Organized labor can play an influential role in preventing and responding to workplace bullying, both as a safeguarding presence for workers and as a political and social force for positive change. For many years, I have regarded that role as one of unrealized potential. But recent developments give me considerable hope of ongoing partnerships with unions to address workplace bullying. In particular, more unions are getting behind the Healthy Workplace Bill, anti-bullying legislation that I authored to fill a significant gap in worker protections.
The Potential Role of Organized Labor to Combat Workplace Bullying
Unions can play an important role in preventing and responding to workplace bullying in at least four ways:
• Negotiate CBA Provisions — Unions should bargain for collective bargaining agreement provisions that protect their members against abusive supervision.
• Use Existing Contract Provisions — Even in the absence of specific protections against abusive supervision, the general substantive and procedural rights in an agreement may provide legal protections for a bullied union member.
• Educate Members and Resolve Disputes – Effective shop stewards can be trained to help to identify and resolve bullying situations, including those between union members. Unions can encourage a culture of safety and respect among their members.
• Support Legal Reform – Unions can back the enactment of anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill.
A Presentation with Coattails
Here in Massachusetts, I have been delighted over an unfolding collaboration that grew out of a presentation I gave in November 2007 to an assembly of several hundred Massachusetts union activists affiliated with the Service Employees Union International (SEIU) and the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE). I closed my talk by urging them to inject concerns about workplace bullying and abusive supervision into their contract negotiations.
A few months later, Greg Sorozan, president of one of the union locals and a national vice president of NAGE, informed me that as a follow up to that talk, all of the union locals affiliated with SEIU and NAGE were now bargaining over concerns about workplace bullying in their contract negotiations. In January 2009, Greg reported that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had agreed to include a “mutual respect” provision in their new contract that covered, among other things, bullying and abusive supervision. As a result, some 21,000 state workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that includes a workplace bullying provision.
This “mutual respect” provision is believed to be one of the first major American collective bargaining agreements to include express protections against bullying at work. It isn’t perfect: An alleged violation of the provision may be grieved, but it may not proceed to arbitration. This is a real limitation; it means that unresolved bullying charges will not proceed to arbitration, thus precluding a worker from obtaining an enforceable order to stop the behavior or to make an award. Nevertheless, it is a huge step forward to have a collective bargaining agreement that covers bullying and allows grievances to be filed when the behavior arises.
But wait, there’s more! Greg also joined a working group to lobby for introduction and passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill. He assigned the union’s lobbyist to seek a sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, and the result was that the State Senate assistant majority leader, Senator Joan Menard, agreed to be the lead sponsor. The bill is filed for the 2009-2010 session of the legislature as Senate Bill No. 699.
In sum, the promise of the labor movement rising up against workplace bullying is starting to become a reality. Let us hope this trend continues.
Previous post on Labor Notes report: Bullying and harassment of rank-and-file workers is on the upswing during this recession.
Collective bargaining language: Unions that are interested in bargaining over an abusive supervision provision are invited to contact me at email@example.com for suggested contract language. Please include your affiliation and other verifiable contact information.
Healthy Workplace Bill: The Healthy Workplace Bill provides a legal claim for severely bullied workers who can prove they were harmed by malicious behavior at work. It also provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward workplace bullying and includes provisions that discourage weak and frivolous lawsuits. For more information about efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, visit here.
For more about the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts