Solving workplace problems

By: Cynthia Lee and Anna Alba

Clerical workers  formed our union to solve problems on the job and make the University a better place to work.  The U can be a good place to work, but not when problems get in the way. Here are some of the most common problems we hear about:

  • Supervisors who don’t listen, don’t seem to care, are disrespectful, play favorites,
  • or discriminate.
  • Doing work that’s in a higher classification without getting paid for it.
  • Having more work piled on without getting paid for it.
  • Short-staffing that prevents us from doing our best to help students, faculty, patients.
  • No chance to advance.
  • Hiring outsiders instead of promoting from within.
  • Pay that’s too low and no way to reach the top of our pay range.
  • Hiring new employees at the same pay as long-time employees.

If you’ve faced any of these problems, you’re not alone.

If you’re having a difficulty at work, it’s likely you’re not the only person with that problem. Remember, we’re often made to feel the issue is our fault – and if we feel isolated and helpless we don’t realize our power to work together for positive solutions.

Every two years our union negotiates the rules we and management operate by, and those rules are our contract.  You can see our contract at  You can contact the union at or 612-379-3918 to have a steward answer a question, too.

Negotiations are a push-pull between management wanting to limit employee rights and the union always pushing to expand those rights and our ability to solve problems on the job.
If management breaks a rule in the contract, employees have a certain number of days to respond by filing a grievance.   If you need to file a grievance, one of our union stewards will help you, especially if you’re facing discipline or dismissal.

But remember, many problems aren’t covered in the contract. The contract doesn’t address a lot of the problems we face in the workplace, but that shouldn’t limit our efforts to solve those problems, particularly when it comes to issues of unfairness and injustice. If the contract is helpful, use it – if not, continue fighting for your rights using these steps as a guideline:

1. Start talking to your coworkers about the problem.  Be casual and careful.

2. Invite your coworkers to a short meeting if you found they feel the way you do, and share at least some of your concerns. Keep the meeting short, 10-15 minutes, even hold it on a break or outside work if you don’t feel comfortable doing it at work.

3. Call our union office at 612-379-3918 to have a steward or an organizer join you in the meeting.  We can help. We have training and will ask you about the problems you’ve been having, and can work with you to organize a collective action with your coworkers if needed. We’ll keep it confidential if needed, too.

4. Agree on an action plan to involve your coworkers.  The more people stand up to say there is a problem, the more likely it is management will take it seriously and work with you to solve problems.

Here is an example of an action plan which U of M employees have used to successfully build support and win:

  • Write a petition or “open letter” and get it signed by your co-workers.
  • After you’ve collected signatures, go in a group to present the petition together to mnagement.  Ask them for a date and time to meet again
  • Hold a group meeting with management. Propose a date, time, and place when most workers can attend.  Get commitments ahead from your co-workers to attend the meeting and express their views.
  • If the problem concerns the general public or patients, consider alerting the news media, but make sure to first call the union.

5. Follow-up and keep organizing
Know that most problems aren’t solved in a single meeting or even on the first try. Some issues can be solved in weeks, others can take years of concerted effort. We can make compromises along the way but the real way to win is to be united and keep putting the pressure on management. Here are some winning

  • Report back to everyone after your first action.  You can work with your organizer or steward to figure out how to tell your fellow members what action was taken, and how management responded.
  • Keep it positive.  Stay focused on the solution, not on management’s excuses or negativity.
  • Thank everyone who participated the first time, then encourage everyone else to get involved the next time.  Keep asking others to get involved.
  • Remind everyone that solving problems takes time and solutions don’t happen overnight, but patience and persistence will pay-off.
  • Ask your organizer to bring in a co-worker from another area that has successfully organized to solve a similar problem in their workplace, and have everyone listen to them. Not only is this inspirational, it builds motivation and you can come up with great ideas for your situation.

Keep organizing, stay positive, know we’re in it together for the long haul, and we’ll keep making progress.  We Can Do It!