I Just Became a Union Steward – Now What?

 8 June 2022

Union Stewards are the backbone of the labor movement. Stewards enforce collective bargaining agreements and defend the safety and rights of union members. But, the job isn’t easy.

As a new steward, you deserve both congratulations and thanks. Achieving this position means that you’re trusted to represent the union and its values. The learning curve for new union stewards is steep, but don’t be overwhelmed by what you don’t yet know— every steward was once a rookie! Time, training, and mentoring will bring you up to speed.

The usual activity for training new stewards is to have them attend classes in person and online to learn best practices related to being a union steward. While these classes are helpful, there is no substitute for on-the-job experience. Local officers might set up an apprentice-like program to supplement classroom training for new stewards to get expertise, bringing in veteran stewards to assist. These programs can offer hands-on practice.

In addition to those resources, here are some ideas for developing the knowledge and skills a new steward needs: 

?? Does it sound insulting to suggest that you read the contract carefully, from cover to cover? Most of us, as members, never did—we looked at the sections about wages and maybe on a job posting but otherwise paid little attention. As a steward, you need to know—and understand—every clause in your agreement.

As you read through it, ask more experienced stewards or your local officers to explain any sections you don’t understand. Some contract language may be written in “lawyerese,” which no one can understand. Translating those clauses into everyday language—for yourself, your co-workers, and perhaps even in your next negotiations—can be a big help.

?? Pay particular attention to the grievance procedure and learn the time limits for filing. One of the worst experiences for a new steward is filing a solid grievance after the time limit has expired and see- ing it automatically disqualified. This is a harsh way to lose the confidence of your members and, in an open-shop situation, maybe even lose them as members. 

?? It is helpful to get some practice before you have to file a grievance on your own. Few union members have seen a complete grievance form, with the union’s charge and management’s response. Before you fill out your first, look over some grievance forms from the recent past and evaluate how those filings match—or don’t—what you learned in your steward training class.

?? As part of your union’s training program, there are ideal opportunities for new stewards to handle grievances for non-critical situations. Fill out a fact sheet, get whatever documentation you need from the union records or management, interview potential witnesses, and write up the grievance. Then ask an experienced steward to look over your work before filing it.

?? Interview an experienced steward. If you have one in your department, great! Find her, look over her grievance, and pester her with questions. How did she investigate? Why did she pick certain witnesses or documentation? Ask her to walk you through her process so you can learn from a pro.

?? Recognize that your importance as a steward is not just about filing grievances. You are the face of the union in your area, so adjust your daily routine to be in contact with as many members as possible. Make a conscious effort to talk with your co-workers by sitting at a different table in the lunch room or hanging out with a new group during breaks.

?? It is crucial to recognize that, as a steward, you now represent all of the members in your area, not just your friends or the co-workers you like. It would be best to deal fairly with even those co-workers you don’t like. After all, you are the front line for the union in defending a contract that covers everyone, so you have to treat even unpleasant co-workers with respect. One veteran steward said, “I look every member straight in the eye as if they’re a member of my family, even if I don’t like them or think they don’t have a grievance. I tell all new stewards to do the same thing.”

?? It is also essential to treat all other stewards with respect, even though you may not like them or their representation of the members. One of the worst situations for a union is a quarrel between two stewards in front of the boss. Resolve any differences before you meet with management, and if you have an internal dispute, keep it inside the family.

?? Go to a grievance meeting, even if you don’t have a grievance or are not yet officially a steward. This will give you a sense of what to expect when you are the one presenting a case. What are the personnel people like? How do they attack a grievance? With documentation? With witnesses? How are the meetings run? Sitting through a couple of sessions will demystify the process and prepare you to do the best job for the union.

Being a steward is both an honor and a responsibility. Following some of the advice above can build confidence in your abilities and ease you into becoming an effective, well-respected union representative.

—Bill Barry. The writer is the retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. Special thanks to the officers and stewards of ATU Local 1197 in Jacksonville, Florida, and ATU Local 1579 in Gainesville, Florida. 

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