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  5. Unifor Stewards – Our front-line
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  3. Local Union Presidents and VP's
  4. Stewards Guide
  5. Unifor Stewards – Our front-line

Most workers judge their union on the basis of their stewards/workplace reps. When Unifor stewards are fair and efficient, members feel that the union is fair and efficient. Likewise, if Unifor stewards express enthusiasm for projects, members are more likely to take interest. When we succeed in making sure the collective agreement is upheld, we gain our members’ trust, respect and confidence.

The role of a workplace rep is multi-dimensional. It includes defending the rights of members by challenging management and filing grievances. But the workplace representative is also the face of the union – the main way our members learn about, and connect with, the union as a whole.

In the minds of our members, Unifor stewards are their voice within the union and within the workplace.

To be an effective workplace rep means that you will need to develop a real connection with the members you represent. You need to develop a strong sense of your surrounding community and you need to keep on top of what is happening in Unifor and the broader labour movement.

Being effective also means that you tackle the tough stuff – like representing members who are facing discharge and helping workers who are experiencing harassment. Fortunately there are many supports for workplace reps – you are not alone and there are people and resources to help you. The job of a workplace rep is demanding, but it can also be tremendously rewarding to support people and contribute to making our workplaces safer and fairer, and our union stronger.

So what does a Steward / Workplace Representative do?

Our Workplace Reps perform a whole range of activities and functions in the workplace that are outlined in this book. But most of what they do falls into two main categories:

  1. Protect the rights of union members by making sure that the terms of the collective agreement and legislation for the workplace are lived up to.
  2. Build and keep the union strong, providing leadership, communication, and guidance to rank and file members.

Steward as communicator

Getting and giving information are the two most important things in building and keeping the union

Getting to know new members

Some Unifor collective agreements give the union steward or committeeperson time to meet with new workers. Introduce yourself and explain your work as a Unifor steward. Tell them about our union. At every opportunity explain the gains that the union has made for our members (otherwise workers will assume these are ‘given’ by employers!).

Make sure new employees feel welcome. Put them at ease. Give them a copy of the collective agreement. Offer to answer any questions they may have. Offer your help if they have any problem. Let them know how they can get in touch with you. Give them Unifor information and invite them to get involved.

If you don’t have time during work hours to meet with new members, find a time outside of work hours and the workplace to have a conversation. Probationary members need our support and the first impression you make is always a lasting impression! Make sure that new employees get signed up as members and receive a union card, if they are not automatically signed up at hire or after probation.


Participating in union meetings, events and training sessions

Unions are among the most democratic organizations in the world. It is both a privilege and a duty for every member to take part in the election of stewards, union committee members and leaders.

Attend all local union meetings. Encourage members to attend all meetings, and encourage them to make their views known. It’s at union meetings that members learn how their dues are used, who their representatives are, and what the union does.

Make sure your members get advance notice of meetings. Ask your local for the booklet “11 points for meetings” from the national. It outlines how to participate in formal meetings. Get to know the process and help other members learn it too. Read your local union by-laws – these outline the framework for how you and your members can participate.

Hold departmental meetings and talk over workplace problems with the members. Let them know what is going on, especially those members who do not seem to be interested in the union. Some employers will allow the use of lunch rooms or conference rooms for on-site meetings.

Supporting your members

Be available to your members. Encourage members to come to you first with workplace problems – you can help them approach their supervisor. Be a careful and empathetic listener.

Encourage your members to use the union’s services. Inform them of social activities, events and campaigns sponsored by the union or your district labour council.

Help members experiencing problems outside of work. Help with EI claims, with daycare referrals, or substance abuse or addiction issues. Refer them to union leaders trained to respond to these needs, or refer them to any local union programs that may be available (for example, some locals have a Women’s Advocate, and/ or Employee Family Assistance Program workplace representative).

Connecting workers with our union

Help hand out union literature, local union newspapers and leaflets. Post notices on the bulletin boards. Use social media such as facebook to share union information.

