Friday, June 26, 2015

Look For The Union Label

When I was still working I was a union steward. I will tell you more about that but first I will tell you that I know the good side and the bad side of unions.

Unions are organizations designed to help workers obtain better working conditions from their employers. Some of these include fair pay, reasonable time limitations of hours worked, fairness of discipline and treatment in the work place, seniority rights, freedom from fear of dismissal without cause, and a grievance system to address problems in the work place.

In order to guarantee the working conditions the union and employer negotiate a contract which is either ratified by a vote of the workers or denied in the same way. Once an agreement is reached it is filed in the courts and becomes a legal document. Infringement of the rules set forth in the contract is a violation of the court.

Some of the things I feel are wrong with unions are that some have become as authoritarian as the employers they were designed to deal with. Some union officials make more money than officers of the companies. This money is paid from the dues collected from the workers.

Some unions do not fairly represent the employees who pay their wages. Some unions and their officials are content to collect salaries as they do little of anything except promote the union.

There are many unions. I will not name any. Locals are subdivisions of a larger union. The locals pay dues to the larger unions in order to have superior strength in larger numbers. These are powerful machines. They have accomplished much good for working people. They have caused problems at times. I am not making a statement for against unions. That is for you to decide for your own circumstances.

I was working in a union shop.  I was hired as a part-time worker as was everyone in that store. It was a part of the contract with the union.

I accepted as many hours of work as I could get because that was how I supported myself. I was working at least 36 hours a week that way. Part-time work was 32 hours as stated in the contract. A full-time employee worked 40 hours per week.

As I was reading my contract I saw that if I worked at least 36 hours a week for 16 weeks the store was required to promote me to full time. I kept my mouth shut and after 16 weeks I went to my manager and asked for my promotion. She denied me as I expected.

I went to one of the union stewards for assistance. My store was supposed to have 7 stewards. At that time we had 3.

The first steward I talked to told me that everybody wanted full-time. It would be unfair for me to be promoted before others who hired in before me. She would not file a grievance. I went to another steward.

The new steward was surprised that the contract had a provision to make me full-time. However he did file a grievance. After a couple of weeks of no progress I called the supervisor in charge of several stores in our area. She said she would look into it.

After a couple of weeks I again called her. She no longer worked in my area. I was connected with the new supervisor. She would look into it. I called her in a couple of weeks. After a few months she no longer had my area.

I went through this routine with at least 6 supervisors assigned to my area. After a YEAR I called again because I was afraid that with a lapse of a year with nothing being done they would inform me that too much time had passed and my complaint had expired.

Guess who I talked to. It was the original superviaor! She had just been assigned to our area again. She even remembered my request for help.

"Hasn't this been taken care of yet?" was all she had to say. When she started to tell me that she would check into it I interrupted her.

"What do I have to do to get this taken care of? Do I have to sue the union?"

"OH DON'T DO THAT! Let me call you back."

I was full-time the following week. I should have made the threat earlier.

Someone said that my store needed another union steward. She thought I should apply. I did and was made steward. A union steward is simply an employee of the shop who addresses what workers view as wrongs.

A steward is the person in the workplace who listens to worker's complaints. Then they file a grievance and try to apply the part of the contract that is being violated to deny the worker's rights. The union then talks to management to try to solve the problem.

A steward is also required to attend regular union meetings and training sessions. The president of the local was fond of beginning each session by going around the room to introduce each steward and which store they represented. Then he would ask us why we became a steward.

The altruistic answers often amounted to the Miss Whatever characterization of "World Peace". He would smile and nod.

My turn came. I said that the union had screwed me over and I did not want that to happen to anyone else so I became a steward to try to make a difference.

After he caught his breath he nodded numbly. He stopped asking that question.

I have been a bit of a protester all my life so I enjoyed my activities with the union. I would like to think I accomplished some good.

I like to think that I also instilled a sense of social responsibility in my children. It is important to fight injustice and to help the net guy if he needs it. I think I was successful.

