Stewards are the absolute foundation of our union. As a union, we negotiate a union contract (a Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA) that affects everything from our wages and benefits to the details of our working conditions all the way to “just cause,” which prevents us from unjust discipline and termination. That contract is, however, only useful in as much as it is followed, and employers are regularly looking for ways around the contract so they can do what they want. Our power is rooted in our ability to enforce the contract, and that’s where stewards come in. A union steward is the primary person who is enforcing the contract, ensuring that it is followed to the letter.
A union steward is a volunteer, member filled position. Members from around our union who want to become a union steward follow the process outlined on our website, and begin by notifying our administrative department (or an Internal Organizer or another steward) that they want to become a steward. An election is then run, and as long as your coworkers agree that you would be good in the position, you will become a steward representing our workplace. We ideally will have a steward for every 6-10 workers, meaning that each of our worksites has many stewards that can ensure the contract is being followed.
When a worker has an issue, such as being called in for a Weingarten (investigatory) meeting or they have seen behavior from management they interpret as being in violation of the union contract, they reach out to a steward. A steward begins an investigation, which means they talk to the person who says they incurred the violation, they find out the facts, and they analyze the contract. If they agree that a violation has occurred, they file a grievance, which is a formal complaint (which is, itself, outlined in the contract) against the employer. The steward then represents the worker filing the grievance in this process up the grievance steps, all the way potentially to arbitration, which is a legally-binding top step of the grievance procedure. A steward also represents a worker who potentially faces discipline, challenging the boss and ensuring that the members get fair representation.
A steward should be the frontline of our union and be the first place that any grievant goes to for help. Therefore, stewarding is often the first union role a person takes on when they want to get more involved in union leadership, and it is required to take some more advanced leadership roles, such as becoming a Contract Specialist or a Labor Partner (in the case of Kaiser). Before someone can officially become a steward, once they are elected, they need to be trained by other stewards and Internal Organizers so that they have skills around key issues, such as grievance writings, dealing with disciplines and terminations, and getting back pay when applicable. A steward also has one of the toughest jobs in the union: they have to tell workers when they do not have a winnable grievance, or when they can get less remuneration than hoped during a grievance procedure.
We always need more stewards, and several worksites in our union have no steward at all. Reach out to the stewards in your worksite and see what needs there are, and we can never have too many people trained to do this work. Having a steward-level of contract knowledge helps to empower you and your coworkers and help us in all levels of our campaigns, from fighting for safe staffing to winning a great contract.
So find out more about becoming a steward! We hold training all year round, and at any time you can decide to step up and support your coworkers in holding management accountable. Management will not hold themselves accountable, so it is up to us to hold their feet to the fire. Our coworkers and our patients are counting on us.