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Chapter 8: Taking Action: Union Strategies and Tactics

The most effective way to address workplace violence issues is for the union and management to work together to develop and implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program as described in Chapter 7.When the employer is unwilling to address the problem, however, the union may need to educate workers and force management to correct the problem.

Many of the activities described in Chapter 2 may be accomplished without management’s cooperation.Talking to workers, conducting a survey, urging members to document incidents, and training and educating members on workplace violence are important first steps to convince management that a problem exists.The local union may also keep members informed through the local union newsletter. But once the union identifies and documents the problem, the next step is to get management to correct the hazards.

There are various ways to convince management to address workplace violence hazards. Regardless of which approach is used, it is important to first educate union members about the hazards and the goals of the actions, to tackle easy hazards first, and to bear in mind that the threat of an action may be as effective as the action itself. Some of the approaches may not be appropriate for all situations.

Conducting Workplace Violence Training Classes

The local union can sponsor training classes for the membership either independently or jointly with management. Training classes can cover such topics as identifying risks of workplace violence, self-defense techniques, conflict resolution skills and stress management. For more information about how to set up a training class, contact your AFSCME staff representative.

Other information may also be available locally. Your area AFL-CIO Community Services Program may have advice on conducting training classes. Local universities and community colleges can be a good resource. Local unions in many states are members of a Committee/Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH Group), which help local unions with workplace violence issues, especially training. Major metropolitan police departments offer training in self-defense and violence prevention.

Local unions should emphasize to their members and to management that training and education programs are only part of the solution to workplace violence problems. Without enhancing security and implementing controls to minimize the risks for violence, a training program will not adequately protect workers.

1. Labor/Management Committees

The local Labor/Management committee or the Joint Labor/Management Safety and Health Committee, if one exists, can be an effective way to address workplace violence problems. Through these committees, the union and management can develop solutions in a cooperative rather than confrontational manner. Joint committees, however, should not be relied upon to address all types of workplace violence problems.

For example, in situations that could become immediately dangerous, the union should not wait for the next committee meeting.Also, problems between two workers, or a worker and a supervisor, may be best handled outside of the committee to ensure the privacy of those most affected.

If an immediate potential for violence exists, the union representative and management should seek professional assistance right away.

A joint committee provides the union with an equal voice with management in establishing a workplace violence prevention program. Managers and workers may be more willing to accept the joint committee’s recommendations knowing that they were endorsed by both the union and the employer. If the joint committee is effective, it may be quicker than fighting with management through the grievance procedure or calling OSHA to investigate. The joint committee can also test different control measures to determine which ones are most effective.

It is important to be aware that management may use the joint committee to look like it is doing something when it is really doing nothing. Be wary if management continually cancels meetings or delays taking action.

2. Grievances

Consider filing a grievance if the employer:

  • Refuses to correct workplace violence hazards.
  • Implements a workplace violence policy that does not address the real problems.
  • Violates workers’ rights under the contract.
  • Violates its own rules or regulations — if that is grievable under contract.
  • Takes an unreasonable amount of time to implement control measures.

If there is no specific workplace violence contract language, other language may be relevant. For instance, many contracts require the employer to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Some contracts also allow the union to grieve any dispute that arises in the workplace.

The union can use different strategies to present their complaint to management. For example, the union can file one “class action” grievance that represents the workplace violence concerns of all employees. Or the union can take the opposite approach by flooding management with many individual grievances, filed by each member affected by workplace violence.Another strategy is for affected workers and union representatives to present the grievance to management.A group presentation demonstrates to management that workers are educated and serious about preventing workplace violence, and demand action.

No matter how the union files the grievance, be sure to include evidence that supports the union’s complaint. Use the documentation collected from surveys, inspections and incident reports. Consider doing research and submitting articles or governmental reports (such as the OSHA Guidelines that are described below) that describe how workplace violence has been effectively addressed in similar workplaces. Collect workers’ names on a petition to show management that the union membership is united behind this issue. Include minutes of labor/management meetings or other evidence that shows when the union previously brought the problem to management’s attention.

Filing a grievance can empower the union if management refuses to correct the problem. By filing a grievance, the union demonstrates that it will not just take “no” for an answer. The union can use the strength of the contract to support its position.