My youngest son was elected committeeman in his work place. That is the union liaison with the stewards. He made the mistake of letting workers have his personal phone number and was being constantly bombarded at home. Other than that he enjoys fighting the good fight.

His son, my oldest grandson, was hired to work in the same shop as my son. After about a year of watching the unfairness that angered him he became a union steward too. He is a black-and-white person. A thing is either right or wrong. Grays have no place in his life. He also enjoys helping theose who feel they cannot help themselves.

Unions came into being because of reprehensible working conditions. Workers banded together to demand better treatment. Because of unions we now have a 40 hour work week and a lot of other provisions to protect workers and their jobs.

While I do not necessarily agree with some of the things unions do or do not do I believe that without them working conditions could rapidly decline into what they once were. What to do? I wish I had the answer.


  1. I agree 100% with your last paragraph. You're so right; there is no answer except to keep doing what is right.

    1. If everyone would do what is right this would be a perfect world. I agree with you.

  2. Emma, I so admire what you did. I saw union come in and paid dues for 32 years and was rewarded by improvements in my workplace. Then I retired. 5 or 6 years down the line, we retirees pretty much got sold down the river anent health insurance and benefits. SEIU was quite glib about modernizing and helping cut costs for current workers until I asked that old question: Who's got their hands in the till?(You know, the question we all ask when our unions are bought off by management) It's a different world now for labor reform. Back to square one, I guess. But that's where government by discussion always starts. Our kids and grandkids will benefit from whatever trouble we make.

    1. Too many unions cajoled workers into taking "wage concessions" in exchange for extended retirement benefits. We all know how that turned out. I wish employees would read the contract because it is available to them. I used to pass a copy out to each new employee. Then voice opinions and vote on all issues that require an election. Workers ARE the union. All the union officials are the employees of the union. Expect them to do a good job or find a new employee.

  3. Working in the corporate world for most of my adult life, I was never a union member. The onky exception is when I worked at a supermarket during my high school years. There was a union there, but I was not involved in it other than to have union dues deducted from my pay. My brother worked for a large auto company and belonged to the union and was also a steward. They do good things for many people who would otherwise have no recourse. Indeed, there can be safety in numbers.

    1. That is so true. Workers need to have a forum to address problems without fear of unfair consequences. The protection is also there for employers. They have procedures in writing that state what they can expect of their employees. A contract is a good thing. Congratulations to your brother. Being a union steward is a huge undertaking if done correctly.

  4. "A Bit of a Protester" should sell T-shirts with that! You could make a fortune!
    NO unions involved! HA!

    1. Believe me I have protested many things not involving unions.

  5. Dear Emma, thank you for that very interesting glimpse into unions!
    I was in one for a very short time - and saw that they act very much like politicians, meaning: people use their positions as career steps.
    I do not deny that unions play an important role to help workers to get their rights - but here in Germany at this very moment we see the sad power play between a very ambitious man of the railway union, trying to get even more power - meaning: all citizens in Germany are very often without a train or S-Bahn, and we cannot see the 'good cause' (which I can see when the medical profession in Berlin is on strike, all of them in the Charité - as a hospital nurse really does not get enough money for her very hard work.

    1. It is good to get a perspective from Germany. A strike or any type of work stoppage should be only as an absolute last resort. I do remember a lot of workers who would get excited at the prospect of a strike at each contract negotiation. During a strike most workers do not get a paycheck which means that they will be more likely to want to go back to work at any cost. Most employers can afford to wait it out for a while. Common sense should always apply.

  6. i am not active in our union but am glad for their existence because I believe they strongly represent the welfare of our education system for both students and teachers, however, I am cognizant of the fact as well that other places may not have as good union. I am glad for you to be able to really voice out what you believe is right, I believe we all should do

    1. Yes we all should. If you choose not to be active in the union at least read your contract and know what your rights are. Also know what your responsibilities are.