Many roles of a MAPE steward
Before considering the specifics associated with being a MAPE steward, it is useful to think of stewarding in the broadest and simplest term. A steward is essentially a union representative in the work place.
The Steward’s Multiple Roles
To be a union representative in the workplace involves playing multiple roles: advocate for employees, communicator with management, information source for employees, enforcer of the contract, and the willing listener for beleaguered employees.
As an advocate for employees, a steward may be called on to represent and support employees when they are investigated under threat of being disciplined, represent employees in grievances, help employees appeal inaccurate position descriptions and performance reviews, and ensure that working conditions are safe, fair, and equitable.
As a communicator with management, the steward may sometimes serve as the “official” voice of the union. Stewards help to resolve conflicts through reasoned and sustained dialog while at other times serving as a dissenting voice when management oversteps its bounds or pursues foolish courses of action.
As an information source for employees, the steward may disseminate official communication from MAPE, educate employees on the language and meaning of the contract, and facilitate useful communication between management and MAPE represented employees.
As an enforcer of the contract, the steward monitors the work place to make sure that the mutually agreed to contract between MAPE and the State of Minnesota is followed and also ensures that individual employees’ and the union’s rights under the contract are not violated.
Finally, there are times when the steward simply listens to the concerns of the beleaguered employees without necessarily taking action on their behalf. The frustrations of the work place can be many: the steward can play an important and useful part in helping employees vent their frustrations and explore solutions for problems without taking official action.
Stewarding as Shared Endeavor and a Learning Process
While this may seem a bit overwhelming, remember that a steward does not operate alone. Business agents, professional employees of MAPE responsible for multiple roles similar to stewards, are valuable partners and can be sources of information, guidance, and consultation. Each of the 21 MAPE regions has a chief steward, who often has significant stewarding experience and can similarly provide information and guidance. Fellow stewards both in your work place and outside of it can also help you to address the demands of being a MAPE steward. In addition, MAPE has staff charged with specific tasks to facilitate the day-to-day operations of the organization. Finally, elected officials at the state, region, and local levels also serve as official MAPE representatives whose duties and roles will complement and overlap with stewards’.
It is important to remember that stewards are not expected to know and retain all information and resources. Just as a librarian is not expected to “know” everything in a library, a steward cannot possibly be fully cognizant of everything related to union activities at all times. Rather, for a steward, the important knowledge is how to access the information necessary to be an effective union representative in the work place. When in doubt consult fellow stewards, the chief steward, business agents, other appropriate staff, and other MAPE activists. Do not be afraid to tell employees that you will need to get back to them if you need to consult others or do research to adequately address their concerns. If a situation calls for expertise beyond your own, call in and defer to the business agent or an experienced steward, including the region’s chief steward.
Moreover, a steward should recognize that the steward learning process is largely experiential. Even highly experienced stewards encounter new situations and must adapt to them - thereby acquiring new knowledge and skills. While it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the contract — both as a steward and an employee of the State of Minnesota — you will develop specific knowledge of contract articles and sections as the need arises and in consultation with other union representatives. Again, the general principle is to know where to find the information you need, not necessarily to have it memorized.
Representation During an Investigation
The details of your role in an investigation are described elsewhere in this manual. Please note that as this is sometimes the first contact you have with a member in trouble, your preparation of the member for this grueling procedure is crucial.
Grievance handling is covered elsewhere in your training materials. However, no discussion of stewarding could be complete without addressing the handling of grievances. Indeed, many employees think of stewarding as primarily being about the grievance process. There are two important principles when it comes to representing employees in the grievance process - the Duty of Fair Representation and the Equality Principle.
To Grieve or Not To Grieve
The filing of grievances constitute a primary tool for enforcing the contract, but it is worthwhile to remember that not all conflicts in the workplace necessarily require the need for a grievance. Sometimes, a conflict may not be a matter of major disagreement about the meaning of a contract clause or an outright violation of contractual language.
Stewards should be willing to engage management in discussion about work place problems. Sometimes a simple misunderstanding can be resolved with a frank and sincere discussion that identifies a mutually agreed-to solution. At other times, filing a grievance will force management “to the table,” where a solution can be identified before going to a higher step or arbitration. The point e is to not think of grievances as ends in themselves but as tools to arrive at resolution of work place problems, while, of course, meeting the duty of fair representation.
On the other hand, there will be times when management digs in and maintains an unreasonable position despite all union attempts to find common ground. Likewise, disciplinary action almost always requires the filing of a grievance if management refuses to reconsider. Make no mistake - grievances should be filed in these circumstances.
Steward as Organizer - adapted from Steward Update Newsletter
Union building in the most important duty of any union leader. A union is a member organization, and it cannot survive unless we are constantly working to engage our members and train the next generation of leaders.
The list of steward duties can seem endless, but the majority of a steward’s responsibilities fall under the umbrella of organizing. A steward listens to co-workers, helps them solve problems; speaks on behalf of those who face injustices, and mobilizes people to address problems in the workplace. Here are the basic tasks associated with organizing.
1. Meet and ask.
It is absolutely imperative you introduce yourself and the union to every new employee in your workplace as soon as possible. Do not assume the new employee knows she or he is in a union, or that she or he understands what being in a union means. It is critical to walk through the basics such as explaining what the union does and why she or he should join. Surveys show a worker develops an opinion about a union within the first six to twelve months on the job.
2. Educate your members.
Nobody wants to be told what to think, but it is important the union be a source of information and analysis for its members. You play a valuable role in providing reliable information to your co-workers.
3. Recruit volunteers.
Too often a local union relies on a small number of dedicated members rather than attempting t to increase the pool of people who can be asked to take on a task. Building the union means getting people engaged. It is best to start with small tasks: food committee, meeting set up, or good and welfare.
4. Organize and mobilize.
Stewards are the key job action leaders in every workplace. If an important issue arises at your job site, you need to be able to identify the informal leaders in every work group and coordinate with them to get information to members and get members involved in an appropriate action.
Contract Enforcement and The Role of the Union Steward
The key to effective contract enforcement is the work and activity of the union steward at each work location. The steward enforces the contract, protects the rights of co-workers, and continues the collective bargaining process between the union and management on a daily basis.
The most comprehensive and clearly written grievance is of little value to employees if dedicated and well-trained stewards do not advocate for it, and business agents do not use it intelligently and aggressively.
Tips to help you keep your eyes on the process and gain justice for members:
• Encourage members to submit all appropriate grievances.
• If a member has an obvious grievance and will not file it, find out why.
• If a member has a complaint, not a grievance, take the time to explain why it is not a grievance.
• Do not make promises you cannot keep.
• Know your MAPE agreement.
• Obtain all the relevant facts about the grievance and record them.
• Make sure the grievant knows what the issues are.
• Be honest with the grievant.
• Separate personal vendettas from real grievances.
• Keep the grievant informed at every step.
• Try to settle the grievance early in the process.
• Try to retain your member's confidence at all times.
• Discourage members from processing their own grievances or settling privately with
• Take the time to listen to the grievant.
• Keep written records of all conversations. You will need them.
• Know your rights. You are management's equal in all matters relating to the contract and the union-employer relationship.