If you are a steward, committee-person, delegate or other union grievance representative, you are part of an extraordinary group, estimated to number more than 250,000 men and women, in 53,000 local unions across the United States. Union stewards represent departments, shifts, and work sites. They monitor collective-bargaining agreements, advise employees on contract provisions, confront employers over safety issues, and represent employees in grievance proceedings.
A steward's job is important and exciting. You protect jobs and welfare of your fellow employees and use your leadership skills to build the union.
Your position, however, is not without perils. To be effective, you must protest management actions that violate the collective-bargaining agreement, are arbitrary or unfair, or threaten the health or safety of employees. In response, management may try to intimidate or harass you or impose discipline.
To prevent reprisals -- and to gain management's respect - you must be well prepared. Your most valuable tools are union solidarity, contract rights and labor law rights.
A Union Stewards rights are determined by three basic factors:
Union Solidarity. This is the cohesion and determination of employees you represent. A steward backed by a unified group, willing to act if the steward is attacked, has significant freedom of action.
Contract Rights. A strong union contract forbids discrimination against union activities and guarantees time for union business.
Labor Law Rights. Federal and state labor laws prohibit interference with legitimate union activities, protect stewards in presenting grievances, force employers to supply grievance information, and require employers to bargain before making changes that affect employees.
As a Steward, you have two main jobs---first, building a strong union in your work place; and, second, grievance handling.
You must have a strong union behind you if you're going to be able to carry on your job of handling grievances effectively. Your attitude and effort you put into your job is what counts. Make it a privilege for your fellow workers to be active union members who attend meetings regularly and willingly pay their dues. Being a know-it-all or overbearing steward doesn't do this. A lot of it will come about by the example you set. Enthusiasm and sincerity are contagious. You can always sell better what you believe in yourself.
Like most vitally important jobs, that of a steward is very difficult. In fact, it may seem like a steward is expected to be all things to all people at once. Of course that is impossible, but by understanding the various roles of a steward and doing your best fulfilling them, the steward will contribute greatly to the strength of the union.
The roles of the steward can best be described as that of a negotiator, leader, educator, communicator, organizer and political activist. (As steward, be sure to greet the new hire on their first day.)
"Know your contract!" This is the first commandment for the steward. Your fellow workers don't expect you to know everything, and they respect you a lot more if you don't try to bluff your way out of things. But they do expect, as their leader, to be well informed. To educate workers so they understand and cooperate with union policies, you must first educate yourself.
To know if the company and the union are living up to their agreement, you must know what's in it. Unless you know what it says, you cannot tell a worker if he's right about it. You certainly can't discuss it intelligently with management.
Read over every word of it. Discuss it with union officers. Become familiar with the provisions. Understand how they apply to special conditions in your department.
Remember the union is not a slot machine where the worker puts in his dues and gets the jackpot in the form of higher pay, shorter hours, better lighting, longer vacation----, it all takes work! But it's worth it. As steward, you have to do a lot of the day to day work. But if you are a good leader, you'll get cooperation from your fellow workers and your union officials as well as from management and this helps make the job easier.
You will have headaches, but you will also get breaks. Stewardship gives valuable experience. From adjusting plant grievances you may come to represent labor in industry-wide conferences, policy-making conventions or even government agencies. The keystone of the local union may be the stepping stone to greater union leadership.
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