Fight rumours. Find out the truth and let the members know. Always encourage them to come to you for the correct information.

Co-operate with local union officers and members of standing committees in promoting the program of the
local union. Teamwork in the leadership means solidarity in the ranks.

Stay in touch with the union through the website and the Uniforum newsletter and other Unifor newsletters (such as the Health, Safety and Environment newsletter). Sign up on-line for newsletters (www.unifor.org) or write to us with your mailing address (Unifor, Communications Department, 205 Placer Court, Toronto, Ontario M2H 3H9).

It is essential that the National Union has every member’s updated contact information. You can be a great help in keeping our flow of information going.

Steward as Union Builder

In most workplaces Unifor stewards have the opportunity to speak to members every day, at mealtimes and breaks and during working hours. Take advantage of these opportunities to inform members about the latest union activities and encourage participation. This reinforces the importance and relevance of the union in our workplaces and communities.

Members expect you to know more about the union than they do and they will listen to what you have to say.
They might not agree, but generally they will trust you – you are their elected representative and their direct line of communication to the union. Make sure to tell the truth – and do not make up answers if you are asked something you don’t know the answer to – you’ll gain way more credibility by getting back to them with the correct information.

Take the time to explain union issues and educate our members on the importance of unions in the workplace. For example, point out the unions gains when you’re outlining benefits, and always take the opportunity to
highlight the role of the union when you’re discussing workplace safety or issues of workplace fairness. If we don’t educate our members and take credit for what we’ve been able to negotiate, our members will assume that things have always been this way and that management willingly ‘gives’ them everything they have.


Developing leaders

Workplace reps can help develop leaders among the rank-and-file by encouraging participation and drawing on the abilities of others.

Take special care to make sure that you encourage leadership from all parts of the membership – if we are not racially and linguistically diverse, or if we do not have gender balance or representation from equity seeking groups as part of our leadership, then we risk not being in touch with all of our members.

If you hear yourself or another workplace rep expressing frustration that ‘nobody else is stepping up’, or that people are ‘apathetic’, it’s a good sign that more needs to be done to develop leaders (formal or informal) – for now and for the future.

You might be surprised to know that recent research on social justice groups tells us that more often than not, people believe in the cause but don’t get involved because nobody asks them to, or because they don’t know how to get involved!

Check out Unifor education courses that can help you develop other leaders. Encourage people who might be
interested in getting involved to take a union course.

Building unity in the workplace

Too often our jobs can be stressful, monotonous, dangerous, physically or emotionally demanding. This takes a toll not just on individuals, but also on how we view each other and treat each other. This makes us all too easily divided by race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, language, cultural groups and so on. It makes us vulnerable to rumours, and to employer-sown divisions.

Building and maintaining a positive workplace environment and a strong, united union is not easy under these circumstances. However, a strong, united union is exactly what we need if we are to combat any of the problems of over-work, stress, and the above issues we just mentioned.

The steward is the key player in the workplace who can build unity, by being fair and consistent and by going out of her or his way to make it clear that the union cares about every worker.

Speak out when you hear racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia or discriminatory remarks about injured workers and workers with disabilities. Stop rumours and gossip. Organise union and social events that bring people together. Practice inclusion.

Mobilizing our members

From time to time, to fight real injustice and win, the union must mobilize the true source of our bargaining power – the membership. Workplace representatives have always been the key to success in mobilization.

Stewards can help distribute flyers inside or outside the workplace; organize letter-writing campaigns; coordinate grievances to dramatize the need for stronger contract language; voice members’ concerns; car pool members to marches and rallies; take up collections for authorized strike support; promote union supported boycotts and petitions; and help the local union prepare for strike when necessary. Stewards are the engine of progressive change.

Organizing the unorganized

Our union gives high priority to organizing the unorganized. Organizing is central to building the collective strength of our union, defending pattern bargaining, building strong and healthy communities and ensuring that what we win for ourselves can be achieved by others.

