Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The role of the workplace rep or shop steward

This is an unpublished piece from last year on the role of the workplace rep.

How many people would volunteer for additional unpaid work, particularly when there is the prospect of getting into conflict with those who pay your wages? The answer it would appear is quite a few, and they are appealing for others to join them!

Workplace reps or shop stewards play a vital role in representing and defending their fellow workers, promoting union consciousness, enforcing the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, communicating official union policy and acting as a link between the union leadership and members. Democratically elected, and open to recall by members, a good shop steward is worth their weight in gold.

London bus worker John Murphy has been a steward for 11 years at the Potters Bar garage of Metroline, which operates 80 routes across the capital.  Sick of hearing people complaining about how ineffective the union was, and convinced he could do a better job he stood for election against the serving steward and won the largest number of votes, saying; “that whilst I decided to jump in at the deep end the union by providing training, and contact with a full time officer, helps you out whilst you gain experience. You’re not left on your own.”

As the newly installed steward John was quick to challenge any misconceptions that swapping one steward for another was an end to their problems or participation in the union telling members that he “could only expect to improve conditions and win grievance and disciplinary hearings if management knew I had their support for my actions. It’s true that I have responsibility in steering, or stewarding, things by gathering and distributing information but stewards are only as good as their members allow them to be. It mean’s s/he must constantly be reporting back and explaining everything that is being done in the member’s names.”

With around 95% of the 300 plus drivers at his depot in Unite, Britain’s largest union, then John, as the only steward, can have a hectic time. A recognition agreement with the company means he is stood down from working on the buses, to run a members surgery on a Friday morning, and to represent members at the disciplinary and grievance hearings that often constitute the largest part of a stewards role in any workplace.

Certainly that latter is the case for Sam Scholey, an employee for seventeen years at the Leeds office of the telephone and internet banking company First Direct and elected Unite steward there since 2003. Just recently Sam was delighted to assist a member who was concerned by her manager taking on aspects of her job. This left the worker in a vulnerable position during a period when the company has been making redundancies.

“When we examined the evidence it was clear that the member’s concerns were genuine and when we took the case to a grievance hearing we were able to re-assert her role in the company and protect her post” said Sam.

Where people have been made redundant Sam and her fellow stewards, with their full time officer’s support, have managed to negotiate an improved package for those leaving the company that includes being informed at least a month before they are formally given three months notice. Where possible others have been re-deployed and their pay ring-fenced, for a period of time, if the new job is at a lower rate.  Just recently Sam, as one of four negotiating shop-floor stewards, has played a role alongside full-time officer Justine McCarthy in “putting forward a number of reasons why a 1% pay offer made by the company to staff should be increased.” If agreement cannot be reached then the issue will go to ACAS and possibly pendulum arbitration. With average pay at around £15,000 per annum, with 20% more for night-shift staff, then the need to see wages increased is clear. 

Sam also spends time trying to get non-members to join Unite. She says that it “is particularly difficult convincing younger workers, most of whom leave school and start work knowing nothing about unions or their role in improving wages and conditions. I tell new starters that I am elected to represent them to ensure they are treated fairly and equitably. At the same time I also tell people they can become stewards themselves if they are dissatisfied at work and feel they can help make things better. At the moment we have an agreement which allows the union to have up to 30 stewards across two sites but less than half the positions are filled.”

Such a problem is common in many workplaces. Sean Ramsden is the Unite branch secretary at Havering council and one of forty stewards spread across those who work as coach drivers, street cleaners, escorts and on meals and wheels. He says that the steward’s role “is an important one that combines a number of skills. We are always on the look-out for people to become stewards regardless of their background. We don’t just want the mouthy ones from a workplace unless they are willing to make themselves familiar with the working practices and contracts of those s/he represents. They need to know what’s going on around them and also be prepared to undertake some training to improve their skills.

Being a union steward is about ensuring the workers voices and opinions are heard and represented in decisions. In the immediate future, of course, with the severe cuts the new Government intends introducing s/he’s role especially in Local Government is going to involve motivating members to defend their terms and conditions.“

And what would John, Sam and Sean say to anyone thinking of becoming a steward?

“Go for it, someone has to do it and by helping to organise people at work it means that as workers we can have some control over our lives.” John

“Being a shop steward, if you ignore you don’t get paid, is the best job in the world especially after you’ve assisted someone at a disciplinary hearing and they tell you how their support has helped pull them through.” Sam.

“It’s hard work, but without people being willing to come forward and represent their fellow workers then everyone’s terms and conditions will suffer. It’s one of the most important roles anyone could ever commit to.” Sean

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