Why Be a Steward?
|A CO-WORKER ONCE asked me: "Why would anybody want to be a
After eighteen years as a union steward, I'm still discovering answers to
this question. Part of the reason that the answer is an ongoing process, is
that the relationship with the union and with the employer is in constant
flux... a dance, if you will.
From a broader perspective, the stewards' relationship with his/her union
management depends on his/her local, and in turn, his/her locals' relations
with other labor organizations. If your local is part of larger
international union there may be different and overriding Constitution and
By-laws to take into consideration, besides that of his/her local union.
Part of a stewards' challenge is to explain to his/her co-workers where they
are in the larger labor picture, although most co-worker's interest may only
entail whether or not they're going to see any raises in the near future or
whether "the boss" will issue any discipline against them.
Being a steward usually meant that you only needed the bare essentials of
being able to enforce your contract, file grievances, and represent
co-workers in disciplinary actions. The "heavy lifting" of organizing,
bargaining and legal actions, including arbitrations, was usually
facilitated by the local's staff. But because of the faster paced changes
that the internet, computers, cell phones and text messaging have brought,
union organizing itself has changed. Even the way the unions themselves are
behaving, has greatly changed the landscape. There is no longer just a union
versus management existence. The steward must now contend with his/her
local's union management, in addition to the employer's management. Union
democracy must now be fought for and maintained with an unprecedented
vigilance, while contending with union corruptions' best friend; membership
The steward's concerns must now be vigilance on at least two fronts. One
eye on the employer and one eye on what their co-workers' dues money is
being used for. This is not your Grandfather's labor movement.... far from
it. The stewards' loyalty should always be to their co-workers best
interests, and he/she should always be wary of the ever-present snake oil
sales-person who claims to be an advocate of "true justice" or "worker's
unity". Fancy and attractive sounding slogans can deceive and have been
deceiving. Which brings us to one of the most important aspects of guarding
your co-workers best interests; the unions' membership database.
The database has all the memberships contact information. That includes the
phone number, address, email address and personal information of each
member. Whoever controls the database controls what the members see and
hear. Very important information if your pushing a favorite candidate for
officer elections, selling insurance policies, spreading misinformation, or
raiding another union under the guise of "growing membership". Can that
database information be bought or sold? How do you prove that it wasn't
done? That brings us to the subject that is the most sensitive and attention
attraction. The dues money.
This is the stuff that attracts the most attention...and brings out the
greed in usually normal well-intentioned individuals. This is why stewards
are so important and necessary in a union. Stewards are usually
worker-volunteers who are not "paid professionals", but must have enough
labor savvy to know when their co-workers are being "taken for a ride". One
of the tools to make this determination is knowing where to look for the
local's financial information. The local may only need to share general
financial information to it's members, upon request. Another way is to look
for the financial information in the form of LM-2's. Unions that generate
dues money over about $25,000 a year must file these LM-2's annually with
the Department of Labor (DOL) and they can usually be found on the DOL
website, in more detail. Much more detail. In fact, some union leaders are
facing federal prosecution for such information....enough said.
The steward has a special place in the labor landscape. It is a position of
trust that must be earned from your co-workers. Steward's even have legal
protection both in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and in many state
statutes. They are usually referred to as "authorized representatives" and
are afforded the protection of privileged communications with their
co-workers in grievance matters. This is why training of stewards is so
important. Their negligence may also cause liability to the union, if they
act carelessly. No worker should attempt the responsibility of stewardship
without proper training. The subject of liability brings us to another
sensitive area. The Unfair Labor Practice (ULP). Many stewards are familiar
with ULP's that are filed against management for violating the NLRA or other
comparable state or local statute. Many stewards use them when management is
retaliating against them for protected or union activity, including but not
limited to, filing grievances or organizing workers. But, what many stewards
may not be aware of is that ULP's can also be filed against the union. Yes,
the union can also be found to have violated the NLRA or comparable state
statute. The union cannot discourage someone from becoming a steward nor can
they unduly prevent a steward's representation. The union must also not be
careless or negligent in it's representation of members. This is also an
area where stewards should be knowledgeable; when to act when the union
violates the NLRA. This is an ominous decision that should not be approached
lightly and should only be initiated when there is a clear and provable
case. This brings us to another sensitive issue; when and how should a
steward be removed or relieved of their stewardship?
The union's Constitution and By-laws usually has some type of language for
this process. The removal of a steward should only be done when he/she is no
longer capable of acting in the members' best interest. Some may argue that
removal should only be done by the members themselves, but some by-laws,
trusteed or merged locals have empowered union staff to make this call. The
problem with having union staff remove a steward is that the decision may be
unduly politicized, or the steward is exposing corruptive practices.
More and more stewards are being asked to make "hard choices" in that they
must choose between loyalty to their co-workers or being disloyal to their
union. Stewardship is no longer about just keeping management in line. The
bottom line should be what's in the co-worker's best interest. Stewards are
becoming increasingly scarce, and good stewards are even more scarce.
Stewards are soon going to become the last bastion of defense for the
membership, both from overbearing employers and corrupt union leaders.
What's going to happen if the stewards dwindle into extinction? Will they be
replaced by automated phone services? Will grievances be won or lost by
conference calls? Will "authorized representatives" be appointed by union
management? With concurrence of the employer?
It was once said that "stewards are the backbone of the union". What
happens when the backbone is gone? To be quite honest, I hope we never find
So why be a steward? Maybe because the sting of injustice triggers the
outrage enough to turn it into action. Maybe because no one else has the
courage to step in when a co-worker is getting abused by the employer. Maybe
because when a co-worker cried out for help, everyone else took one step
back. Maybe because of an inspiring steward, in your worksite, who was so
good, that the mere threat of his/her involvement would make management back
off. Maybe because you were tired of always getting a raw deal at work.
Maybe because the realization set in that, the members are the union and
they just don't know it. Maybe because someone dared you to do it. Maybe
because you were shown what was really behind the "power" curtain, was a
facade. Maybe because your co-workers saw something in you, that you never
previously noticed yourself.
Or perhaps, as in my case, management is the one who started the fight.
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