Educate Your Members Regarding Their Contract

The more they understand, the easier your job will be

Stewards who continually educate their members not only reduce their own workload, but also build solidarity within their local. Education is important in a number of areas -- safety, how unions work, and the union advantage -- but no area is more important than the contract you work under.

The union contract is the single most important fact of union life. Your contract defines the relationship between your local and your employer. Without a written contract that is binding under law, we would be no better off than nonunion workers.

Yet many union members have no idea what is in their contract or how important it is. Many don't even truly understand what a union contract is or why union members have fought and died for the right to bargain collectively with their employers.

A union contract sets down in writing what an employer can or cannot do. It also defines what rights union members have and how those rights can be enforced. Members often overlook the most fundamental parts of the contract and focus on the economic parts -- the wages, paid holidays, vacations, etc.

Those parts are important, and union contracts nearly always guarantee much better economic conditions than workers can get without a contract. But they can only be effective because the contract gives the union the power to negotiate with the employer.

The single most important aspect of any contract is the union recognition clause. It's usually the first thing in the contract, and it rarely changes, so we may overlook it. The union recognition clause gives your local jurisdiction over the classifications and type of work covered in the agreement.

You probably won this right through a union election certified by the appropriate labor board. But that certification really doesn't mean much until you sign a contract with the company which includes the recognition clause.

That's when you really begin to represent your members.

The grievance procedure is another aspect of contracts too often overlooked by the average member. This section of the contract spells out exactly how the company and the union will work out problems that arise when a member believes he or she is not being treated fairly. Grievance procedures vary from contract to contract, but they usually include several steps, the final one being an appeal to a neutral third party.

The significance of that last part is easy to overlook. No businessman wants to let anyone else tell him how to run his business. And yet, because of the collective power of organized workers, virtually every union contract includes a clause that says if the company and the union can't agree how to handle a problem, the company agrees to let some outside person decide what should be done -- and they will abide by that person's decision.

Teaching members About The Contract Also Builds Solidarity

The contract will spell out the rules for the grievance process, including any time limits that apply and how each side is supposed to handle each aspect of the process. Your members may not have much interest in this part of the contract. That's why you need to make sure you educate them.

Members who do not understand their role in the grievance procedure may tie your hands by failing to notify you in a timely manner or committing some other oversight that ends their grievance before you can even get started on it. If that happens, they'll blame you, ignoring their own mishandling of the complaint.

Members who are unhappy with their representation often create divisions within the local. By making sure they understand their role, you can win more grievances and members will feel better about the union.

Likewise, a poor understanding of the grievance process may keep a member from realizing that there is a way to solve his or her problem. Some members will suffer in silence, building up resentment toward the union as well as the company, simply because they don't know how to get help.

You can't expect your members to know every detail of the grievance process -- that's your job -- but if they understand the basic parts, they can improve their chances of winning a grievance and make your job easier.

Another reason to educate your members regarding their contract is that it will improve their appreciation of how much the union has accomplished for them over the years.

Unless you are a brand-new local with your first contract, many of the benefits in the contract were negotiated long ago. Members, especially those new to the workplace, usually have no idea how difficult it has been to gain benefits over the years. They take your hard-won benefits for granted.

For example, vacations. Everyone gets them, right? And paid holidays? And sick leave? And emergency leave?

They're required by law, aren't they?

No, they aren't, and not everyone gets them. Many of today's workers don't realize that until only a few decades ago, very few workers got paid time off for holidays and vacations.

The same is true for health insurance, pensions, time off for funerals, employer-supplied safety boots and glasses, and dozens of other benefits.

In fact, all of the benefits included in your contract are relatively new in the history of work. After they were added to union contracts, many nonunion employers began to offer them as well in order to compete for workers. But without union contracts, it is unlikely they would ever have been offered.

It can be very instructive to sit down with your contract and make a list of all of the benefits your members get because of collective bargaining.

Seniority does not exist in nonunion shops. Employers dole out overtime, give promotions, and lay off workers based on their personal preferences.

Do your members get to keep their jury pay? Can they bid for schedules or for positions that come open?

Even the hours you work have been determined by collective bargaining and are included in the contract. Making sure your members understand that all of these items were negotiated is a great way to show them the advantage of union membership.

What Has The Union Done For Me Today?

Following is a document created by Fred Hill, president of Local Lodge D465, to show his members exactly how many benefits they get through collective bargaining. As he names a benefit, he names the page of the contract that guarantees this benefit for the members. A similar document for your local lodge could be very useful for those members who wonder what the union does for them. When you write it up, you might even be surprised yourself. Union contracts do an awful lot.

By Fred Hill, Local D465 President

I wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for work at 7:30 (p. 22 of the contract), and put on my uniform (p. 46) and safety shoes (p. 50). On arrival, the safety glasses and ear plugs go on (p. 50).

Some workers have had persistent equipment problems, so I troubleshoot them myself (p.52). I rely on my training (p. 33) to solve the problems, then sit down at the break table (p. 22).

Someone tells some old jokes, reminding me of Dad, who always told really old, stupid jokes. He could have used some as he wasted away. I'm glad I was able to take time off (p.29) to help Mom through that difficult time.

Checking out a printer, I notice that the great weather I enjoyed on my vacation (p. 37) is holding on, and before I know it, it's lunch time (p. 22).

After lunch I go to the utilities room to see if the compressor that had been kicking off is still running. The new deck over the pumps looks good. I shudder to think what would have happened if the old one had remained in place much longer (p. 49). The debris they called a supporting platform could have collapsed at any time.

Thinking about that accident waiting to happen, I remember mishaps that have occurred over the years. Most notable in my mind was the microfill silo. No one suspected there was a danger there. It was fortunate the usual shoveling out of the silo floor was not going on at the time. As other silos age, they require special attention (p. 51), as you see with the structural work being done now.

At afternoon break (p. 22), I overhear someone telling what they will be earning (p.26) now that they were able to win a job bid (p. 6) for the position they had been seeking.

That brings back memories of the jobs I've held -- especially the long stretches of night shifts (p. 23) worked after getting the bids, before I was able to get on days, sometimes by bidding (p. 6) and sometimes through bumping (p. 15) moves.

It took some patience and endurance, but we all knew how it was done if we really wanted to advance. I am thankful that over the years the wages have risen consistently (p. 59). Now even a high school graduate just starting in the job market can get a wage that exceeds most entry level jobs (p. 59) to be found, and can begin enjoying full benefits after only three months (p. 45). That was a long time coming.

Someone stops me wanting to know what to do about a subpoena he just received. He is worried about getting points for going to court. But that was taken care of in the last contract (p. 29). Last week it was someone who pulled jury duty. No lost wages for that (p. 28).

Just before quitting time I run into someone who just got back from an extended recovery from surgery. I'm sure the sick pay (p. 64) and unbroken insurance coverage (p. 43) brought about some peace of mind.

I'm glad I ran into him. He reminded me I have to pick up my wife's X-rays today. The surgeon she is seeing is going to need them for her evaluation for back surgery. By taking one vacation day (p. 39), I can be with her to finally understand what is causing her so much pain.

When the surgery is finally done, it will be nice to walk out of the hospital without worrying about settling a big bill (p. 63) before we check out.

It has been a lot of years and I feel pride in what the union has done for me. Aside from the principal function of any union, as "sole bargaining representative for all hourly associates" (p. 1), a lot of good work has been done by loyal people willing to give their time and effort for the good of all hourly workers.

The next time that question, "What has the union done for me today?" pops into your head, you might ask, "What can I do for the union someday?"