3. File a Complaint

Another tactic is to contact OSHA, which is the federal agency responsible for ensuring that employers provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees.Workers have the right to file a complaint with OSHA if the employer is not providing safe working conditions. Most state, county and city employers, however, are not bound by OSHA’s rules and regulations.Twenty-one states and Puerto Rico have federally approved OSHA programs that cover both private-sector and public employees (AK,AZ, CA, HA, IN, IA, KY,MD, MI,MN, NV, NM, NC, OR, SC,TN, UT,VT,VA,WA,WY).Three states, (CT, NJ, NY) have federally approved state programs that apply only to state and local government workers, while privatesector workers are covered by federal OSHA.Approved state OSHA programs must be at least as effective as the federal program and provide similar protections for workers. Several other states administer job safety laws that are NOT federally approved that cover only state and local government workers.

OSHA is also responsible for issuing regulations, or standards, on workplace safety or health hazards. These are rules the employer is required to follow in order to control workers’ exposures to hazards such as chemicals, noise, hepatitis B and safety problems. Many hazards, however, are not covered by standards.Workplace violence is one such hazard.

Although there is no OSHA standard to protect workers from violence, OSHA has cited employers under the general duty clause which requires employers to provide a safe workplace.To sustain a general duty clause violation, OSHA must:

A. prove the existence of a hazard
B. show that the hazard is recognized
C. show that the hazard causes or is likely to cause death or serious physical harm, and
D. prove the existence of a feasible and effective method to abate the hazard.

Since very few employers have been cited for workplace violence hazards, there is no guarantee that OSHA will issue a citation against the employer. If the union decides to file an OSHA complaint it will need to help OSHA build its case. Building a case involves collecting evidence, meeting with OSHA and writing a formal, written complaint.

Before calling OSHA, the union should gather evidence to support items (A) through (D) detailed below.

A. Prove to OSHA that a hazard exists.
The employer’s injury and illness forms (OSHA Log 300) may hold evidence on the extent of violence-related injuries. Grievances, complaints, minutes of health and safety committee meetings, and workers’ compensation records may also be evidence that a problem exists. (Refer to Chapter 2 on Hazard Assessment for more information on how to prove that a hazard exists.)

B. Show that the hazard is recognized.
“Recognized” means that the employer has knowledge that violence is a hazard in the workplace and/or that workplace conditions make violence likely. Recognition can also mean that the employer should have knowledge that violence is a problem in the workplace even if the employer does not admit that there is a problem. For example, the employer should know there is a problem because this problem is generally recognized by people working in the field or there have been studies conducted or guidelines have been issued.

Recognition can be proved in the following ways:

  • Injury or illness records
  • Grievance filed on workplace violence hazards
  • Labor/Management Committee or Joint Safety and Health Committee meeting minutes that show that workplace violence issues were discussed
  • The employer’s internal rules
  • Journals or professional articles recognizing violence in this type of workplace
  • Injury statistics in the workplace or in the industry in general.

C. Show that the hazard causes or is likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
Workers’ compensation records, medical records and incident reports can be used to prove the severity of injuries related to workplace violence. (Consult the sidebar “Types of records to review” in Chapter 2 for more information about analyzing different safety and health records.)

D. Show that a feasible and effective method to abate the hazard exists.
There are different methods to minimize the likelihood of workplace violence. (See Chapter 3 for more information.) Possible methods include:

  • An employer’s own internal rules and procedures designed to minimize violent incidents
  • Methods used in similar facilities
  • Employee surveys
  • Labor/Management Committee or Health and Safety Committee recommendations
  • Articles, studies or guidelines

In 1996, OSHA issued Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care and Social Service Workers. These guidelines provide information for employers and employees seeking to develop violence prevention programs.Although these guidelines are not a standard or regulation, they may provide valuable information that can be used to justify general duty clause OSHA citations against the employer.

Once the union has gathered enough documentation to assist OSHA in citing the employer for a general duty clause violation, the union should set up an informal meeting with OSHA to discuss the complaint.At this meeting, OSHA will try to understand the problem and suggest how the union should proceed.After meeting with OSHA, the union should file a formal, written complaint to OSHA. For more assistance on filing an OSHA complaint, contact your AFSCME staff representative or the AFSCME Department of Research and Collective Bargaining Services at (202) 429-1228 or by e-mail at

Remember, however, that OSHA may not cover public employees in your state.Also, in some states, OSHA cannot fine public employers for violations.

