I became a shop steward in 1975 after a six week strike. For me, the strike crystalized the relationship between me as a worker in the Vancouver Post Office, and the management of the Post Office. They had the power of the police and the courts, the backing of the media, and ultimately the power of the Government. All we, as workers, had was our solidarity and the ability to withdraw our labour.
So in order to build and strengthen that solidarity I did what thousands of workers have done and I volunteered to become a shop steward in my union. The dictionary definition of a shop steward is “a person elected by workers to represent them in dealings with management.” A shop steward is much more than this basic definition though. Besides being an advocate, a shop steward is an organizer, an educator, a social worker, a political activist, a health and safety expert . The steward represents the members of their work area or local to the larger union body and represents the union to their members.
That balancing act between members and the Union can get tricky. Our members are not all that different from most people and can at times be sexist, racist or homophobic. My union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, was a progressive one and had a number of good policies around those issues. In the 1980’s when the AIDS epidemic was in the news and people were ignorant about how the virus was transmitted, some folks in the Vancouver plant started complaining to management and to the Union, about their gay co-workers using the water fountains. They felt they could be infected. As shop stewards we knew this to be nonsense but we had to deal with these member’s fears. So instead of just shutting down those members we passed out info on AIDS, and facilitated shop floor meetings with gay activists explaining the facts. Things calmed down and our actions let the gay co-workers in the plant know the union had their back.
One thing is clear though: in dealings with management, shop stewards are there to represent the workers, period. How you represent the workers depends on the individual. Some people are “table thumpers”. In the bio of Jack Munro there is a “job description” of a shop steward – “Tough guy needed to give management hell. Size and a big mouth an asset. Inborn mistrust of authority required.” Nowadays it is much more common for stewards go about their duties with a little more sensitivity and calmness. This partly reflects the influence of the women’s movement in the workplace. You don’t have to shout to be a good steward.
Either way a shop stewards needs to deal with the beefs. As Bill White recounts in his book, “A Hard Man to Beat” any union worth its salt has to represent the members’ complaints and grievances. “You have to have your shop stewards but you have to make sure they have the strong backing of the rank and file. And how you do that is, you service the members well. You take care of beefs. A guy gets fired, or beat out of his dirty money, or he gets shorted on his holidays – you go and take it up right away. Then you’ve converted that guy. The union is something he can understand.”
Many people’s perception of a union is based on how they view the national president or of the local leadership. That is fair enough as they are the public figures who are interviewed by the media. However the shop stewards are the backbone of any union, they are the activists within the union and are convention delegates who vote on policy and elect the leadership. They make the union function. Unions that function well usually have a large number of shop stewards. In the Vancouver Local we had annual plant gate elections and shop stewards had to get a minimum percentage of votes cast in order to be elected. The idea being that you had to have endorsement from the people you work with.
A shop steward is a volunteer position so you are not being paid and you have to put in a lot of extra hours for meetings, trainings etc. When things are not going well in the workplace, the shop steward is often subjected to insults or harangues by angry members. So you have to be truly committed in order to be a shop steward over the long haul.
So what do you get out of being a shop steward? First, it often makes the work a lot more interesting. Sorting letters for eight hours can get pretty monotonous so being called to deal with a supervisor harassing a member can be stimulating. Unions, at least the good ones, will provide a wide range of education for shop stewards whether it be grievance handling or how to deal with sexual harassment. This training gives you confidence on how to organize a meeting or an action. Many shop stewards become good public speakers because you often have to speak up at a shop floor meeting. Maybe most importantly you are doing your part to strengthen the unity that is a union, and that not only benefits the workers as a whole in the workplace, but in society in general.
Unions are good for society not only in their ability to protect worker’s rights and to attempt to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth but unions are also important for democracies. “a fuller understanding of citizenship, suggests that it is only through democratic participation in small scale voluntary associations that individuals come to acquire the cognitive and moral qualities they require in order meaningfully both to exercise their democratic powers in the larger political sphere, and to understand the legitimacy of democratic government” In other words because workers experience, test, and use democratic tools in the workplace, they are better positioned to participate in democracy at large.” Nathalie Des Rosiers Let us raise a glass to all the shop stewards in whatever union. Thank you for all your work