Create a Support Structure for Stewards

Create a Support Structure for Stewards


If you follow sports, you have often heard of the word “morale”—the sprit and enthusiasm that players have over a long and difficult season. Unfortunately, the same word—“morale”—is usually missing from any description of a steward system, with very serious consequences.

Stewards take a real pounding in the workplace: from one side, the boss is usually picking at them, and often targets them for tougher assignments or more careful surveillance. On the other side, are the members—bless ‘em—who think that the steward is so powerful that any situation, no matter how outlandish, can be happily and quickly resolved.

It is common for stewards to vent to each other about the members but moaning doesn’t improve the situation, and actually drops the morale of the stewards. Officers who are busy with other problems often take the stewards for granted, so the stewards feel both targeted and neglected.

As a result, it is often hard to retain or recruit stewards, increasing the problems for the remaining loyal and dedicated few.

What can be done to change this destructive situation within the local?

  • Increase the number of stewards. There should be at least one steward for each supervisor, and ideally, a steward represents no more than 10-15 members in the steward’s immediate work group. Officers and stewards should constantly be looking for new stewards in areas that are under-represented. A bad pattern often develops, with a dedicated steward taking on more and more of a grievance load while the rest of the members simply ride along. Eventually, even the most dedicated steward will collapse under the load.

Even if the steward doesn’t quit, a sudden illness or other absence from the workplace leaves the members without representation—not the basis for building the union.

In one local, the officers are considering a “tough love” program for areas where no one volunteers to be a steward—no steward, no grievances. While this may be politically unpopular, and a little risky for representation, in the long run the members must understand that simply paying dues is not enough to build a good protection in the workplace.

  • A continuing education program. One cause of stewards’ low morale is their lack of preparation for the responsibilities of the position. Often it’s a matter of “here—you be the steward” and a member is suddenly pitched into the middle of complicated workplace problems. Think of a “minor league system,” with new potential stewards participating along with the experienced ones so they have some skills, some background and some confidence when they actually take over the position. The more stewards know, the better their morale.
  • Officers should get involved in the consideration of grievances so that a steward feels that there is support from the whole union structure. Nothing is more damaging to a steward’s morale than to have a high local officer contradict a decision after the steward’s position is clear. Worst of all is an officer who publicly agrees with the company, contradicting the steward’s position.
  • Stewards should get public support from the officers and other stewards, even if a steward messes up a situation. Everyone makes mistakes—learn from them and move on.
  • Stewards should also learn how to get the members involved. Nothing creates lousy morale like a sense of isolation, especially when combined with the frustrations of dealing with an obstinate boss. Create group grievances, get members to find important information, let them show some visible support---like buttons or shirts—so that the steward does not feel so hopelessly alone. Better yet, the boss knows that a support network--which can help even the most difficult boss see things from the workers’ perspective--surrounds the steward.
  • There should be a kind of mentoring program, as part of the steward’s education. Let a new steward sit down with a veteran and begin to understand the strategic thinking that goes—or should go—into every workplace situation. Better yet, the experienced steward can predict some potential traps, and help the rookie steward avoid painful mistakes
  • Beware of apparently easy solutions—like paying the stewards. If you offer a stipend, or a dues rebate, there will suddenly be plenty of volunteers for the steward’s position. Do you want stewards who are motivated by a few dollars every month? Didn’t think so. If you can’t get dedicated members to help build the union, there are major problems ahead.
  • Show some appreciation for the stewards, however. How about a Steward’s Appreciation Day at work, or a special union social function to honor their efforts?
  • Plan regular steward’s activities, like council meetings or special educational activities. Let the stewards build some teamwork because this support network improves morale.
  • Finally, recognize the importance of morale for what it is—a very important intangible for a good steward system.

The low morale of stewards is a symptom of a local in big trouble because even good stewards will get disgusted and quit, leaving huge holes in the union’s workplace structure. The boss always knows about these morale problems and is certainly willing to take advantage of them to gain greater control over the workforce. A good steward system requires proactive local officers and a supportive membership but obviously is well worth the effort.

Bill Barry is Director of Labor Studies

Community College of BaltimoreCounty