What Is a Shop Steward?

A shop steward is a person elected as a Union representative in the workplace. Their role is to be the first contact when an employee is faced with a work-related concern or issue. Shop stewards are sometimes referred to as a Section Secretary.

The focus of a shop steward is to effectively resolve an issue within the company in a way that is acceptable to both parties. He or she will generally request a meeting to discuss the issue with a supervisor or manager within the company.

If discussions fail to resolve the problem, the Union Branch Organizer becomes involved. If a resolution is not forthcoming, the matter can be escalated to higher-level representatives within the union.

As an important link between the union and its members, a shop steward is allotted the task of providing up-to-date information regarding union developments, membership services for union members, and explaining the benefits of belonging to the union to new and potential members.

While shop stewards work closely with management and employees, they do not have the authority to take negative action against the company on their own, such as calling for work to stop or any other action that could lead to disputes. Approval and authorization must come from a Sector Organizer.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities of a Shop Steward?

Shop stewards walk a thin line between what management wants and what the labor force within the company needs. Ultimately, their first priority is to the union and its collective bargaining members. The duties of a shop steward include:

  • Taking advantage of training programs designed to fully educate shop stewards in what they can and cannot do.
  • Understanding the union policies, company policies, and the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Serving as a facilitator and mediator between management and union members.
  • Enforcing the contract between the union and the employer.
  • Being available to hear grievances by employees and working with the employer to resolve them.
  • Writing up, filing, and investigating an employee's grievance.
  • Maintaining files and records.
  • Organizing, leading, or assisting in collective bargaining meetings. This includes preparing the meeting's agenda.
  • Being knowledgeable about Robert's Rules of Order when conducting meetings.
  • Staying current on knowledge and skills by attending conferences and seminars.
  • Holding monthly shop meetings for members to update them on any union issues and developments affecting the collective bargaining unit.
  • Alerting union leaders of any issues, problems, or developments within the collective bargaining unit.
  • Recruiting and welcoming new members to the union.
  • Greeting new employees, helping them get organized in their new position, and encouraging them to join the union or participate in union activities.
  • Organizing shop activities.
  • Attending steward meetings.

What Is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)?

The National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935 by Congress. Its role is the protection of the rights of employers and employees, to encourage collective bargaining, and curtailing certain management practices regarding labor in private sectors that may cause harm to workers, the economy, or businesses.

The NLRA deals with the relationship between employers and trade unions. The person with the responsibility as the contact between employers and the trade union is referred to as "trade union representative" versus a "shop steward."

What Is a Trade Union Representative?

The main difference between shop stewards and trade union representatives is that a shop steward is elected by members of the union and does not receive compensation for the role, whereas a trade union representative is generally appointed, employed, and paid by the union. While there are other differences between a shop steward and a trade union representative, a shop steward often performs many of the same duties as a trade union representative.

When selecting a trade union representative, it's in the best interest of the workers and the union to choose someone who has a thorough understanding of business economics. It is equally important that the candidate has a calm and unbiased attitude versus an aggressive demeanor. Selecting otherwise could lead to problems such as work stoppages, blockades on the premises, protests, and even industrial sabotage. Any of these problems could lead to disastrous results for both the employee and employer.

In order for a trade union to have its shop stewards recognized by an employer as a worker representative, the trade union must:

  • Gain recognition from the employer.
  • Show the company that a majority of employees at the company are union members.
  • Have no less than 10 union members at the workplace. The 10 members can be from one union or a mix of unions.

What Makes an Effective Shop Steward?

As the go-between person responsible for negotiating the best outcome possible between an employer and an employee, the role of a shop steward may be considered an arduous task. In order to achieve the best results possible, the following list provides a few suggestions a shop steward should keep in mind.

  • In the role of shop steward, the representative should never contact management without first having a mandate from the workers.
  • A shop steward should not sign any proposed agreement without a mandate from workers.
  • Shop stewards cannot have a caucus with union members that is, in any way, negative toward other shop stewards.
  • A shop steward will never act as an individual representative at the workplace without first consulting with the other shop stewards.
  • Shop stewards do not presume to represent a member unless the member in question is present.
  • A shop steward will not take on the responsibility as an acting supervisor on behalf of the company's management.
  • A responsible shop steward will always provide accurate information, regardless of the consequences.
  • An insightful shop steward is capable of effectively representing each employee's interests without risking the operation of the company or the job security of employees.

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