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Can Management Impose "Blanket" Discipline?
Savvy consumers shopping for clothes have learned to be more than a tad suspicious of the reassuring words, "One size fits all."
People come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and a garment to fit every one would probably look like-well, like a blanket, a shapeless hunk of cloth that really fits nobody.
Although most of us recognize the fallacy of "one size fits all," Postal Service managers seem to be slow learners. Almost every NALC steward has encountered the idea of blanket discipline or table of penalties management directives that mandate the same kind of discipline for every infraction of a certain rule, no matter what the circumstances may be.
Blanket discipline is not merely a bad idea-it violates the National Agreement. Article 16, Discipline Procedure, requires that USPS management administer discipline only for just cause. When managers blindly apply blanket discipline or table of penalties, they have failed that requirement.
A recent regional arbitration decision (C- 16436) offers insight into the ways that management attempts to use blanket discipline or table of penalties and the arguments that will prevail against such attempts. In this case, the arbitrator sustained the NALC's grievance of a seven-day suspension imposed on a letter carrier who was involved in an at-fault vehicle accident.
As an examination of the case reveals, the union had a number of points that would have prevailed. The arbitrator, however, considered only one argument-that the discipline had been ordered by higher management, rather than by the grievant's immediate supervisor. The arbitrator cited the existence of a district-wide memo requiring that certain types of discipline be given for safety violations as evidence that higher management had usurped the discipline decision in violation of Article 16 of the contract.
Neither side disputed the fact that the grievant had caused a vehicle accident by hitting an approaching vehicle while backing out of a patron's driveway. Also, the parties agreed that up to this point, the grievant had no discipline or any previous accidents on his record for the 24 years he had been a carrier.
According to the grievant, he had been following a practice of nine years in pulling into the driveway, delivering the mail and then backing out into the street. At the moment of collision, his speed had been under five miles per hour. In examining the car he had hit, the grievant himself had to point out the damage to the other driver because the damage was so minor.
Eleven days after this incident, the carrier received a letter from his supervisor informing him that he would be suspended for seven days as a result of the incident. The union grieved the suspension and the grievance proceeded through the girevance-arbitration procedure.deny that the grievant had been in an at-fault vehicle accident. However, the union argued that the seven-day suspension was a violation of the contract in many ways.
First, Article 16 requires that discipline be corrective, not punitive. For this reason discipline must be progressive in nature. To jump directly to a seven-day suspension for such a minor accident for a carrier with an otherwise spotless record is clearly a violation of these requirements and constitutes the imposition of punitive discipline.
Also, the NALC presented evidence indicating that the grievant's immediate supervisor did not have full responsibility for the discipline decision. The NALC steward testified that the supervisor had stated that discipline would be issued only after a consultation with the postmaster and with people at the district level. At the hearing, the supervisor testified that normally the accident would have resulted in discipline no greater than a letter of warning, but because a directive had been issued from the district, the supervisor was required to take a tougher stance on accidents.
The union presented the text of this district directive, which was issued a month before the grievant's accident. In the directive, the district manager stated, "The increase in accidents, injuries and associated costs are far above our goals and is a trend which must be reversed. Therefore, effective immediately, any violation of a safety rule or procedure will result in discipline."
The memo went on to state that violations of safety rules that "display extreme carelessness" will "normally" result in a suspension, "regardless of the employee's past record of accidents/injuries."
The union advocate argued that the existence of this memo effectively removed discretion from the carrier's immediate supervisor either to make the decision whether to issue discipline or to resolve the grievance at Step 1.
The Postal Service advocate responded by stating that the grievant had clearly been involved in an atfault vehicle accident, a clear violation of safety rules. The union failed to prove that the discipline violated any due-process requirement. Although the USPS advocate confirmed the existence of the district memo, the advocate denied that the memo mandated disciplinary action. Therefore, the discipline was entirely appropriate.
The Arbitrator Rules
In making his decision, the arbitrator chose to focus on the question of whether the existence of the district directive constituted a mandate of discipline by higher management. The arbitrator cited language in Article 16.1 which states, "No employee may be disciplined except for just cause such as failure to observe safety rules and regulations." He then stated exactly why the district memo was in violation of this language.
"In the view of the Arbitrator, this language permits-but does not require-disciplinary language to be imposed for safety violations," the arbitrator wrote. "By comparison, the district directive states, in relevant part, that '.any violation of a safety rule or procedure will result in disciplinary action.' This language clearly requires supervisors in the district to impose discipline, whether or not the supervisor believes that discipline is warranted under the facts of a particular situation.
"Thus the district directive is a mandate, since it creates within the district a policy under which all safety violations result in disciplinary action, thereby effectively removing supervisory discretion."
Because the district memo was so clearly a violation of the contract, the arbitrator stated that its existence alone was sufficient to sustain the grievance. Therefore the arbitrator did not go on to consider other union arguments such as the imposition of punitive discipline.
In his award, the arbitrator ordered management to rescind the suspension and make the grievant whole.
Note To Stewards
This case illustrates that NALC stewards should be on the lookout for any instances of management policy that amounts to blanket discipline or table of penalties. Such statements from managers remove the immediate supervisor from the discipline decision. With blanket discipline or table of penalties, the immediate supervisor no longer has the authority to investigate and decide whether to issue discipline in the first place, nor can the immediate supervisor determine the level of discipline that is appropriate.
Blanket discipline policies violate a fundamental requirement of just cause: that management investigate each case carefully and weigh each case on its own merits before making disciplinary decisions. The contract requires that the individual circumstances of each case be considered, with the immediate supervisor taking into account not only the previous record of the person accused of the infraction, but also the severity of the infraction and the existence of any mitigating factors.
Just like smart shoppers, NALC stewards should never accept the reasoning that "one size fits all." Always grieve any case involving the imposition of blanket discipline and insist that each case be measured on its own merits.
Source: NALC Activist, a newsletter for branch leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Spring 1998, Sue Dawson, Editor.