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From: Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Six, Number Three

A union steward often gets locked into handling only day to day problems in a particular workplace –dealing with the contract, with a specific workforce, with a narrow set of problems. A broader definition of a steward’s job description includes building the union: increasing membership involvement, creating group grievances, even signing up new members –but, still, focused only on the steward’s particular workplace.

As employers become more belligerent, however, it becomes clear that focusing on your own workplace can weaken the union, making a steward’s job even tougher. A steward needs to first look at building the union, convincing the members that they are participants in a movement, and not purchasers of a service. Unionism, as many of our members have forgotten, is a movement founded upon solidarity; one workers joining with others to form a group, and groups helping each other. As the percentage of union dues payers dwindles, our need to stand together for mutual aid grows. Looking at unionism as a movement opens up a much larger opportunity.

Forming “Outside Friendships”
This decline of union members, and political power, over the years stimulated the national convention of the AFL-CIO in September 2013, to propose a whole new, and very controversial, structure because “labor needs friends.” Encouraging participation from “outside” groups like the Sierra Club and the NAACP provoked some union officers to rethink the importance of bringing in “outside” information to the workplace. There has also been a revival of interest among labor historians in “community unionism.” In the old days, unions looked to support from families, neighbors, and local religious and political groups to overcome ferocious employer opposition, from which in the old days organized against ferocious opposition only with support.

All of these grand plans, however, are just words and more words unless the steward begins to spread among the members this sense of solidarity by bringing in news of outside activities and encouraging the members to participate in community-wide, or worldwide, activities. The most important aspect of this change is that it is in the straight self-interest of the steward and the members because having support from “outside’ means greater leverage in settling grievances and in negotiating new union contracts.

Working through the community is especially important for public sector stewards, where each grievance, or negotiation, seems to pit the union against the public –their “employers.” Creating strong relationships with the “customers” –the riders of public transit or the parents of schoolchildren –can create a strong coalition to resist cuts in wages and benefits.

How can a steward effectively carry out such a campaign?

  • Include news of outside activities in your regular steward’s news reports –and you DO have a regular steward’s report, don’t you? These reports usually include grievance results and updates on contract negotiations in your own workplace, but you can expand them to include information of both local and more distant union activities. Workers have to learn that across different workplaces, and among different unions, there are common problems that confront us all.
  • Encourage solidarity. Provide lists of union products and services, especially local ones, to support our brothers and sisters. It was distressing to hear at a local union meeting I visited, a union health fund was urging retirees to get their prescriptions filled at Walmart.
  • Is another union in town picketing or leafleting? Go get some fresh air and help them out –then you can ask for help when you need it. It is so important for union stewards to be proactive: to help out other groups before you need help so you have some money in the bank, so to speak.
  • Your members need to accept that we now live in a global workplace. Multinational corporations should have to deal with truly international unions so a steward can distribute information about workers’ movements in many countries. Expanding solidarity means that supporting underpaid workers of your same employer, or in your same industry, in a foreign country is not just charity but a way to increase your bargaining power.
  • Encourage the participation of family members in your union activities and stress the importance of your members being involved in their communities. Many of them are, of course, as church officers or Little League coaches, but focus on how these relationships can strengthen your union.
  • Expand your communications network. As a steward, you need to be able to reach out to all of your members, by leaflets, by e-mail, by text, by Twitter or Facebook, by web page –you name it and technology keeps making it easier. Post short videos on your site of union activities in your community and around the world.
  • Your members need to appreciate the importance of new organizing and to understand that organizing is the responsibility of every member. A sharp steward will create a list showing nearby nonunion operations, and begin to create contact lists of likely pro-union workers.

One of the most important aspects is that expanding your information and activities will require that you keep up. Learn more about union activities in your area, go out and walk a picket line and report back to your members. You will be a much better steward for it.

-Bill Barry. The writer recently retired as director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. Unequal discipline.