not to be confrontational or cut down the company’s case. I’m not trying to change the company, that battle can be fought later. Then we step outside and we wait.
I always feel that the longer the company takes to reach a decision the better. If they are hard set against bringing this guy back, then there isn’t much to talk about. But if we’ve done a good job on the Union side, then they have some fat to chew and the longer they chew the better I feel. It’s a nervous time for the terminated employee. He will always ask how he did. I always say he did real good unless it’s obvious he wasn’t prepared. If he was asked to recite the 5 seeing habits and didn’t know them, then I tell him to get to studying because we will probably be going to panels and he will have another chance. If he recited them but was so nervous he got the order wrong, that’s OK. He did good. We have a chance.
During this process you learn alot about a driver, his home life, hi
s personality, his feelings about the job. I’ve seen guys who I felt needed professional help and I’ve told them so. I’ve seen guys that loved their families so much and felt so bad about letting them down that it made my heart ache. I’ve seen guys cry and I’ve felt like crying a few times myself. The waiting for a decision is the hardest part because there isn’t anything else you can do. It’s up to the company.
When we go back in the company may have another question. This is not a time to present new evidence or start an argument. But most often, they begin to present their decision. Within a few sentences you can tell what they have decided. The waiting is over. They announce their decision. If they can’t reinstate the guy, then we are going to panels and the meeting is over. We pick up our stuff and leave. I tell the member what the panel is like, how the tables are set up, to expect a court reporter, what the consequences if we lose. But if they take the guy back, then it’s a happy day. We go outside and enjoy some nervous laughter, we shake hands all around, maybe even hug. I urge him to call home and let his family know. I look outside and the sun is shining and the world is bright. It’s a good day to be a Steward.