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A Union Steward's Ten Biggest Mistakes

by Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner
(Reprinted here with the authors' permission)

28 Jan 04 A good steward is many things an organizer, a negotiator, a counsellor, a peacemaker and a troublemaker. But there are certain things that a steward must avoid at all costs.

Mistake one Fail to represent fairly

Not only does this leave the union open to being sued for breaching its duty to provide fair representation, it's just not the right thing to do. It undermines the whole purpose of the union and the very idea of solidarity.

Mistake two Make backroom deals

Management is notorious for trying to get stewards to trade grievances. "I'll let you have this case if you drop the one we talked about yesterday." Every member deserves a fair shake and every grievance needs to be evaluated on its own merit. Never agree to anything you would be uncomfortable telling your entire membership about.

Mistake three Promise remedies too quickly

You're hurting both the member and your credibility if you pass judgement on a grievance prior to a thorough investigation. Only after you have spoken to the grievor and witnesses and consulted the contract, the employer's rules and past practices are you in a position to make that determination. Given the frequency of poor and mixed arbitration decisions, no steward should ever promise victory.

Mistake four Fail to speak with new workers

The most important way a union gains the support of a new member or a potential new member is by one-on-one contact with the steward. You not only want to provide new workers with information, but need to build a personal relationship and begin to get them involved in union activities from their first day on the job.

Mistake five Fail to adhere to time lines

Even the strongest, iron-clad case can be lost if the time line specified in your contract isn't followed. Even if management agrees to an extension, it is not in the union's interest to let problems fester and grow. If you do get a formal extension of time limits, be sure to get it in writing.

Mistake six Let grievance go unfiled

Every grievance that goes unfiled undermines the contract you struggled so hard to win. While most members see changes and problems only in terms of the impact on them, the steward needs to be able to understand a grievance's impact on the contract and the union as a whole.

Mistake seven Meet with management alone

When you meet with management alone, suspicions may arise as to what kinds of deals you're making. It also allows management to lie or change its story. More importantly, when the steward meets with management alone, it takes away an opportunity for members to participate in the union and to understand that it's really their organization.

Mistake eight Fail to get settlements in writing

Just as you should protect yourself by not meeting alone with management, be sure to get grievance settlements in writing. Putting the settlement in writing helps clarify the issues and keeps management from backing down on their deal.

Mistake nine Fail to publicize victories

Publicizing each and every victory is an important way to build your local union. This publicity not only has a chilling effect on the employer, but helps educate your own members on their contractual rights. It also gives you something to celebrate and builds the courage needed to carry on.

Mistake ten Fail to organize

Stewards are much more than grievance handlers. They are the key people in the local who mobilize the membership, and they must be talkin' union and fightin' union all the time. Each and every grievance and incident must be looked at in terms of how it can increase participation, build the union, and create new leaders.