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Building a Healthy Union - Checklist

Building a Healthy Union – Checklist

UE locals across the United States operate under many different conditions. Some exist in "right to work" states where union membership is completely voluntary, but the union must represent the "freeloaders." UE locals exist in the public sector where the biggest problem can be politicians out to make cheap points. In other locals our organization wasn't strong enough to win a union shop, even where it is legal. UE locals exist in factories of several thousand workers, spread out in numerous buildings and in public sector jobs spread out over an entire state. Finally, there are locals that have been in existence for over 60 years and those that are still fighting for their first contract.

Despite these vast differences the union serves the same purpose- to give workers an organization that they control, through which they can wage an aggressive struggle to improve their wages, hours and conditions of employment.

This can best be accomplished by establishing contract language and practices that ensure the health of the local. Many locals that have strong contract language had to fight years, even decades before they were able to achieve it. Other locals have not been able to achieve strong language, but have learned how to function effectively and represent their members as well as anybody. Good contract language doesn't come easy, but it's worth fighting for.

Contract Language

The right of stewards to investigate grievances during work time.

"Union Stewards shall have the right to investigate grievances and represent employees during working hours. The Steward shall be paid at his/her regular rate of pay. Employees shall be paid their regular rate of pay while attending a grievance meeting or investigating a grievance with their union steward."

The employer will usually want to add language that the steward must notify their foreman if they leave their work area or try to limit the amount of time spent on union business.

The right to meet with the employer during working hours.

"All grievance meetings between the union and the company shall take place during normal working hours."

With three shift or rotating shift operations it is difficult to find a time to meet with committee members on work time. The real point of this language is to stop the employer from saying grievance meetings will only take place after work. Many union stewards and officers find it hard to meet after work. Most have family considerations, a spouse with another job, children to be watched or picked up, etc. Besides, if the employer found time to break the contract during work time, they can find time to try to solve the problem they created.

The right of a steward to be present with an employee.

"The union steward or other appropriate union officer shall have the right to be present at all steps of the grievance procedure."

There are cases where employees do not want a union steward present when they talk with a boss. HOWEVER the union has the right to make sure the contract is being properly applied. This outweighs an individual's desire to bargain with the boss by themselves. Since the contract is governed by the union, no individual has the right to make a "deal" with the employer that breaks the contract. An individual can't agree to accept less pay or get more pay than the contract calls for. A person could agree to accept a warning given by the employer, but even in that case the union could file a grievance so that a bad precedent isn't set. The union steward also needs the right to be present to make sure the employer does not try to intimidate the employee.

Contracts sometimes say an individual has the right to meet with their foreman over a problem before it becomes a grievance. Even in those situations the steward has the right to know if an agreement was reached and what it was.

The right to take time off for union business, union conventions, organizing, District Council meetings, & special training sessions.

"The employer agrees to grant union leaves of absence for up to one year with proper advance notification by the union. Shorter leaves of absence for union business, such as attending union conventions, union district council meetings, special education programs and assisting the union with its business shall also be granted. During such leave all the employee's rights and benefits shall remain and accrue."

Union functions are not restricted to the workplace. Union stewards, officers and active members need the ability to attend union conventions and other activities. Especially important is the ability of activists to assist in organizing new workplaces. The union's most valuable asset in organizing drives is UE members who can speak about the power of the union.

It's not unusual for the employer to try to deny union leaves or place very severe restrictions on them. They will try to limit the number of people who can take them, or try to deny benefits to the employees on leave.

Sufficient number of stewards

The UE practice is to have one steward per department or direct supervisor. In some very large departments there may be a need for more than one steward. UE has maintained this practice because life has shown us that an effective steward is one who knows what is going on in their area and knows their fellow workers. Employers often try to limit the number of stewards, especially when it comes to paying them to handle grievances during working hours. In some cases where the union was forced to limit the number of stewards who are paid by the employer, a system of assistant stewards has been set up to ensure proper representation.

Union orientation of new members

UE stewards should approach new hires to tell them about the union. This should be done on their first day of work, even if they don't become union members for another 30 days or longer. This is even more important in situations where the law or contract doesn't provide for a union shop. In these cases the contract should provide for a union orientation for new employees. This means that immediately after being hired, the new employee meets with a union officer who informs them about the union and the benefits of joining the union. Usually the new employee is signed up right away, although their dues authorization card is not turned in to the employer until they have completed their probation period.

Practices Important To The Health of The Union

Many practices contribute to the running of a successful UE Local. Here are just a few:

Stewards meetings

Stewards function much better if they know what is going on. The best way for this to happen is to have the Chief Steward convene regular meetings of the stewards to go over the previous month's activity. In many contracts stewards only attend the first and second step of the grievance procedure and thus might not hear about the final settlement.

Another reason for keeping stewards informed is that the stewards are the organizers of the union. If leaflets or buttons must be distributed it is usually the stewards who do it. When the elected officers need to know what the membership is thinking, it is the stewards that can find out.

Membership meetings, formal and informal.

Keeping the stewards informed is key; the same is true for the membership. Regular monthly meetings are important. Sometime the tendency is to hold meetings only when "something is happening," but this can lead to a poorly functioning union. There needs to be a regular time when the finances of the union are reported to the membership, when votes are taken on workplace issues, etc. Informal meetings can also be very important. Many UE locals hold lunchtime meetings to inform the membership of important issues. This gives the union a chance to reach the biggest number of members quickly. When holding these "at the workplace" meetings it is important to hold them in an area that allows members to speak freely without fear of management reprisals. It is also important not to rush to a vote before everyone has had time to think over an issue. Sometimes 20 or 30 minutes at lunch isn't enough. Two or more meeting might have to be held to give the members more time to think.

Regular newsletters

Regular newsletters also help keep the membership informed. Since they will be read by management, they can also be used to send them a message. But don't only write them when the union is mad. This can make it look like the union never wins or settles any problems. Newsletters need to point out both what the issues are and what the union has been able to accomplish.

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