Union stewards help enforce the terms of a collective agreement. They often represent workers during investigation meetings and when management breaks the terms of the collective agreement. Most people who are involved in the labour movement know that this is a steward’s role in a union.
But the role of a union steward is always changing. It is dynamic. So, what is the role of a steward when it comes to collective bargaining?
This is an important question for AUPE stewards. Approximately 82,000 members will enter bargaining in 2024, including the largest groups of members working for the Government of Alberta, Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, several post-secondary institutions, and more.
The answer is organizing. Stewards are leaders on the worksite. Your members depend on you; they turn to you for help and advice. This puts you in the perfect position to help organize your coworkers for success during negotiations.
Organizing for bargaining includes many steps and can take many forms. Stewards can quickly and effectively share the latest bargaining updates with members, for example. More than that, stewards can help the negotiating team, worksite leaders, and AUPE staff organizers create the solidarity necessary for your employer to listen to our proposals.
Think about it. Our employers and their negotiators do not have to agree with what we ask for during bargaining. They are, however, forced to take our proposals seriously when they are backed up with the credible threat of members taking action. Those possibilities can include everything from info-pickets and rallies to full-on strike action.
Creating connections between members, identifying the issues that matter, and fostering the solidarity you need to pressure your employer—these are all things stewards can do to contribute to successful collective bargaining.
Your unique experience as a steward is also invaluable. You have first-hand experience with the issues your coworkers face because of management’s decisions. In short, you have seen the parts of your collective agreement that work, what management takes advantage of, and what needs to improve through collective bargaining.
Sharing your insight with your negotiating team is critical. The more your team hears about the big issues that affect members, the better they can advocate for you all at the bargaining table. As a steward, you are in the perfect position to share some of the most pressing issues with your negotiating team. The issues you and your members face may feel overwhelming, but some of them may be solved with simple updates to language in your collective agreement.
Of course, we all know that our employers and their negotiators do not always agree to simple, updated language, even when those updates would make work better for everyone. That is why everything goes back to organizing the workplace and having conversations with your members.
Stewards are, now more than ever, part of a support system for union members. Stewards are the first point of contact for investigations, grievances, and, sometimes, when your fellow workers are just having an awful day. Part of being a steward is building an inclusive, supportive union, and that extends to advocating for members’ interests during collective bargaining.