Union 101

There is power in numbers—as well as in knowledge.
An old African proverb says, "If you want to go quicklygo aloneIf you want to go fargo together."
Union 101:
A Quick Study of How Unions Help Workers Win a Voice on the Job
Adapted from The Union Members Complete Guide, by Michael Mauer
What Are Unions?
A union is nothing more complicated than a group of workers who have chosen to band together to promote their common interests. One person standing alone may be weak, but many joined together are powerful.
A union is a group of workers who form an organization to gain:
  • Respect on the job,
  • Better wages and benefits,
  • More flexibility for work and family needs,
  • A counterbalance to the unchecked power of employers, and
  • A voice in improving the quality of their products and services.
How do people form a union?
When workers decide they want to come together to improve their jobs, they work with a union to help them form their own local chapter. Once a majority of workers shows they want a union, sometimes employers honor the workers’ choice. Often, the workers must ask the government to hold an election. If the workers win their union, they negotiate a contract with the employer that spells out each party’s rights and responsibilities in the workplace.
Does the law protect workers joining unions?
It’s supposed to—but too often it doesn’t. Under the law, employers are not allowed to discriminate against or fire workers for choosing to join a union. For example, it’s illegal for employers to threaten to shut down their businesses or to fire employees or take away benefits if workers form a union. However, employers routinely violate these laws, and the penalties are weak or nonexistent.
What kinds of workers are forming unions today?
A wider range of people than ever before, including many women and immigrants, is joining unions—doctors and nurses, poultry workers and graduate employees, home health care aides and wireless communications workers, auto parts workers and engineers, to name a few.
How do unions help working families today?
Through unions, workers win better wages, benefits and a voice on the job—and good union jobs mean stronger communities. Union workers earn 30 percent more than nonunion workers and are more likely to receive health care and pension benefits than those without a union. In 2007, median weekly earnings for full-time union wage and salary workers were $863, compared with $663 for their nonunion counterparts. Unions lead the fight today for better lives for working people, such as through expanded family and medical leave, improved safety and health protections and fair-trade agreements that lift the standard of living for workers all over the world.
What have unions accomplished for all workers?
Unions have made life better for all working Americans by helping to pass laws ending child labor, establishing the eight-hour day, protecting workers’ safety and health and helping create Social Security, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage, for example. Unions are continuing the fight today to improve life for all working families in America.
What challenges do workers face today when they want to form unions?
Today, thousands of workers want to join unions. The wisest employers understand that when workers form unions, their companies also benefit. But most employers fight workers’ efforts to come together by intimidating, harassing and threatening them. In response, workers are reaching out to their communities for help exercising their freedom to improve their lives.
Union Steward
Union Steward (aka Shop Steward) is the title of an official position within the organizational hierarchy of a labor union. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that rank and file members of the union hold this position voluntarily (through democratic election by fellow workers or sometimes by appointment of a higher union body) while maintaining their role as an employee of the firm. As a result the Union Steward becomes a significant link and conduit of information between the union leadership and rank and file workers.
The duties of a union steward vary according to each labor union's constitutional mandate for the position. In general most union stewards perform the following functions:
  • Monitor and enforce the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement (labor contract) to ensure both the firm and union worker are not violating the terms of the agreement.
  • Ensure that the firm is in compliance with all Federal, State & Local laws and regulations.
  • Represent & defend fellow workers whom the firm believes violated company policy or the terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Communicate & disseminate official union policy, memos and directives to workers in the shop.
  • Popularize and promote union consciousness and values in the workplace

The Rights of a Member

As an active member in good standing of NABET-CWA, you have the right to attend all Union meetings, vote on all motions and in all referendums, vote in all elections, and participate equally with all other members in Union affairs. You have the right to petition for any changes you may desire, under the terms of your Local By-Laws and the NABET-CWA By-Laws and Rules. You have the right to seek redress of any grievance through the grievance procedure. You may seek Local or National office on equal terms with any other member. You may, if you so desire, seek the office of delegate to Conferences of the Union. As a member, you, together with your fellow members, are the Union. It is and will be what you make it.

