Union Stewards’ Councils

I would like to help organize, both at a national and a local level, a network of stewards’ councils.  Such a group would both strengthen existing unions and help organize new members into the labor movement.

Stewards are the vital heart of the union movement.  We are the front line leaders in constant contact with the rank and file.  We fight the grievances, give advice, and carry out campaigns in the workplace that help keep the unions strong.  Brought together into local groups and a national organization, we could learn from one another.

The Steward’s Corner column in Labor Notes is a good example of what could be accomplished, like the union local-to-local solidarity actions that are described there, or the thoughts that are shared about how to work on grievances and otherwise perform our steward duties well.  The labor section of MRZine offers another example of rank and filers reaching out to one another in order to better serve the unions they belong to.

But, one may ask, why a group just for stewards?  Don’t the unions already provide that organization?  Well, yes and no.

Looking at the labor movement today, one thing that jumps out at you is how staff-heavy unions are.  I don’t believe this is the result of anybody consciously trying to make it that way.  Rather, I would say that it has been the years of business unionism that led rank and filers to believe that their unions were mostly insurance agencies.  And, nobody ever suggested that rank and filers should participate more in State Farm or Prudential.

So the natural tendency was for union staffs to hire more and more staff so they could keep the contracts serviced.  This has led to a state of affairs where the prevailing culture says that if you don’t work for the union, you probably aren’t much of a leader.

Organizing stewards’ councils would give rank and file members more of a voice in their unions, and this would be a different voice from the one that the labor movement speaks with today.  To understand why this is so, let’s take a look at the issue of job security.

Workers everywhere have a legitimate, vital interest in the long-term security of their jobs.  This desire for reliable jobs is one of the main reasons we want unions and a motivation to keep them strong, participate in them and recruit new members.

But what about the same legitimate desire for security felt by a person working on a union staff?  The quest for security might motivate a staff person to do things that don’t necessarily strengthen the union, like discouraging participation in union elections if it might mean a challenge to their boss, the local president.  Or worse, it might mean acting as though rank and filers are not capable of having opinions about running the union, since the workers don’t have all the information that comes from working full-time for the union.

It is this desire for security that leads to the situation where the voice of people who work for the unions becomes, all too often, the sole voice of the labor movement.  Having an organized steward’s movement would help to balance this situation, making unions and what they stand for more relevant to rank and file workers.  It would greatly enhance new-member recruitment for unorganized workers to hear rank and filers telling them why they should want to join a union, instead of professional organizers who are telling them what they are paid to say.

This wouldn’t mean throwing the existing union structure in the garbage can — it would mean making a little room for rank and file participation in union affairs.  How about giving the elected leaders of local stewards’ councils a seat on their respective e-boards?  This kind of recognition could continue up the ladder through central labor councils and up to national leadership bodies of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and international unions.  With stewards having a greater voice in national affairs, the AFL-CIO’s political activities would probably take on a decidedly more grassroots flavor.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Maybe the labor movement would lead the Democrats to act more in the interests of working people than it does today.

In recent years there have been a number of reform caucuses active in unions, like TDU in the Teamsters.  What’s the difference between a reform caucus and a stewards council?  I’d say a stewards’ council is what we should do after a reform caucus succeeds in opening things up enough so that the rank and file can assert itself a little, like the Teamsters after Ron Carey’s election in 1991.  This doesn’t mean that there would be no organized opposition viewpoints within more democratic unions, but it does give a central role to elected, non-paid, rank and file leaders.

Brian King is a longtime friend of Monthly Review.  This essay is a revised version of the essay that appeared in Labor Notes.