Stewards are the lifeblood of a strong union
You’ve definitely heard it by now—you are the union. AUPE is not some external organization that we can call up for a service when we need it. Your union is you and your co-workers, acting together, to advance your own interests and secure dignity at work.
Nobody exemplifies that better than a shop steward. A steward is the first line of defense when it comes to protecting ourselves at work. They accompany co-workers to discipline meetings, help shepherd grievances, ensure the collective agreement is being respected, and help to organize their co-workers to make demands of the boss.
As you’ve noticed by now, this edition of Direct Impact is a little different—it’s a monthly newsletter, which we hope to be a one-stop shop for news and analysis for to keep AUPE members informed about what the other 95,000 members of our union are up to. We’re also happy to use this opportunity to revive Steward Notes, a long-standing publication to help AUPE shop stewards in their many responsibilities. Steward Notes hasn’t been published since 2017. You can find older editions of the publication on AUPE’s website.
In future editions of Direct Impact, you can expect to find more Steward Notes articles covering all kinds of specific topics—from the importance of note-taking, to how to “map” your worksite, and the basics of filing a grievance.
This is part of a broader program—as outlined in AUPE’s strategic plan—to build up our union’s steward network. If we want to be able to beat rollbacks, if we want to stop privatization, if we want to win real lasting gains through collective bargaining, stewards are the foundation of a strong union.
So what does a steward do, anyway?
Protection from discipline
Ever since that new manager got hired, you’ve had a feeling that they’re out to get you and your co-workers. Every little mistake, even when they’re the result of management decisions, has been blown out of proportion. And you just got word that they want to sit you down for a meeting with HR. You wonder if you’re going to be disciplined for something that isn’t even your fault.
Who do you call in that situation? A steward!
A union steward is one of your colleagues at work who has been trained by AUPE and certified in their role. They know your collective agreement like the back of their hand. They don’t take smack from the boss, and they’re ready to stand up for their co-workers.
As an AUPE member, if you’re called into a meeting that could lead to discipline, you have a right to union representation. Sometimes that representation is a Membership Services Officer (MSO), who is a staff person at AUPE. Other times, it can be a steward. The advantage of a steward is that they’re not just an expert in labour relations, they’re one of your colleagues. They know what’s going on at work intimately, and they can reference patterns that have been developing at work—patterns like your new manager being unreasonable towards the staff.
In that meeting with HR, your steward will take notes, and challenge any time that the employer gets out of line. They’ll make it clear that you have rights, and you won’t just be walked over by management. They’ll keep defending you through the discipline process, until it gets to the point where AUPE staff specialists need to become involved.
Having a steward means knowing that someone at work, who you might see every day on the job, has your back if your employer tries to hurt you. Having a steward means knowing that you aren’t alone.
Enforcing the collective agreement
Having strong language in a collective agreement is extremely important, but without any way to enforce that agreement, it isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on. Stewards fill that role.
That means that if your boss is trying to implement some change that would violate the collective agreement, your steward should be the first person to call them on it. That goes through the normal process—beginning with mentioning it informally to the boss and attempting to resolve it amicably, all the way up to grievances, direct action campaigns, or whatever method you and your co-workers decide to take.
A resource for union information, a connection to your co-workers
Having a steward means having an easy way to connect with the broader structures of your union. With 100,000 members, AUPE has a lot going on across the province! A steward’s main focus is their own worksite, but they will also generally be aware of what is going on elsewhere in the union, and how that can help you organize at work. Even if you have a question that your steward can’t answer, they should be able to point you in the right direction.
For some worksites, a steward might be the most direct connection that you have to the broader labour movement. If we’re going to build a labour movement that is broad, inclusive, and capable of winning gains for all working people, then those connections—that movement that exists beyond your specific worksite—are essential.
Become a steward!
What’s most important to remember about stewards, though, is that they are just like you—in fact, you can become a steward! Any AUPE member can take the courses that are required to become a certified steward.
Stewarding can be hard work, but it’s some of the most rewarding work you can do as an AUPE member. We need as many stewards as possible, because there are always rollbacks to fight, gains to be made, and co-workers who need defending. Knowing that you’re helping to improve things at work, and that your colleagues can depend on you, is one of the best feelings we can experience at work.
If you’re interested in becoming a steward, reach out to your Chapter/Local executive or to your MSO. Let them know that you’re interested in taking on the role. They will give you some policies to read and explain the process to you.
By signing up to become a steward you’re taking your future into your own hands and helping to shape your work environment for the better.
Keep an eye out for future editions of Steward Notes in our monthly issues of Direct Impact, where we will look over more specific teachings for stewards. If you’re a steward or curious about becoming one and have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask! Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.