Adapted from a United Electrical Workers’ Union webpage: “Know your rights…and your armor!”
(The rights described here are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Public sector workers are protected by similar state or federal laws. Check with union rep or organizer.)
Don’t let management confuse you! As a union steward, you’ve been elected to represent your members — a job that management would often like to keep you from doing. Here’s a brief list of some of your rights and obligations.
1. You have the RIGHT to grieve about unfair treatment — whether you saw it happen or someone calls it to your attention. Management may accuse you of “soliciting grievances,” but don’t be fooled! It’s your duty to encourage workers to grieve about legitimate issues — or file them yourself.
2. You have the RIGHT to carry out investigations of grievances, including interviews of grievants and witnesses. Most union contracts provide for investigation on “company time.” For those that don’t, there is often a clear past practice that allows this. But, if not, every grievance must be investigated as thoroughly as necessary, even if it’s on your own time.
3.You have the RIGHT to organize and encourage your fellow workers to take action in support of an issue or grievance, so long as it doesn’t take place on work time and interfere with production. Management can’t stop you from getting people to wear stickers, sign petitions, carry signs, or take similar actions on break or lunch time. (Of course, stickers, buttons and caps can be worn all the time, unless there’s a special reason for a dress code.)
4.You have the RIGHT to request the information you need to process a grievance from management. You should put these requests in writing. Management is obligated to respond.
5. You have the RIGHT to be present in any meeting between the management and an employee if it might lead to discipline.
6. You have the RIGHT to be present every time a grievance is being “adjusted” or settled. Even if a worker has taken up the grievance on their own, the boss can’t bypass the union when responding.
7. You have the RIGHT to stand toe-to-toe with your boss when you’re conducting union business. You can get loud, angry, forceful, and speak your mind during grievance meetings. This is the “Equality Principle” that says you and management are equals in grievance discussions.
All of these rights are legally guaranteed, but they depend on how well you use them. When you do, your members will find their rights are protected, too.
The Equality Rule
Probably the most important protection is called “The Equality Rule.” This rule acknowledges that your job is likely to involve confrontations with management—confrontations that could lead to discipline under the normal rules of employer-employee relations.
You can openly disagree and argue vigorously with management during grievance meetings; question management’s authority; and, demand certain actions of management, all without risking disciplinary action.
The “Equality Rule” makes you a “legal equal” to the boss. But, it’s in effect only when you are doing your job as a steward, not when you’re acting as an individual employee. You’re acting officially when you investigate and argue grievances, request information and otherwise defend UE members.
There are limits to what you can do, though. Threats of violence and actual violence are prohibited, as are extreme profanity, name calling, and personal attacks. Actions barred by your contract are not protected, either. To prevent supervisors from claiming you “exceeded the limit,” it’s wise to have another steward or UE member with you during meetings with management.
The boss is not allowed to use discipline, either real or threatened, or any other form of intimidation to discourage you from doing your job. For example, you can’t be denied overtime opportunities, promotions, job transfers, bumping rights, or any other entitlement as punishment for doing an aggressive job. Nor can management assign you to the most undesirable jobs or more closely supervise you than other workers.
Some supervisors try to hold stewards to higher standards than others. “You, of all people, should know the rules,” is often a statement heard when some rule has been broken. This is illegal, too. You’re not a “super-worker” and you can’t be singled out for unusual discipline to “set an example” or because you should “know better.” The only exception: not carrying out responsibilities required of the union under the contract.