When employees in a unionized workplace have a complaint, the union rep, AKA, the union steward, takes point. It's his job to take the grievance to management to try to resolve the dispute, whether it's about pay, the hours worked, harassment or wage theft. Even workers who don't join the union are entitled to ask the workplace union representative to go to bat for them.
The Steward's Union Responsibilities
A union steward has a challenging position because she's looking out for workers and the union. If the union is weak, disorganized or short of money, the union rep won't be able to do her job effectively.
From the union's viewpoint, the steward's union job description includes building membership. When new workers join the shop, the steward should be in there pitching the benefits of joining the union. When the steward wins a victory in a grievance dispute, he needs to publicize it so workers see that the union has their back. If there's a protest or a strike, it's the union rep who organizes the workers and then mobilizes the workers.
A union steward's job duties also includes answering employee questions about employee rights under the union contract. A steward doesn't have to have the entire document memorized, but the steward needs to know the key provisions, answer the workers' questions and to be able to educate employees about their rights and responsibilities. If the rep doesn't know the answer, he should research it, rather than trying to bluff.
Right of Representation
Legally, every employee in a union shop, member or not, is entitled to union representation, if he has a grievance. The exceptions are rights that the worker can claim on his own, such as filing for workers' compensation after an injury, and also issues about the union's internal affairs. Non-members don't have a say in electing union officials or reps or in setting union rules.
The union steward, and the union itself, have to represent everyone equally. They cannot be:
- Arbitrary, refusing to pursue a grievance without a valid reason.
- Discriminatory, refusing to help because, say, the employee is black, Jewish, gay or female.
- Acting in bad faith. Acting in bad faith would include refusing to take a case, because the union rep doesn't like someone, or agreeing to drop the case in return for management settling another grievance favorably.
Part of the union rep's responsibility toward workers is to be honest. If the facts look like they favor management, a steward shouldn't offer the worker any guarantees about a win.
Fighting the Good Fight
When a worker comes forward with a grievance, the steward's first step is to investigate and gather the facts. Then the facts are built into a complaint and launched as a grievance procedure, following the rules written in the contract. It's essential that they file the paperwork before any deadlines expire, and get whatever agreement management offers in writing. A union steward should do a good job negotiating with the company. It's important to come off as a polite, firm and professional, rather than blustering, bullying or threatening.
The union rep isn't obligated to file a grievance for every complaint he hears. If the rep investigates and decides that there are no grounds to proceed, then that's a valid reason, as long as it's not arbitrary or based on discrimination. The rep isn't obligated to win the case, either - even if the worker thinks that the grievance was a slam-dunk. All the steward can do is his best.
If a worker believes that the steward didn't treat him fairly, then usually, the first step should be to file a complaint with the steward's superiors in the union. If that doesn't work out, workers can take the case to the National Labor Relations Board, or even to court.