Grievance disparity at Robins apparently not related to filing differences at depots

wcrenshaw@macon.comMay 13, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- A significant disparity in the number of grievances filed at Robins Air Force Base and the Air Force’s other two depots apparently is not related to differences in how grievances are handled at the installations.

On April 4, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, called out union and base leaders for poor relations. As evidence, he cited figures that showed Robins had more grievances filed last year than the other two depots combined, and that trend was continuing this year.

McMahon, who now leads the 21st Century Partnership, called the issue the number one threat to Robins in the event of a Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has been proposed for 2015.

Some in the community have suggested the difference may be related to how grievances are filed at the three depots. Specifically, the belief was that workers at Robins were filing multiple grievances over the same issue, where the unions at the other two depots would combine those into a single grievance on behalf of a group.

However, union leaders at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, said that is not the case.

Meanwhile, base and union leaders at Robins said they have made significant progress in recent weeks to improve relations. Those include requiring all supervisors to pass a test on The Master Labor Agreement. Also, for the first time, both sides have agreed to meet monthly to discuss issues.

Union leaders at other depots speak

Troy Tingey, union president at Hill, said group grievances are not filed there. He said it is not allowed under the Master Labor Agreement, under which all of the depots operate. Officials at Robins also said group grievances are not allowed under the agreement.

However, James Schmidt, union president at Tinker, said group grievances are sometimes filed there, but only once or twice per year and typically representing five to 20 employees who may be impacted by a single issue.

“I would not attribute that to the difference,” he said.

When a worker brings an issue to the union’s attention at Tinker, he said, the union typically calls management and action is taken without a grievance being filed. He said from what he understands about Robins, management here has not been as responsive.

At a meeting with community leaders, McMahon provided figures that showed 328 grievances were filed at Robins in fiscal 2012, compared to 142 at Hill and 110 at Tinker. All three have about the same size workforce.

When grievances aren’t resolved, the complaint goes to arbitration, in which an independent panel hears both sides and makes a ruling. One arbitration hearing can cost the union and management thousands of dollars each. At Robins there were 229 arbitrations in fiscal 2012 compared to 64 at Hill and 32 at Tinker.

Tom Scott, union president at Robins, said the arbitration figure is skewed because there was a backlog of arbitrations from previous years that are being done this year.

He said he could not speak to whether policy differences at the three depots might contribute to the disparity in the number of grievances because he was not familiar with procedures at the other two depots.

He did question that the Master Labor Agreement doesn’t allow group grievances. He said he believes it does allow it if both parties agree.

He also said the union would rather file single grievances on behalf of a group but the base doesn’t allow it.

At all three bases, union grievances are sometimes filed over issues such as policy that impact the entire membership, but that is different from a group grievance related to specific people.

Scott fires back

Scott recently lambasted McMahon in the union’s newspaper, The Union Advocate, over McMahon’s comments about the grievance issue. Although McMahon blamed both sides for the problem, Scott said McMahon implied that workers are “selfish and spoiled.”

“These are hard-working employees that only file complaints when there are issues arising from the workplace, which is less than three percent of over 10,000 employees,” Scott wrote.

He also said McMahon never developed a plan to reduce grievances when he served as commander.

A separate unsigned editorial in the paper stated “Why do we have a higher rate of complaints than the other facilities? Because we have a higher rate of dishonest and stupid managers ... case closed!”

In an interview in his office at the union hall Friday, Scott said he is seeing positive signs toward improving labor/management relations. McMahon and Scott had previously said some supervisors at the base do not follow the Master Labor Agreement, and that generates many of the grievances.

However, the base is now requiring more training on the agreement. Scott said he is hopeful that could have a positive impact.

Scott said recently some grievances were filed, and many more were likely, over a decision to move about 200 sheet-metal workers into painters’ positions because the base had too many sheet-metal workers in some areas. Scott said the base never discussed that decision with the union until notices went out, and many workers were upset.

However, after talks between the union and management, an agreement was reached that addressed the workers’ concerns, and Scott said that prevented more grievances from being filed.

“Anytime you have an adverse action, if you actually brought us in beforehand to actually mitigate the situation so we can explain it to the employees before you lower the boom down, there wouldn’t be all these grievances,” he said.

Installation commander says progress has been made

Centerville Mayor John Harley, who served in the Air Force at Robins and has close ties with both union and management, said he does not believe labor and management relations are that much worse at Robins than Tinker and Hill. That’s why he still suspects that policy differences at the three depots are related to the disparity.

“I feel like it is, but I have no way of being able to prove it,” he said. “I feel like there are some procedures or something that is different. There are a lot of little intricate things out there they can do.”

He said he believes significant progress in union and management relations has been made since McMahon’s comments, and both sides are making an effort to improve communication.

Col. Mitchel Butikofer, 78th Air Base Wing commander and installation commander, addressed the grievance issue in a column in the base newspaper, The Robins Rev Up, shortly after McMahon’s comments. He urged base and union leaders to follow the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“It’s time to understand that Robins cannot succeed if we don’t address our labor relations head on,” he wrote.

In an interview Friday, he said the base has taken unprecedented steps in recent weeks to improve relations with the union. That includes the mandatory eight-hour class on the Master Labor Agreement for all supervisors. For the first time, they have to pass a test on the agreement, and if they don’t make at least a 90, they have to take the class again.

Butikofer also said additional training is now required on personnel matters not covered in the labor agreement, such as timecards.

Previously, he said, labor and management held forums quarterly to discuss issues, but have recently agreed to meet monthly, which is also a first.

But perhaps most important, the base has agreed to involve the union before making any decisions that may impact the workforce.

Butikofer said he is seeing real progress in improving relations between labor and management.

“The last month has been the best I have seen in the 23 months I have been here,” he said. “We are not there. We are not even close to being there, but I believe we have a commitment from all parties involved to reach that goal.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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