In Maine: IBEW Local 1837
16 Old Winthrop Road
Manchester, ME 04351
Phone: (207) 623-1030, Fax: (207) 621-8384
In New Hampshire:
680 Central Avenue, Suite 201
Dover, NH 03820
Phone: (603) 743-1652, Fax: (603) 743-1654

Member vs. Member Disputes Undermine Union



Sometimes members hang other members out to dry.
Sometimes members hang other members out to dry.

October 28, 2008 - Union stewards and officers continue to spend a significant amount of time and energy contending with large problems resulting from conflicts between IBEW 1837 members. Some small problems became larger ones when members chose to escalate their disagreements to the point where representatives of management became active players in their disputes.


“Sometimes there are problems when one union member thinks that another member is doing something wrong like not following the terms of our contract or mistreating other employees,” said IBEW 1837 Business Manager Cynthia Phinney. “If the first thing that they do is go to management, instead of trying to work it out or consulting their shop steward, we may end up in the unfortunate situation of being unable to do anything to help.”

Once management has become involved in the process, our Union may lose the ability to mediate a disagreement between our members. Instead, our Union may wind up having to defend one employee or the other – or sometimes both of them – from whatever action that management decides to take. “This gives the Company the upper hand,” said Assistant Business Manager Bill Dunn, “and it really gives them control over everything. In some cases, it is management’s responsibility to deal with it, but the lingering negativity makes it worth our effort to intervene before it gets to that point.”

That lingering long-term negativity can poison any hopes of Union solidarity, hurting our relationships with each other and even undercutting our strength at the bargaining table. “When members are fighting among themselves, it divides us up and undermines our ability to work together in a unified way to improve things in the workplace,” said Sister Phinney.

Many of these disputes are sparked by changing rules and expectations in the workplace—changes that are not always clear to some of us—with the resulting misunderstanding quickly flaring into a serious problem. What was once considered appropriate or harmless workplace behavior or language is no longer acceptable. Ideally, if a co-worker is saying or doing something that is upsetting you, try to talk to them about it in a reasonable way. That may be enough to fix the problem and even earn the respect of your co-worker for not turning it into a bigger issue. 
Once management becomes involved in a situation, they may have an obligation – or may feel that they have an obligation – to take drastic steps. Our members and our Union may lose control of the situation, and what they thought might lead to an oral reprimand could actually lead to a suspension without pay – or worse.

“We should try to work out interpersonal workplace differences amicably on the first round, or at least talk to your steward and see if they can help out,” said Assistant Business Manager Tom Ryan. “When our members can’t work out their problems with each other it can be very tough on our stewards and everyone in the workplace.”

Brother Ryan does draw one important distinction when it comes to safety violations: “If you see one of your co-workers doing something unsafe, you should talk to them immediately, rather than waiting to talk to your steward or management. Your first concern should be to stop them from injuring themselves or hurting someone else.”

Let’s take a quick look at a positive example of our members working together to improve relations in their workplace: At one of our companies our Union members were confronted by a management team that was consistently yelling at employees, thereby making it a difficult workplace. Our members could have taken their cue from the Company and perpetuated this atmosphere by yelling at each other, too. Instead, they chose to encourage each other by commending their fellow Union members for their good work, and they continue to seek to help each other out to make it a better place to work—in spite of their managers.

“There are situations where people could think about the well-being of their work group and their Union but they focus instead on their personal short-term goals,” said Sister Phinney. “As Union brothers and sisters, we can play a major role in looking out for each other, or we can allow small upsets and petty disagreements to balloon into large problems.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The Current, IBEW 1837's quarterly newsletter. If you're a member but haven't received a copy of The Current, please notify your steward or the union office.