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A steward’s work is never done. And it’s often challenging work, especially when representing difficult members.
As union stewards, and this is true of staff organizers too, we have a duty to represent members. This is called the duty of fair representation and if we don’t fairly represent members the union can be charged with an unfair labor practice complaint. According to the National Labor Relations Board, “Your union has the duty to represent all employees — whether members of the union or not — fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination.”
But how does a steward represent a member who has discriminated against coworkers? Or, in the case of teachers or health-care workers, who have harmed students and patients? How do you represent a worker who is racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic? How do you defend a worker who has done wrong or is their own worst enemy?
These are issues that come up for stewards and union reps all the time, and it’s about time we talk about them.
Investigations and just cause
As any informed union member knows, the moment the boss has questions that may lead to discipline or termination, you need to invoke your Weingarten Rights and have a steward present.
As any good steward knows, you need to stand toe-to-toe with management. Stewards have additional rights beyond those afforded to union members, and they stand equally to management during investigations, in disciplinary and termination hearings. And they can request information and conduct their own investigations as well.
Your presence in such a meeting means that members will feel the support of the union behind them. Then take a caucus as needed or when things get heated, rephrase confusing management questions or “gotcha questions,” take detailed notes, review evidence presented and request evidence that isn’t, and interview witnesses rigorously as to defend our members from unfair and unjust discipline.
Now, if members are being retaliated against for their union membership and organizing, that is one thing. But if management is trying to discipline and terminate members for attendance and performance issues, that is another thing and you need to hold employers to the “seven principles of just cause” to make sure the process is fair.
Racist, sexist, anti-gay? Go away!
Unions don’t choose their members; employers do and then our unions organize them. Since we live in a white supremacist, settler colonialist, xenophobic, patriarchal, homophobic and transphobic society our unions have members who hold these repugnant views. While unions are great equalizers, addressing inequality between Black and white workers, between workers of different genders, they need to actively organize against oppression.
Since our workplaces include racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic workers so do our unions and it’s the role of our unions to confront these divisions in the working class. Nevertheless, members will post racist comments online, say sexist things to coworkers, discriminate against queer social service clients and trans customers. Stewards will be called to represent these members.
Employers — from corporate monoliths to nonprofits with progressive veneers — are more concerned with limiting liability than creating democratic workplaces based in anti-oppression practices. As such, stewards and unions need to set workplace standards, educate workers, and use the defense of a difficult member as an organizing opportunity to challenge troubling behaviors and the threat of discipline or termination to challenge their oppressive views.
Do wrong to none
At times members will do wrong, harm coworkers, customers, clients and community members. Few steward duties are harder than defending a teacher who has hurt a student or a health-care worker who has harmed a patient.
In these moments a steward’s duties is to ensure due process, that substantial evidence is presented, that equal treatment is followed, and that progressive discipline is enacted. If management can violate just cause of members who have done harm, then they will do it for those who haven’t or those who are wrongly accused. Progressive discipline or a negotiated corrective action plan will provide the opportunity for the member to repair the harm they caused and stop causing it in the future.
What is more, stewards in their role have a unique opportunity to confront members with the evidence of their poor behavior and performance and can aid them in understanding the need to transform their individual actions as well the social conditions that produce harm.
At other times, there will be a member who is their own worst enemy and will admit to things they weren’t accused of. It will be the steward’s role to protect them from themselves. Then, there will be anti-union members or fee payers who need representation. A steward will need to remind them of the rights and support they gain is only possible because they are union members.
Later, there will be a member who wants a steward to act as their personal defense attorney or one who wants a grievance filed when it isn’t valid, possibly in a discipline case that was handled justly. In the first instance, a steward will need to direct them to take an active role in their own defense. In the second instance, a steward will need to share their honest assessment with the member and possibly take them through the grievance process until management tells them no.
And finally, stewards and our unions will have to listen to our own consciences. Truly egregious behaviors, those with unrepentant racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic views, members who refuse to change might require us to accept a duty of fair representation charge and stand on principle.
Enforce the contract, build the union
A steward’s role is to make sure the contract is enforced, that just cause is met, that the harm to coworkers is mitigated, that the union defends its members, that creative solutions are sought out to turn perpetrators of harm into new people and build the union into a fighting force to challenge discrimination on the job and in society.
Kevin Van Meter is a union organizer and author of “Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible” and is currently writing his next book: “Reading Struggles: Autonomist Marxism from Detroit to Turin and Back Again.” Follow him @AmericanWork47
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