Well, this is where things really start to get interesting. Once the cards have been signed, the election held, and your group has been certified as a bargaining unit, the fun is only beginning. Now your union has to negotiate a first-time contract for your group.
The First Contract-
Often, if the local union which is representing you has organized and represents similar bargaining units, they will have an idea of where to begin. But they will usually seek the input of the employee group first, in an attempt to garner some kind of idea of what the issues are and what the priorities are. This is really your chance to speak out and be heard. So do not hesitate!
The way a local union usually handles such things is to pass out a contract survey. They will ask you to list things you want to see addressed, and then usually ask you to prioritize them. This gives the negotiators a way to feel out the truly important "must-haves" from the lesser "wanna-haves".
Many times, they will ask if any of the employees want to serve as employee representatives during the negotiations. Often this role is filled by the shop steward, whose role will be addressed later, but it is often an open position for anyone who feels strongly about the isuues, and who can be a fair and trusted representative of the rest of the employee group.
At this point, the union requests dates and times from the employer on which to meet and start discussing a contract. Here is where things usually run into a brick wall. Many employers simply ignore such requests, and will stonewall until forced into negotiations, either by the threat of an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) action, or a job action by the employee group. Sometime, a federal mediator is called in. But usually the employer figures out that they need to bargain in good faith, or face major legal hassles. It is waiting game, and it requires great patience sometimes, so don't give up!
First-time contracts are often the most difficult all the way around, so hang tough, and hold to the issues that are important to you.
If and when a proposal is brought back to the employees for a vote, be very careful to read it through from beginning to end, and if you have questions or concerns, please speak up! Do not ever vote yes or no on a contract offer until you fully understand what you are voting on. Certainly listen to what your union rep advises, but in the end, you are the one who will have to live with what is voted on, and so do not vote until you are certain where you stand on the offer.
Just remember: no one ever gets everything they ask for. Negotiating is about give and take. But if an issue is important to you, do not back off of it. Once a contract is ratified, you are held to it as much as the employer is for the length of the contract. It is much easier to deal with issues arising out of contractual language BEFORE a contract is ratified than AFTER it is ratified.
You and your fellow employees hold the ultimate power of saying "yea" or "nay".
Use it wisely.
What are shop stewards and what is their role and importance in a union shop?
A shop steward is many things: an extension of the local union, a representative of the bargaining unit to management, an advisor to his or her fellow employees and much, much more. A shop steward is an indispensable part of the union shop. It can be a often thankless role, but it has it's own rewards.
A shop steward is elected from the bargaining unit group of employees by secret ballot. Often there are several shop steward positions and alternate positions per group, or if there are several divisions, each division may have it's own steward. Usually a sign-up sheet is posted, and from those who sign up, an election is held.
While there is not usually any criteria about who may run other than what might be addressed in the by-laws of your local union, the position requires a certain attitude of willing service and equal treatment to one's fellow employees. You have to be a diplomat, a psychologist, and a tough labor leader all in one. And fair and even-handed representation of everyone in your group is a primary prerequisite. This position is not about bettering oneself, but rather, serving your fellow employees for the betterment of all.
In the end, you will get as much out of the process as what you are willing to put into it. While it is not always the easy road, it is the one that ultimately has the most rewards. The long history of organized labor in this country proves that unions are the leading advocate for the working American. Unions have always set the high-water mark for wages, benefits, and working conditions. Unions have contributed in large part to many of the workplace protections many often take for granted today; like overtime, mandatory lunch and rest breaks, and worker safety regulations.
Some may feel that the time of the union is over, that our protections are guaranteed and written in stone, and could never be taken away from us.
That is a fallacy, plain and simple.
There will always be forces at work attempting to undermine many of the basic rights unions have fought hard for over the years. Often it is merely an attempt to boost "shareholder value" or the fallacious argument that U.S. companies cannot compete on a global stage due to our "unwieldy" and "burdensome" worker protections. But the fact of the matter is that workers the world over need these protections, too.
Rather than dragging ourselves down to the level of such countries as China where workers have few rights, shouldn't we instead be trying to lift them up to our level of protections and rights?
This has been and always will be the role of the unions in America and on the global stage: to maintain the pressure on companies to pay fair wages and benefits; to provide a safe workplace for workers; and to provide a voice and an advocate for the working men and women of this country and other countries.
If any of this interests you, please feel free to contact us. We will answer your questions and treat you with confidentiality and respect.
Next: Organizing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Interested in talking to someone about organizing your workplace? All communications will be treated with confidentiality and there are no obligations. So please contact Local 81 by phone at (503) 251-2381 or contact us via e-mail.