Workplace representatives can play a key role in helping organize the unorganized:

  • In the workplace, identify where parts, components, equipment and outside services are coming from. Document the information. Pass it on to your Unifor National Representative.
  • Introduce yourself to sub-contractors who are doing work in the workplace (e.g., truck drivers making deliveries). Do they have union cards? Document this information and pass it on to your Unifor National Representative.
  • In the community, when you meet workers who work in non-union workplaces, introduce yourself as a member of Unifor, let them know what our union has accomplished for workers in your workplace and take down their names and addresses if they express an interest in the union. Pass the information on to your Unifor National Representative.

Working with other committees

Depending upon the size of the workplace, there may be other union representatives who are also working directly with members.

Most commonly, these would be the worker members of the joint occupational health and safety committee.They could also be members of a human rights committee, women’s committee, equity committee, union counsellors, etc.

You have to develop an intelligent working relationship with them. Don’t step on each other’s toes, and don’t feel that you have to compete with each other for the workers’ affection.

You each have important jobs to do, and you should help each other get them done. Again, cooperation in the leadership brings about solidarity in the ranks. One pitfall that you should avoid at all costs is letting the rank and file use you to second guess one another. Some members have a tendency to go with the same question to different people until they hear the answer they like.

Be aware of your jurisdiction. You were elected to represent workers in a specific area or zone, and you shouldn’t let anyone else do it for you. At the same time, you have to recognize that other stewards and committee members have their own areas of representation, and you shouldn’t interfere with their ability to do that.

The rules of effective leadership

  • Know your facts. Write them down. Talk them over. Keep a daily record.
  • Work problems through. Ask yourself what can you do? What can’t you do? What should you do?
  • Parcel the job out. Make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to do.
  • Tell the people who are doing the job how they are doing. Give everyone full credit.
  • Help each person on the job. Give suggestions, not orders.
  • Don’t make decisions that involve other people without talking it over with them first.
  • Use each person’s abilities. Don’t overload anyone. Don’t expect too much from any one person.
  • Follow through on each job yourself. If a job isn’t done, help get it done. Avoid blaming yourself or anyone else.
  • Let the people who did the job make the reports and get the credit.
  • Make use of the diversity amongst your membership – build links between workers from different groups.

If this means you need help from a translator, get help. If it means you need to confront your own prejudices about certain groups of people, take a human rights course and find out how we build strength through diversity.

  • Get to know all your members and their concerns.
  • Rely on the membership. They are the source of the union’s strength.
  • Build informal leadership and a strong activist base.
  • Make sure the members are aware and stand behind you.
  • Serve all members fairly and equally.

Steward as Grievance Handler

Workers should know to come to you if they experience a workplace problem. Many workers don’t know who their workplace representative is, or what your job is, so it’s up to you to introduce yourself and let them know that you’re there for them.

Often times you’ll spot a workplace problem even before a worker comes to you about it. If you see a violation of a worker’s right or privilege, tell the member right away and get it corrected. This gains respect for the union.

When a worker does come to you with a problem, you’ll need to sort out first if it’s a something that can be addressed through the grievance procedure. This will require an investigation.

Most grievances actually begin as generalized complaints – a worker complains to their workplace representative about something they feel is wrong. It is only through a good investigation that a workplace representative can determine the appropriate course of action.

Never tell a member that they don’t have a problem – that’s insulting. Explain the grievance process. Explain that some problems can be solved through the grievance process, and others can’t, and that you’ll work with them to find out whether the grievance process applies in their situation, or if there’s another way you can help.

Keep members informed at every stage. Take care to explain what is happening.

Follow the steps in this pocket guide and take time to read through all the ‘tips’ for presenting and writing up grievances. You can find out everything you need to know to do a great job representing workers and their grievances by reading through the appropriate sections here, and by talking to more experienced stewards and workplace representatives.


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