Robins, Union working to reduce grievance numbers

Last week, 13WMAZ told you about production problems at Robins, that could hurt its standing in a likely 2017 round of BRAC, or Base Realignment and Closure.

Now, we're highlighting a different issue that could also throw a wrench in Robins' future.

Numbers provided by the group that oversees Robins, the Air Force Sustainment Center in Oklahoma, show the number of grievances filed by Robins union employees are grossly out-of-line with its two competitors, Hill Air Force Base and Tinker Air Force Base.

Last week, Henry Brown, a logistics manager at Robins and union member, joined about 80 other members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 987 in a class on becoming a union steward.

Brown said, "The art is communicating."

He believes union and base leaders haven't done enough communicating, leading to grievance statistics like this:

Last fiscal year Robins union employees filed 492 grievances. Then, for the first quarter of this year, 148.

Compared that to the nations two other Air Logistics Complexes:

Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma had 174 grievances last year, and 36 in the first quarter of FY '14.

At Hill Air Force Base in Utah, 120 workers filed grievances in FY '13, and just 36 so far this year.

AFGE 987 Union president Robbie Tidwell said, "Our numbers are high. We're currently talking with Tinker and Hill. How have they been successful to keep those numbers down?"

Tidwell believes one of the answers is education. He said, "By better educating, training our stewards up front, they know the difference between a grievance and a gripe."

He says they better understand the contract between the Air Force and the Union, called the Master Labor Agreement.

Workers know when it's violated and how to resolve problems, possibly, before they become formal complaints.

Robins Commander Col. Chris Hill is working the issue from the management side.

He said, "The rules are clearly outlined in the Master Labor Agreement. That's what were focused on."

Hill says Robins leaders may have fallen away from strictly following the rules, over a number of years. He says they're now focused on doing that, voluntary employee safety programs and building relationships with union leaders.

Hill says he's seen progress on that front in the past 90 days. He said, "The tone and tenor of that engagement has been very positive."

The communication hasn't changed the grievance numbers yet, but Hill said the numbers don't tell the whole story.

He said, "While the number of grievances remains the same, the number of people filing grievances is significantly lower than in FY '13."

By that, he means that one person could be responsible for dozens of complaints.

Outside the union steward training, Brown said, "What I think you have is a finite number of people who have either a real or imagined challenge in their life, and when you can talk it out with someone, you don't have to file a grievance."

Brown believes that kind of open communication between workers and supervisors may help solve the problem and help secure Robins future.

This issue isn't new to Robins.

Union president until last November, Tom Scott, said managers needed to look at the root cause of grievances, before the numbers could be successfully reduced.

Next Tuesday, the local union will redo the election that unseated Scott and made Tidwell president. That's because of some ballots found in a trash can.

Tidwell and base leaders were hesitant to talk about the grievance problem, saying they often see a spike in complaints, when the topic is in the news.


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