Your Role as Steward: The Basics

As an SEIU steward, your job involves much, much more than handling grievances.

Grievances are important. They are often the most visible and dramatic aspect of the union’s presence. Sometimes they’ll take up most of your time.

But grievances should never be confused with your chief responsibility as a steward: to build a united, organized, and involved membership in your workplace.

Without this involvement and solidarity, no union in the world can protect and serve its members.

As a leader in the workplace, you’ll have your hands full. That’s because SEIU stewards are …

Organizers. This is the big one. It doesn’t just mean signing up new members, although it means that too. It means SEIU stewards are responsible for organizing the whole workplace to deal with problems as a united group.Which is, when you think about it, what labor unions are all about.

Problem solvers. You’re the person workers turn to with their problems. It might be a work-site hazard. Maybe someone’s been fired, or perhaps layoffs are threatened. It might be just a new employee with a question. Perhaps you can solve the problem with a friendly word, or maybe you’ll organize a worksite action or file a grievance. Problems don’t go with your territory. They are your territory.

Educators and communicators. The contract. The health insurance plan. What’s a “ULP”? How can I do this? Why did they do that? It’s a complicated world, and your members are counting on you to help them make sense of it. Equally important, your union officers are counting on you to help them keep in touch with your co-workers. You work with them every day. They don’t.

Worksite leaders. You’re the one who keeps it moving. You’re the one who’s not afraid to speak up to management. You make unity happen, and you never let anyone forget there’s a union at your worksite. (Nobody said this job is easy.)

The sections that follow will explain some of your different jobs in more detail. (Pages with the symbol «provide handy checklists of things stewards need to know, have, and do.)

For now, it’s enough that you understand and accept your wide responsibility in the workplace, and remember that your primary duties are to organize and to solve problems. (You’ll see later how those two duties go hand in hand.)

Things You Need to Have

You’ll need to have a lot of information close at hand, both at work and at home. (Some stewards carry a notebook or a planner back and forth.)

You and your chief steward or union representative should check out your materials to make sure you have everything you need. Here are some possibilities:

  • A list of the workers you serve as steward, including name, address, telephone number, email address, job title, and shift schedule.
  • A seniority list of your workers (if applicable).
  • The contract and any side letters.
  • Local union constitution and bylaws.
  • Management’s personnel manual, if there is one (or any other employer policies in printed form).
  • Civil service rules (if applicable).
  • An organization chart of managers and supervisors.
  • Organizing materials for new members, including authorization cards, copies of the contract, your union’s Web site and email address, and your union’ s constitution and bylaws.
  • Grievance investigation forms.
  • COPE (political action) materials.
  • You probably know the different occupations in your unit, but if not, you’ll need some job descriptions.

Of course, your local union staff rep and legal counsel will also have other valuable information including:

  • Federal and state health and safety regulations.
  • Federal and state labor laws and court decisions.
  • Records of past investigations, grievances, and arbitrations.
  • Lists of references, resources, and other helpful materials available from the International union.
  • Links to use on the Web, such as for the latest updates across the country.
  • Links to educational resources

Your Protections as a Steward

When you’re dealing with management on union business, you deal with the employer as an equal.

You can imagine how happy that makes them. That’s why the National Labor Relations Act and state labor boards specifically protect you (and other union leaders) from punishment or discrimination by managementbecause of your union activity. It’s illegal for an employer to:

  • Deny you promotions or pay opportunities.
  • Isolate you from other workers.
  • Saddle you with extra work or unusually tough assignments.
  • Deny you overtime opportunities.
  • Enforce work rules unfairly against you or harass you with extra supervision.

Your contract may also spell out your rights, and perhaps you’re covered by state and local ordinances if you’re a government worker.

If your employer tries to discriminate against you in this way, it’s a violation of federal law.

Fairness: A Big Responsibility

This is really important.

Labor unions are required by law to represent all workers in the unit fairly and completely. This includes non-members as well as your union members. It’s legally known as the duty of fair representation or DFR.

Of course, you don’t need to be told that you must represent all workers fairly regardless of their race, religion, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

You may find that you have to represent workers who oppose the union, as well as those who are unpopular, difficult to work with, or who create discord in the union or the workplace.

