Establishing Yourself In The Role Of Steward
For new stewards the first few days on the job as a union representative are critically important. You have to demonstrate to the membership that you can get the job done. Your members must feel comfortable coming to you to resolve work-related issues.
At the same time, your supervisor and other management personnel are going to watch you and probably test you.
Establish your position.
When workers go directly to management, to another steward or to a higher union officer with a grievance, without going through their assigned steward, we call that process bypassing. Bypassing is a problem for many stewards, especially new ones.
Sometimes the employee may speak with the immediate supervisor to solve problems informally. Whenever possible, we should encourage the member to bring along his/her shop steward to make sure that the employee gets treated fairly. Often, when members go into meetings with their supervisors they are unaware of their rights and the stipulations of the contract.
As a steward you cannot assume that the membership will automatically respect your abilities. Respect must be earned by showing the members that you will apply your skills and knowledge of the contract to represent all the members to the best or your ability.
Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and other union representatives.
Remember that if you are a new steward, management will often test you to see how well you represent the member. That test may be in the form of denying you reasonable time to do your job or giving you an extension of a time limit on a first step grievance. Your supervisor may try in some way to interfere with your investigation of a grievance by denying access to records. Or the supervisor may simply say no at your grievance meeting even though your member's grievance is a clear case of injustice and a breach of the agreement.
Expect to be tested. Don't get angry or frustrated. Supervisors are often trained to incite a steward so that they will blow the grievance meeting. Don't lose your cool.
Establish the Union
When they hire in, new workers are often given expensive "orientation" from management, but may not be exposed to the union view. Not realizing the struggle that went into winning these gains, many of them may believe that wages and conditions they enjoy come from the goodness of someone's heart.
Get those new members early. Even if they are on probation, a friendly piece of advice and support will be long remembered.
Represent the rank and file
Always treat the member with respect and dignity. Work with the member. It is a sign of empowerment and the strength of the union as a group. The operative word is always "we" not I. The word "they" is always reserved for the company or management, not the local union or the international. If you truly believe that the union is not simply a servicing center for the membership, then these terms should be second-nature.
Always tell the truth. Sometimes you will have to say "no" and then try to convince the member that you are right. Have a reason for the decision and have some alternative strategy for the member if the situation merits it.
You have to keep favoritism out of the grievance procedure and avoid letting your personal feeling about a member cloud the way you represent him or her.
When one group of members is pitted against another, and while those who are favored might think small advantages are worth fighting for, everyone loses. Fair representation is a basic principle of unionism because:
1. It is right and the members are right to expect it.
2. Because it works to the benefit of all.
3. Because when it is missing, or someone thinks that it is missing, there are likely to be legal difficulties for the union and its officers.
Time and money spent on legal defense would be better spent in building the union.
Being situated right in the middle of the structure amid the union, management and the rank and file, the grievance representative can do a lot to build unity. In everything you do, you are setting an example to the rank-and-file that they have power and that power is the union. Your actions every day build the union.
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