4. Negotiating Labor/Management Agreements

Since OSHA does not cover many public employees and there is no workplace violence OSHA standard, unions should negotiate for better and more secure workplaces. Many AFSCME locals have successfully bargained contract language that covers workplace violence issues. (Consult Appendix G for tips on what type of language is most useful as well as sample language on workplace violence.)

In order to be effective at the bargaining table, the union must do its homework. In addition to collecting evidence that workplace violence is a serious problem, the union should also gain the membership’s support for negotiations. Raise awareness during conversations, at coffee and lunch breaks, or after work.Make sure workers know why workplace violence is a solvable problem and that the employer has failed to do anything about it.

Negotiating with management on important issues like violence in the workplace helps to build the union and demonstrates the effectiveness of the union. Using contract language can also be a more effective strategy for action than calling in outside agencies like OSHA.

AFSCME in Action

Parole agents in the state of Illinois Special Intensive Supervision Unit (SISU) won management’s agreement on safer vehicles, better bulletproof vests, updated training, radio contact with state police and authorization to carry semi-automatic weapons.

Meetings with the Department of Corrections’ deputy director in charge of parole programs led nowhere. The agents, frustrated by department inaction on what they considered to be pressing safety issues, pulled together an AFSCME statewide network. Agents designated a representative in each geographical district for communication purposes. Eventually they gathered the signatures of nearly every SISU agent on a petition that went to the DOC director.

The state committed to:

  • Provide new bulletproof vests to 13 agents immediately and inspect all the vests on a yearly basis
  • Provide SISU agents with a way to communicate directly with state police
  • Equip a number of SISU cars with safety cages to protect agents who must bring in parole violators
  • Modify agents’ cars for greater safety
  • Get state cars for agents currently using their own vehicles for work.
  • Allow agents the option of carrying semi-automatic weapons, purchased on their own, after they pass the state police qualification course
  • Assure full cooperation from supervisory staff when agents feel they need partners in certain dangerous areas
  • Update training with participation of a joint union/management committee.

5. Contact the News Media

While the media have been eager to report violence among co-workers, rather than the more common instances of attacks by patients, clients or intruders, the media can be an effective tool.The media can educate the public about real workplace violence and gain support for the local’s cause.

When contacting the media, be ready with your story and stick to the facts. Explain why workplace violence should be of concern to the public as well as to the workers, and point out if patients, clients, family members and the general public are at risk for violence if they enter your facility. Pick one or two workers with compelling experiences to talk to reporters. Establish a relationship with reporters and editors to become a regular news source. The union and the employer should establish a contact in the media so that if an incident occurs reporters will first seek information from the union rather than going directly to the victim or victim’s family.

Public employers, like others, are often sensitive about their public image and do not like to be embarrassed. Sometimes, the threat of calling the media will make the employer respond.A favorable story may add credibility to the union’s case while making the employer look bad.

It is important to remember that reporters and editors can be unpredictable.The story may not come out the way the union expected. In addition, the media has a short attention span. Reporters may not followup on the story or be thorough in reporting all the facts.

Should We Call the Police?

The services police can provide depend on the size and sophistication of the police department serving the area. Some police departments have psychologists who will conduct critical incident stress debriefings or other counseling services. Many police departments offer classes in personal protection to employees. Security and police representatives recommend the following:

  • If there is no security guard, call the police no matter how insignificant a concern may seem.
  • The local Joint Labor/ Management Safety and Health Committee (or the union itself) should establish a liaison in the police department to have a personal contact.
  • Report (serious) threats and incidents to the police to create a written record.
  • Be familiar with stalking laws and educate employees in domestic violence issues.

6. Picket or Leaflet

Employees who work in a public facility may not be the only ones at risk for workplace violence. Picketing, or distributing leaflets or flyers will let clients, patients and local citizens know that they too may be at risk for violence.

Since picketing is highly visible, it may be a good way to get publicity for the union’s cause. Picketing can send a strong message that the union and membership are united in standing up for their rights to a safe workplace.

7. Build a Workplace Violence Coalition

Other organizations concerned about workplace violence may be able to offer valuable technical and political support. Organizations that may be sympathetic include other unions that represent workers doing similar jobs or in the same area, police unions, local chapters of professional associations (such as the National Association of Social Workers), or church leagues located in the vicinity. Also, look for support from others who may be affected by violence, such as parents and family members of patients or clients.