The Steps of a Grievance

Before just about any workplace complaint is put into writing as a formal grievance, an attempt should be made to work through the problem at the lowest level.  Even if your contracts grievance procedure doesnt specifically call for an informal oral step to start out with, you and/or your union steward should talk to a supervisor in an attempt to clear up any misunderstandings, or to resolve any disagreement.  This is almost always a good idea, in part because once a complaint is committed to writing, parties positions tend to harden.  And even if an informal attempt to address a problem does not in fact resolve it, it generally has the beneficial effect of clarifying what the problem is and how the parties may see it differently.  But if informal attempts dont work, the next step consists of formally putting the grievance in writing.  Generally the idea is simply to lay out, at least in general terms, that an identified action taken by the employer is being challenged, and that certain relief is sought.  Your contract booklet itself may contain a sample form to be used to initiate a grievance.  One or more face-to-face meetings take place following the filing of a formal written grievance.  At these meetings, the union and the employer representatives try to hash out whether they agree on what the facts are, whether the contract has in fact been violated, and if so, what it will take to resolve the grievance.

Adapted from The Union Members Complete Guide, by Michael Mauer

Educate Yourself

If youre going to participate in the union decisions that affect your workplace life, you should do so intelligently. This means taking the time to learn about the union and the issues it is dealing with on behalf of the members. If you dont have a copy of the union contract, get one and look through it, at least enough to get a good idea about what topics are covered and what the specifics are. Make a mental note not only of what rights the union is already in a position to protect but also what improvements youd like to see in the next round of bargaining.

Adapted from The Union Members Complete Guide, by Michael Mauer

What does NABET-CWA do for me?
NABET-CWA represents you to your employer by negotiating and enforcing a contract, which creates and protects your rights in the workplace, by organizing other workers and by being active in the political arena to advance the interest of working families.
Why do I have to pay dues whether I join or not join the union?
You get the benefits of a contract and representation whether you join or not.  The Agency shop provision in our agreement, negotiated in accordance with federal labor law, requires all employees covered by the contract to pay their fair share of the representation costs.
How are Stewards and Officers selected?  Why don't we get to vote on all of them?
Local Officers are elected directly by the membership in accordance with the local by-laws for three-year terms.  The local by-laws can be changed by the membership.  NABET-CWA Shop Stewards are elected not appointed.  Our members elect delegates to the Sector Conference, who in-turn elect the national officers of NABET-CWA in accordance with the NABET-CWA Sector By-Laws.
NABET-CWA is a sector of CWA, which is a representative democracy governed by a constitution in accordance with federal law.  The order of authority created by the CWA Constitution:  Convention, National Executive Board, the District, the Local and the members.  NABET-CWA Sector has its own by-laws, as well as local by-laws, in conformance with the CWA Constitution. The representative process starts with the members who elect Local Officers, Region Vice Presidents, and delegates to district and national conventions.  NABET-CWA Region Vice-Presidents and national officers form the Sector Executive Council, which is responsible for NABET-CWA policies between quadrennial NABET-CWA conferences.
What is a labor contract?  How is it enforced?
The employer and union periodically renegotiate a labor contract.  A majority of voting members must then ratify the tentative contract for it to be accepted.  The contract is enforced by the grievance-arbitration process, which is created by the contract and ultimately supported by the federal labor law. If you are interested in how these processes work, see our Shop Steward web page as well.
Mobilization is the "act of mobilizing." Webster defines mobilizing as putting into movement or circulation; to assemble or make ready for war, duty and to marshal (as resources) for action.
Just as we prepare each grievance as if it were eventually going to arbitration, we must prepare (through mobilization) each bargaining unit as if we were eventually not going to reach a settlement. It's too late to build a mobilization structure and educate and involve the members once the contract has expired.
Many Mobilization activities occur around bargaining time. For Locals that have functioning Mobilization structures, activities can occur at any time...not just during bargaining. If a Local wants to alert the membership about a Legislative or Political Activity, a Social Event, a special Membership Meeting, etc., utilizing the Mobilization Structure is a quick and efficient way. A working Mobilization Structure also keeps members involved through on-on-one contact.
There is power in an informed and involved membership. Mobilization efforts bring members together with a common goal. That goal can be a community project, speaking before a city council or supporting bargaining through activities. The best negotiators in the world cannot bring in a Contract without the help of the membership through education and action.
Every Local should have a Mobilization Committee that meets regularly and keeps the structure up to date and running smoothly. It is much easier to do this on a continuous basis versus once every two or three years.
Mobilization can mean the difference in obtaining a great versus a mediocre contract; the election of good candidates versus bad and the education of many members versus few. Mobilization is one of the most important activities that every Local should be involved in.
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