The Role of Unions and Collective Bargaining in Combating Workplace Bullying

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 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

9 responses

  1. Social Security Administration and AFGE has had an anti bully contract provision since 1999. It requires all employees (including management) to treat others with dignity and respect. It is arbitrable however to date I don’t believe that anyone has litigated the language. That doesn’t mean that there is no bullying in SSA; merely that no one has chosen to litigate over that provision that I wrote into the contract hoping that it would be used to deal with the significant bullying in the agency.

  2. Carol, thanks for your comment and info. I’m surprised that in over 10 years, there have been no arbitrable complaints brought under the provision. Is there an explanation that you feel comfortable sharing?

    (Readers, Carol Fehner is one of a handful of steadfast labor pioneers on workplace bullying.)

  3. I have forwarded your information to my union. In my job as a child custody mediator, I was bullied by court administration/management for over 4 years and am out of work on disability as a result of this abuse and am pursuing a worker’s comp. claim. My union was sympathetic and somewhat helpful with early grievances, but over time stopped responding to my requests for help, which left me with no safety net whatsoever for performing this emotionally dangerous job. Although I appreciate that my union has limited resources and their answer may have been “no, we can’t or won’t help you, this stonewalling of me by my union has increased by a lot my distress over the bullying.

    • Vicki, I’m sorry to hear about your situation. If more unions had contract provisions covering bullying, it would give them more direct ammunition to help members such as you. Thanks for your comment, and good luck to you as you move toward something better. Best, David

      • Thank you, David. I have always been very supportive of my union, even served on the Board, so I am eager to have unions be empowered on this issue.

  4. I am a shop steward and I have had several members come up to me and talk to me about harrassment. I am in SEIU in California. Most members are feared of retaliation. I have spoken to my co-union leaders, and union leaders about this subject. I have convinced them to engage in an audit of departments consisting with the company policies as well as the contractual language. I had recognized workplace bullying and as a scare tactic, I had filed a grievance on the manager who had engaged in such behavior. This tactic worked in the sense that They had moved on to another employee, which ceased when I became their shop steward. I have also, gone to my contract specialist, and business representative to talk about stronger contract language in the next bargaining agreement to be negotiated in 2010. I have also educated members on the signs of workplace bullying. Hoping to stop the instance before it starts. I am going to run for my Bargaining Unit Team for 2010. If I’m not elected, I’m hoping that I may, in some way, convince the bargaining team to add the provision. I wanted to know if there was anything else I can do. Please advise.

    • Michelle, I’m sorry to hear that folks in your local have been dealing with this. As far as how to respond, I think my main suggestions are in that blog post: (1) Bargain over an abusive supervision provision in your next contract (if you want some suggested language, e-mail me at and (2) Help galvanize your union to support anti-bullying legislation (California Healthy Workplace Advocates is active in your state and looking for support). You’ll find excellent general info in Gary & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2009 ed.), available in an affordable paperback. Good luck in dealing with this! David

  5. Pingback: Study from India: HR aggravates workplace bullying experiences « Minding the Workplace

  6. Ironically, I experienced bullying behavior from another union member. I recently resigned my post as Vice President of ACE AFT 6554 in California. The union Secretary bullied me for a year–falsely accusing me of mishandling money, thwarted my work in the PAC, sent malicious rumors about me, among other acts.

    I’ve found after reporting this to HR for my community college district that their newly established anti-bullying policy doesn’t cover my situation. In fact, the bullying is protected under “union-related speech”.

    I quit my post due to health reasons and the bully is still there–intimidating new targets.

    So much for unions protecting workers rights and working conditions.

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