I agree that as practiced by most unions, grievance resolution has become the legalistic preserve of union bureaucrats, technocrats, and attorneys. But it does not need to be so. Let me illustrate with one example:
In the typical case, a worker with a problem approaches her steward. The steward may investigate, then the steward & worker meet with the supervisor. If the matter is unresolved, a formal grievance is written and the supervisor's determination is appealed. At this point a chief steward and the grievant meet with the manager. If the grievance remains unresolved, it is appealed to arbitration. (I recognize that procedures vary and I illustrate here a simple one. Some procedures have joint committees, and other steps.) In some unions the decision to arbitrate is determined by vote of the members; in others it is a determination made by union officers. The grievance now sits in the queue awaiting its turn, which can take from months to years. By the time the grievance is arbitrated, any semblance of redress is rendered meaningless.
Alternative scenario: The worker meets with the steward and then they meet with the supervisor. If unresolved, the steward convenes a meeting of the work group, where the worker presents an account of what occurred. The steward asks if this has happened to others. She asks if everyone there could imagine that it could happen to them. They then discuss what they can do as a group to solve the problem. Most contracts provide a front-end time limit for filing a written grievance (7-90 days is not uncommon). Rather than immediately file a written grievance, the workers organize to squeeze the supervisor for a resolution they can accept. The grievance is no longer the problem of a single worker; it becomes the property of all of them. They go en masse to the supervisor and demand a meeting. They don stickers, wear black armbands, work to rule, refuse overtime (assuming it is voluntary), and do other things designed to communicate their discontent and that there will be no peace without justice.
If the supervisor does not relent by the end of the time limit for filing, a grievance is filed. But the workers do not let go of it. They all sign the grievance. Under most contracts the grievant has a right to be present when her grievance is being considered. They all insist on being present for the meeting of the chief steward with the manager. They work out ahead of time who will make which arguments so that everyone contributes. In effect, this becomes a legal, fully protected work stoppage, even if the contact forbids strikes and other stoppages during the term of the contract. If it continues to be unresolved, the workers escalate their campaign in the workplace and issue a bulletin to workers in other departments who take up the cause. While a piece of paper has left the facility and is being processed in the customary bureaucratic manner, the workers refuse to let go of the issue and continue to pound away on the supervisor.
Whatever the outcome of the "legal" case, the supervisor has to think twice in the future about whether to settle a complaint. If he is inclined to take a tough stand, at some point management will begin to question whether this supervisor is appropriate and question why he can't seem to control "his" people and get the work out. The supervisor has to wonder whether all this fuss will begin to affect his own evaluation and annual review.
I have often told newly organized workers that they can fire their boss if they are smart about it and act collectively and with discipline. They may be incredulous at first, but the scenario I suggest above has in fact resulted in just that in a number of instances. We have allowed our unions to become trapped in the tar pit of legalistic and technical grievance procedures that are intended precisely to move resolution away from the site of the grievance's origin to the well regulated and controlled environment of first the union office, then the lawyers office, and the class-biased system of compulsory arbitration. But it does not have to be that way if workers are determined to "own" the grievance and its resolution, and the union adopts a strategic stance with respect to how the grievance procedure can be restored as an arena of class struggle rather than class collaboration.
I have more to say about the class bias of arbitration, but I've said more than my share already. I think this exhausts my quota for today.
In solidarity, Michael