Although they're typically at the bottom rung of the union leadership ladder, shop stewards generally are de facto leaders in the union hierarchy. Being a shop steward may be the first step in a progression of leadership roles within the union. Whether a volunteer steward or an elected one, union stewards must have their co-workers' confidence and trust to be successful.
In short, stewards maintain a sense of solidarity among union members and encourage collective activity to maintain the status of organized labor in the workplace. A steward assists co-workers in processing their employment grievances, and educates new and seasoned members on their responsibilities, union rules and expectations. Shop stewards act as liaisons between the company's management and its union workers to resolve labor-management issues before they escalate to matters that involve strikes or work stoppages. To be successful in this role, the shop steward must be familiar with the collective bargaining agreement and be able to interpret clauses that affect both labor and management actions.
A shop steward's primary job is the one she was hired by the company to perform. Employment by the company, after all, is typically a shop steward requirement. For example, a construction company electrical worker who is also a shop steward must focus on installing electrical components. However, her secondary duties -- providing leadership and guidance to fellow union members -- are permissible during work time, which is usually a provision in the union contract.