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The duty of fair representation is a responsibility of labor unions in the United States. Under the law, unions must represent all employees equally and without bias, including employees who are not members of the union. Acting as the negotiator on behalf of employees in a variety of situations, the union has a responsibility to represent their interests fairly and reasonably. If a union fails to fulfill this responsibility, there can be penalties, including suits filed by employees who feel they were not represented fairly.
The National Labor Relations Act plays a key role in spelling out the duty of fair representation, as does the Railway Labor Act. The duty of fair representation requires unions to evaluate all grievances equally and to proceed with reasonable claims. Unions are not required to present nuisance grievances or questionable claims, but if a claim is denied on the basis of discriminatory attitudes like racism or a dislike of the grievant, the union can get in trouble.
Union stewards are the first line of defense when it comes to upholding the duty of fair representation. All employees can approach the union steward to request assistance with a workplace problem. An employee can indicate an intent to file a grievance. The steward is bound to investigate and to document the investigation. If the steward feels the grievance has no merit, the union can choose not to pursue it. Representing all grievances is not possible and stewards can use some discretion, but usually choose to pursue a grievance if it has some merit and there is concern about a potential discrimination claim.
Employees claiming they were failed by their union stewards must be able to show the merit of a grievance and provide evidence of discriminatory attitudes. Someone who has been harassed for not joining the union, for example, might argue that a steward clearly viewed the grievance prejudicially and did not investigate it thoroughly or dismissed it even though it was valid. Keeping documentation on the process of reporting the grievance and requesting an investigation is recommended, as is noting the explanation provided by the steward if the union chooses not to follow up.
Labor unions have a number of other responsibilities under the law, not just a duty of fair representation. Collective bargaining agreements, where unions are allowed to negotiate on behalf of the whole workforce, are very powerful, and there is a potential for abuse. A union could make unreasonable concessions, for example, or could fail to represent workers reasonably in negotiations with their employer. Labor laws are used to hold unions accountable and set basic standards for behavior and operations.
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