No matter. Fair is fair. This doesn’t mean the union can’t lose a grievance or make a mistake. It does mean that every action you take must be free from bias or the appearance of bias:

  • Your investigations of every problem or incident must be fair and complete.
  • Each worker must be kept informed about each step you take on their behalf.
  • Never, never lose a grievance because a time limit ran out.
  • Cases must be based on facts, not personalities.

That’s why it’s so important to keep records of your activities as a steward including phone calls, interviews, letters, contacts, and decisions. Without documentation, it’s far more difficult for your union to defend a DFR case if one should occur.

Your Duties as a Steward

No one can list all the different duties you’ll be asked to perform. What follows are some of the more important things SEIU stewards do.

Not all stewards do all things. Some unions elect negotiators and stewards separately. Some ask staff reps to handle the final steps of grievances. You’ll find these things out as you go along.

You don’t have to learn your duties all at once. And you’ll have more experienced stewards and staff reps to help you get started.

  • Get to know all the workers in your unit.
  • Greet new members and help them get oriented.
  • Convince workers to join the union.
  • Convince workers to join the union. (This is not a misprint.)
  • Sign up retiring members.
  • Recruit and lead volunteers.
  • Play a leading role in unit meetings. Keep the members informed.  Help out with balloting, elections, and reports.
  • Get committees going and attend committee meetings, guiding them when need be (and when possible).
  • Keep updated phone, addresses and email lists of your members.
  • Learn all the problems in the workplace.
  • Investigate grievances.
  • Interview members.
  • Write and file grievances.
  • Negotiate with management. This can range from informal talks with supervisors to arbitration hearings, formal contract bargaining, and labor/management committee assignments.
  • Maintain files and records. (We know it’s boring, but it’s really important.)
  • Keep updated address, phone, and email information on your members.
  • Work on contract campaigns.
  • Organize rallies, vigils, work actions, petitions, parades, demonstrations, and other activities. Big parades and demonstrations require marshals, and you’ll need to keep them briefed. (Wear comfortable shoes. Trust us on this one.)
  • Work on newsletters, leaflets, press releases, picket signs, buttons, stickers, bulletin board displays, whatever.
  • Attend steward training classes.
  • Work on COPE (Committee On Political Education), legislative, and get-out-the-vote activities where permissible. This may involve fund-raising, lobbying, phone banks, polling place duties, and a lot of other things, especially around election time.
  • Do a lot of different things with your union’ s coalition partners in the community.
  • Inspect the worksite for health and safety problems. Know where the OSHA 2000 Log is posted. File federal and state OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violation reports and accompany inspectors on site visits.
  • You don’t have to do this all yourself. Don’t be shy about asking individual members to help you out. It’s one way to get them involved.

Welcoming New Workers

Remember your first day on the job? Not exactly a day at the beach.

That’s why one of your foremost tasks is to welcome new workers. You do this whether your shop is open or union, public or private.

Some local unions have created a  welcome packet for this purpose. (If yours has one, good. But don’t use it as a substitute for getting to know the new worker.)

If you don’t have a packet, then you’ll be winging it. (The next few sections contain some capsule info about dues, payments and union membership usually the first things you’ll be asked about–as well as a few SEIU facts to help you out.)

If yours is a union or agency shop (that means new workers must join the union or pay a fee), then the new worker may be hostile to the union. This doesn’t let you off the hook. It just means you’ll have to grit your teeth and put forth an extra effort to be friendly and helpful.

Here’s a checklist of some things you might want to include in your conversation:

  • Get to know each other. Ask where they worked before, where they live now, do they have a family? Hobbies? Sports? Start off by listening.
  • Offer information: where the vending machines are (and what not to buy), where to go for happy hour, what the boss is like, who runs the football pool, how you get in on ride-sharing.
  • Give the new worker a welcome packet if you have one. If not, be sure they receive a copy of the contract and explain its important provisions to them.
  • Explain some of the main benefits provided by the union contract, not the benevolence of the employer: wages, health care, holidays, a voice on the job.
  • During the conversation, remember that you want the employee to begin identifying with the union. Whenever the worker has a problem, you are the person to see, not the supervisor. The union is the members, the people right there all around you, not some unknown outsiders. If you get these two ideas across, you’ve done your job.
  • If your union is doing its job, there’ll be a meeting coming up you’ll want to invite the new worker to. In fact, why not take them with you? They’ll feel more at ease with someone they know. (Remember your first one?)
  • Make sure the worker has a wallet card with your name and phone number, and encourage them to call if they have any problems.

We are stronger together.