A Primer for Rank-and-File Union Members

Being a union member [in the United States] these days ain’t easy. In fact, with organized labor under assault from both sides—by Republican toadies and spineless Democrats—to be a union member is to be engaged in a form of combat. It’s a battleground out there, and union members are fighting for their economic lives. Presented in no particular order, is a list of things that might help rank-and-file members take care of business.

1. No matter what union you belong to—whether you’re a school teacher, machinist, airline pilot, cop or autoworker—management will eventually try to use flattery or charm to get you to ridicule certain union officers or union policies. Be aware that you’re being played for a chump. All they’re looking to do is weaken the union by breeding dissension among the membership. Don’t fall for it.

2. Don’t file a grievance unless you’re prepared to help. Shop stewards aren’t professional sleuths. For a grievance to have a reasonable chance of winning, the union needs all the background material you can provide. While some stewards are willing to take on “blind” grievances (because it’s politically risky to refuse), don’t expect them to do much legwork. They have neither the time nor the inclination. And don’t expect a happy ending, because without the necessary research your grievance is effectively “lost” before it’s even been processed.

3. Dumb as this sounds, being popular—both with the company and with the union—is going to help you. The more likeable you are, the better chance you have of winning. The better worker you are, the better chance you have. The more courteous you are, the better chance you have. It shouldn’t be this way—clearly, the facts and only the facts should dictate the outcome—but that’s not the way it works.

4. If you’re looking for an immediate up or down ruling on something that’s neither precedent-setting nor overly complicated, Fridays are the best days to ask for it, and Mondays are the worst.

5. Like Don Corrleone in The Godfather, union reps insist on hearing bad news immediately. When lodging a formal complaint, share with the rep everything that weakens your argument—all the inconvenient details that work against you—and don’t exaggerate the good stuff. When the union learns that the actual facts don’t come close to matching your account of them, it not only makes everyone look bad, the rep will never trust you again. And don’t think he’ll eventually forget. He won’t.

6. Always remember that, no matter how often or how earnestly union officials praise “democracy,” they are more or less afraid of it. In the union’s view, an unexpectedly large crowd at a regular membership meeting is analogous to giving a child a loaded gun. Either nothing at all happens, which is lucky, or something very bad happens, which is tragic; but giving a child a loaded gun never results in something good happening. Union leadership regards a packed house the same way.

7. There are times when management is right and the union member is wrong. This is true even when it involves demotions, suspensions and terminations. But because union reps—like politicians—are uncomfortable delivering bad news, they often postpone it, sugar-coat it, or string you along by suggesting you still have hope. Help out your reps by showing them you’re a grown-up who can handle the truth.

8. People who say, “Show me in the contract where it says they [management] can do that,” have it wrong; in fact, they have it exactly backward. Labor contracts don’t list things that management can do. Rather, there’s a clause stating that the company has all rights and privileges not specifically denied them either by the text or by state or federal law. Labor agreements are “one-way” documents, heavily weighted in management’s favor.

9. Meetings are often frivolous. Union reps who happen to be regular hourly workers (shop stewards, safety coordinators, standing committee members, etc.) love taking meetings, even those that are more or less useless, because meetings get them off the floor and away from their mundane jobs. They’ll agree to any meeting, anytime, anywhere, on any topic, with any participants, and then do everything in their power to drag it out.

10. Worthy as your grievance may be, don’t get your hopes up. In labor relations there’s no such thing as a “sure thing.” Even if the steward assures you that you have one hell of a case, don’t get too optimistic. Statistics show that the majority of grievances are, in fact, lost (denied outright by the company, subsequently withdrawn by the union, or lost in arbitration). Best to go in assuming you’ll lose, and be pleasantly surprised if you win.

11. Going from one union rep to another will earn you the reputation as a “shopper,” someone who continues to troll until they get the answer they want. This is not to say you shouldn’t seek a second opinion, but if word gets out that you’ve already seen three shop stewards, all of whom told you the same thing—but you’re still sniffing around for an answer you like—you’ll be regarded as a monumental pain in the ass.

12. Keep pestering your rep. Don’t let him deflect you with some vague, “I’ll look into it” response, and then never get back to you. If a steward tells you he’ll get back to you with an answer, it’s his responsibility to do that, even if he’s swamped with work. Give him a realistic amount of time to follow up, but definitely hound him. A labor union is a service organization. The reps are there to serve.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.