Being an educated worker in an unfair workplace will set you free! Educate Yourself regarding the union contract. The more you understand, the easier your job will be. Stewards who continually educate their members not only reduce their own workload, but also build solidarity within their local. Education is important in several areas — safety, how unions work, and the union advantage — but no area is more important than the contract you work under.
The union contract is the single most important fact of union life. Your contract defines the relationship between your local and your employer. Without a written contract that is binding under law, we would be no better off than nonunion workers.
Yet many union members have no idea what is in their contract or how important it is. Many nonmembers don’t even truly understand what a union contract is or why union members have fought and died for the right to bargain collectively with their employers throughout history.
A union contract sets down in writing what an employer can or cannot do. It also defines what rights union members have and how those rights can be enforced. Members often overlook the most fundamental parts of the contract and focus on the economic parts — the wages, paid holidays, vacations, etc.
Those parts are important, and union contracts nearly always guarantee much better economic conditions than workers can get without a contract. But they can only be effective because the contract gives the union the power to negotiate with the employer.
The single most important aspect of any contract is the union recognition clause. It’s usually the first thing in the contract, and it rarely changes, so we may overlook it. The union recognition clause gives your local jurisdiction over the classifications and type of work covered in the agreement.
You probably won this right through a union election certified by the appropriate labor board. But that certification really doesn’t mean much until you sign a contract with the company which includes the recognition clause.
That’s when you really begin to represent your members. The grievance procedure is another aspect of contracts too often overlooked by the average member. This section of the contract spells out exactly how the company and the union will work out problems that arise when a member believes he or she is not being treated fairly. Grievance procedures vary from contract to contract, but they usually include several steps, the final one being an appeal to a neutral third party.
The significance of that last part is easy to overlook. No businessman wants to let anyone else tell him how to run his business. And yet, because of the collective power of organized workers, virtually every union contract includes a clause that says if the company and the union can’t agree how to handle a problem, the company agrees to let some outside person decide what should be done — and they will abide by that person’s decision. Teaching members About the Contract Also Builds Solidarity
The contract will spell out the rules for the grievance process, including any time limits that apply and how each side is supposed to handle each aspect of the process. Your members may not have much interest in this part of the contract. That’s why you need to make sure you educate them. Members who do not understand their role in the grievance procedure may tie your hands by failing to notify you in a timely manner or committing some other oversight that ends their grievance before you can even get started on it. If that happens, they’ll blame you, ignoring their own mishandling of the complaint.
Members who are unhappy with their representation often create divisions within the local. By making sure they understand their role, you can win more grievances and members will feel better about the union.
Likewise, a poor understanding of the grievance process may keep a member from realizing that there is a way to solve his or her problem. Some members will suffer in silence, building up resentment toward the union as well as the company, simply because they don’t know how to get help.
You can’t expect your members to know every detail of the grievance process — that’s your job — but if they understand the basic parts, they can improve their chances of winning a grievance and make our unions mission easier.
Another reason to educate your ourselves regarding the contract is that it will improve the appreciation of how much our union has accomplished over the years.
Many of the benefits in the contracts were negotiated long ago. Members, especially those new to the workplace and nonmembers, usually have no idea how difficult it has been to gain benefits over the years. They take the hard-won benefits for granted.
For example, vacations. Everyone gets them, right? And paid holidays? And sick leave?
They’re required by law, aren’t they? No, they aren’t, and not everyone gets them. Many of our school district workers don’t realize that until only a few decades ago, very few workers got paid time off for holidays and vacations. The same is true for health insurance, pensions, time off for funerals, employer-supplied safety equipment, and dozens of other benefits.
In fact, all the benefits included in our contracts are relatively new in the history of work. After they were added to union contracts, many school administrators tried to offer a few common-sense benefits and without union contracts, it is unlikely they would ever have been offered.
It can be very instructive to sit down with your contract and make a list of all the benefits we receive because of collective bargaining.
Seniority does not exist in nonunion shops. Employers dole out overtime, give promotions, and lay off workers based on their personal preferences. The union contract is allowing many to bid for schedules or for positions that come open.
Even the hours you work have been determined by collective bargaining and are included in the contract. Making sure no members understand all these items were negotiated is a great way to show them the advantage of union membership. “What has a union ever done for me!?!?” Is a question I’m often asked…. It’s a perfect opportunity to share the importance of the contract, how union members fought for over the years and how important the person is by joining the team.
In closing I am asking each of you to reach out to people, reach out to nonmembers in our workplaces and share with them the importance of having them as a member because there is strength in numbers. Together we can achieve a meaningful voice at the bargaining table as a strong team standing together in solidarity.