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Sheena Mayers


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While grievances are important, very often it seems as though management will only interface with shop stewards on this level. Handling grievances is the most visible and dramatic aspect of their role, but they have other important duties.
A shop steward is an employee of a company as well as a labour union official who represents the interests of her/his fellow employees. Rank and file members of the union hold this position voluntarily (through democratic election by fellow workers or sometimes by appointment of a higher union body) while maintaining their role as an employee of the firm. As a result, the union steward becomes a significant link and conduit of information between the union leadership, management and rank-and-file workers.
Shop stewards are organisers. This is the big one. It doesn’t just mean signing up new members, but stewards are responsible for organising the whole workplace to deal with problems as a united group.
They are problem solvers. The shop steward is the person workers turn to with their problems. It might be a work-site hazard. Maybe someone has been fired, or perhaps layoffs are threatened. It might be just a new employee with a question.
They are also educators and communicators. They help workers with important issues including contracts and health insurance plans. How can I do this? Why did they do that? Employees will often look to the shop steward to help them answer these questions and understand various things in the workplace.
Shop stewards are not mouthpieces. While they are employee representatives, their presence does not prevent an employer from directing information and questions to their employees. Employers have the right to communicate with employees. Therefore, should an employer ask an employee a question, they have a legitimate expectation of a response from the employee.
Then there is their role in industrial action. Industrial action is a legitimate union tool which should be exercised within the ambit of the collective agreement. Wildcat strikes should not be encouraged. The established procedure is that the grievance should be brought to management’s attention for discussion. If during the discussions, industrial action is being contemplated, then the union official shall inform the company of impending industrial action even if specific details are not shared.  
When dealing with management on union business, the shop steward will deal with the employer as an equal and is therefore offered certain protections. The Employment Rights Act specifically states in Section 30, that it contravenes a worker’s rights to be dismissed for reasons that:
The employee was proposed to become an officer, a shop steward or safety and health representative or a delegate or member of a trade union; the employee participated in trade union activities outside or with the consent of the employer during working hours; the employee sought office or was acting or acted as a workers’ representative; the employee made a complaint or participated in proceedings. . . which involved an allegation of a violation of law, contract of employment or practice by the employer.
Can be fired
However, it must be noted that shop stewards can be disciplined, including termination, once both the reason and procedure are fair.
This is substantiated in Section 29 of the Employment Rights Act which states that an employer shall have the right to dismiss and employee for a reason if it relates to the employee’s capability at work including skill, aptitude, and health; their conduct – for example,  insubordination, misconduct, and non-performance.
As an advocate for employees, shop stewards should be concerned with the issue of fairness. This doesn’t mean the union can’t lose a grievance or make a mistake.
This means that every action must be free from bias or the appearance of bias, which will involve a thorough and complete investigation of every problem or incident.
Workers should be kept informed of steps taken on their behalf and cases should be based on facts not personalities.
Shop stewards serve a vital role in unionised environments, but the dialogue must be embraced by both management and union.
Continuous dialogue with staff and their representatives serves to not only enhance the working environment by addressing issues before they fester but it also allows for the generation of new ideas which can redound to the benefit of the organisation.