Building coalitions broadens the support for the union’s fight to prevent workplace violence.Coalitions may be more successful at gaining publicity since more people are involved in the issue. In addition, coalitions may broaden the public appeal of the issue if more than “just workers” are involved.

8. Apply Political Pressure

Politicians may put pressure on the employer to correct the hazard. The union can urge local, state or national elected officials (especially ones supported by the union) to use their clout to demand that the employer resolve the problem.


Housekeeper Raped

Late one night, a university housekeeper was working alone in an area that is closed at night. A stranger asked her for directions, left and then returned and raped and assaulted her. The woman was treated for slash wounds and the rape. At the time of the attack there were no security personnel on the floor.

What Can Be Done?

  • Increase security.
  • Create a buddy system in which housekeepers work in pairs or teams rather than alone.
  • Lock doors after hours.
  • Use cell phone or other means of communicating a need for assistance.
  • Provide self-defense training.

Social Worker Slain

A female employee of the Department of Social Services was beaten and stabbed to death by a man recently released from a county jail, where he had served time for threatening to kill two social service employees. Shortly before his release, the attacker had told a reporter that “being in this jail has not changed me one little bit.” The body of the social worker was found near her house. Co-workers say that she was singled out by the suspect because she worked for DSS.

What Can Be Done?

  • Take threats seriously.
  • Increase security after suspect’s release.
  • Provide information to workers about threats made against them, their co-workers or their agency.
  • Provide workers with tips on how to reduce the risk of being a target of a client’s anger.
  • Establish close and on-going communication with local police.

Case Worker Stabbed by Angry Client

In a busy claims office, a social services caseworker was trying to assist a food stamps recipient when he shouted that he hadn’t received his food stamps, pulled out an 8-inch knife from his left sock and lunged at her. She was stabbed three or four times in the chest and shoulders before the screams of about 40 onlookers in the partitioned office alerted two security guards.

The incident happened about an hour after the office had opened. The social worker was pinned in a little booth. There was no way she would have been able to get away from her attacker. Guards are told to keep their distance from interview areas because of state rules guaranteeing confidentiality to clients.

What Can Be Done?

  • Have a glassed-in interview area where security guards can be close without breaching confidentiality.
  • Use metal detectors.
  • Use deep counters between clients and workers to make it more difficult to reach workers.
  • Ensure at least two means of escape from all interview rooms and client waiting areas.

Prison Employee Held Hostage

A civilian prison employee who worked in the laundry was taken hostage in a maximum security prison.A corrections officer position that would have provided security to that area was eliminated in budget cuts in the last year.The worker was attacked, tied up and held captive for nearly an hour before being released.

What Can Be Done?

  • Increase staffing levels.
  • Have “man down” or panic alarms.
  • Use surveillance cameras.
  • Ban working alone.

Psych Tech Assaulted

A technician at a state psychiatric hospital was beaten unconscious by a patient swinging a telephone receiver.The patient had become agitated and refused calming medication after he and others were reprimanded for turning up the volume on the stereo and television set in their unit’s activity room.As the patient’s hostility increased, he began throwing items. He then walked into the nurses’ station, grabbed the phone receiver from the technician (who was calling for back-up), and began beating her on the head.

What Can Be Done?

  • Increase staffing levels.
  • Use intercom, call button or other means of communicating a need for assistance that cannot be used as a weapon.
  • Have a secure nurses’ station.
  • Provide training in anger diffusion.

AFSCME in Action

In their publication The Public Sector, the New York Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA)/AFSCME Local 1000 recommends ways for mental health workers to protect themselves from discipline if a client gets injured while working alone. CSEA developed a form and procedures for members to use when given an assignment without back-up help. If a member is assigned to work alone, CSEA recommends that he or she complete a form and have the supervisor sign it. Workers should also notify the facility security office and ask them to log in that they are working alone.


I am working alone and am notifying management that I cannot be held accountable for the lack of security.

Name:  Date:   
Work Location:   
Number of patients in my charge:   
Supervisor’s Signature:   

  • If you are required to work alone, have your supervisor sign this form. If your supervisor refuses, note this fact and sign it yourself.
  • Give one copy to your supervisor, return one copy to your AFSCME local office and keep one copy.
  • Call your facility security office at the start of your shift and ask them to log in that you are working alone.
  • If you or any of your patients in your charge get hurt during the shift, note that also.

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