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What is a Shop Steward?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 16, 2024
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A shop steward, sometimes called a union steward, union delegate, or union representative, is a member of an employer's unionized workforce, or “bargaining unit,” who is the designated spokesperson for that unit. Some very large bargaining units will elect multiple shop stewards, each responsible for a different portion of the unit. Shop stewards in the United States are usually selected democratically by the members of the bargaining unit, but may sometimes be appointed by senior union leadership. Most shop stewards are volunteers and serve without remuneration, although they are usually reimbursed by the union for any expenses they might incur in the discharge of their duties.

A shop steward is a labor union official, and performs a number of critical functions in maintaining the collective bargaining relationship. First and foremost, he or she is responsible for the routine maintenance and enforcement of the contract, or collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”), that governs the terms and conditions of employment. This often doesn't require a great deal of time or effort, but the union and employer are each well-served to have a union official on site to address any issues that may arise. Second, the steward is the main point of contact between the union and the employer's management team, as well as between the union and its members in that particular bargaining unit. In most cases, it is the steward who will arrange with the union hierarchy for their support when dealing with grievances, specific issues like safety and health, and contract negotiations.

In “right to work” (RTW) states in the US, union membership cannot legally be made a condition of employment in a CBA. In those states, while the terms of a CBA must extend to all employees eligible to join the union, actual paid membership is voluntary. In RTW states, then, recruitment of new members, also called “organizing,” often consumes the bulk of the time devoted by shop stewards to their union duties.

The two responsibilities that otherwise occupy most of a shop steward's time are grievance adjustment and contract negotiations. Grievance adjustment is a process in which the steward, following the procedure set forth in the CBA, takes up members' complaints with the appropriate member of the management team. Contract negotiations, although they take place infrequently, are actually an ongoing process at an informal level. Following a pattern much like networking, experienced shop stewards will constantly be gathering information for use at the next negotiations, as well as floating contract ideas with members of management. The shop steward is a critical part of the union's negotiating team, which will frequently consist of professional negotiators employed by the union (business agents and lawyers), and only one or two rank-and-file union members beside the steward. Of all the people on both sides of the bargaining table, it is the shop steward who is most familiar with the actual circumstances of day-to-day work life in the employer's shop.

Many CBAs provide for employer-paid time for shop stewards to attend to union duties, with the understanding that they not interfere with the employer's regular operations. Many will also provide for unpaid time off to attend outside union functions, such as periodic training and meetings, without charging their time-off earnings. A shop steward shares the union's Duty of Fair Representation, and so may be bonded by the union for errors and omissions respective of that duty.

A shop steward has legal rights as well, the first of which is critical to the success of the relationship between the steward and management &emdash; the general principle of equal status with management. In order to be an effective advocate for the union, the steward must be recognized by management as having equal status, and behavior or actions to invoke the employer-employee relationship and the deference it implies undermine that status. The next important right of a shop steward is the right to solicit grievances; the insistence by many managers that stewards must wait for members to complain notwithstanding. Finally, a shop steward has the right to participate actively in a “Weingarten setting;” that is, pursuant to a US Supreme Court ruling known as Weingarten, an employee being questioned by management who believes the hearing may lead to disciplinary action has the right to request the presence of the shop steward, who must then be brought to the meeting and may actively participate.

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Discussion Comments

By Telsyst — On Dec 09, 2013

An employee free choice bill was introduced in Congress in 2009. However, it was controversial and lacked widespread support. The bill would have allowed workers to form a union by collecting signatures from a majority of employees.

Under the proposed law, companies would have been required to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the newly formed union within a specified time period.

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