This Labor Day, Let’s Salute All Union Stewards

Steve Early

NUHW activists in Fresno, Calif.

The real heroes of what’s left of the labor move­ment are not peo­ple with full-time union jobs, union-fur­nished cars and cred­it cards, and union ben­e­fits that dues-pay­ing mem­bers don’t get anymore.

It’s the men and women who take time out from their reg­u­lar jobs, under the bale­ful eye of their boss, to be shop stewards.

Being a union stew­ard, prefer­ably elect­ed rather than appoint­ed, is not an easy job, if done well. Fel­low work­ers can have a mul­ti­tude of prob­lems and com­plaints. If their union has a func­tion­ing stew­ard sys­tem, the first per­son they’re going to con­tact is not the full-timer down at the hall,” but the rank-and-fil­er who works near­by, in the same depart­ment, and func­tions as a part-time union rep.

Employ­ers may not like the out­side union offi­cials who peri­od­i­cal­ly vis­it their union­ized work­places — for con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, griev­ance meet­ings, or to sign up new Com­mit­tee on Polit­i­cal Edu­ca­tion (COPE) mem­bers. But there’s not much they can do to make them feel uncom­fort­able. Their priv­i­leged non-employ­ee sta­tus insu­lates them from all kinds of man­age­ment pres­sure and harass­ment that is an every-day occu­pa­tion­al haz­ard of good union stewards.

The stew­ard can con­front a super­vi­sor over a con­tract vio­la­tion, pur­sue a griev­ance over it, and protest job con­di­tions that are unsafe or unhealthy — all with full legal pro­tec­tion (or so stew­ards are told in their union train­ing). But at the end of the day, or maybe even before it, a stew­ard has to go back to work under the same boss whose author­i­ty has just been chal­lenged. And some employ­ers, not to men­tion their first-line super­vi­sors, have been known to take union push-back quite per­son­al­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes from a sub­or­di­nate.”

What bet­ter time than Labor Day — two weeks from today — to salute the crit­i­cal front-line role played by tens of thou­sands of labor activists who vol­un­teer to give their union a human face and a stronger voice on the shop floor, under increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult conditions.

On this par­tic­u­lar Labor Day, I can think of no bet­ter stew­ard body to sin­gle out for spe­cial recog­ni­tion than the very active one at Kaiser Per­ma­nente in Cal­i­for­nia. Most unions would be proud to have the kind of shop stew­ards’ net­work that was built up, over the years, by Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers (UHW) in Kaiser bar­gain­ing units with 50,000 work­ers around the state, pri­or to Feb­ru­ary of 2009.

But SEIU has mixed feel­ings about shop stew­ards, to say the least, because of how many have behaved at Kaiser late­ly. When SEIU nation­al offi­cials put UHW under trustee­ship and oust­ed all its elect­ed offi­cers and board mem­bers last year, KP stew­ards over­whelm­ing­ly opposed the seizure of their union. Any stew­ards who refused to sign a state­ment pledg­ing loy­al­ty to the new UHW régime were removed. Many oth­ers quit in dis­gust when they saw their dis­loy­al” broth­ers and sis­ters purged by out-of town SEIU staffers who were backed up by Kaiser secu­ri­ty per­son­nel and, if nec­es­sary, the local police.

In one of the most infa­mous of these inci­dents, at Kaiser Wal­nut Creek Med­ical Cen­ter in March 2009, a future SEIU pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry was present when cops were called because a pop­u­lar (but defrocked) stew­ard showed up, on his day off, at a stew­ards coun­cil meet­ing in his own workplace.

The idea that stew­ards should work for and be account­able to the co-work­ers who elect­ed them is laugh­able in SEIU. The union prefers stew­ards who are on pro­gram” — which means they just fol­low the orders of those high­er up in a struc­ture that mim­ics management’s own cor­po­rate hier­ar­chy. Pow­er flows, oppres­sive­ly and bureau­crat­i­cal­ly, from the top down­ward in UHW now. It’s not built at the base of the union, through the col­lec­tive activ­i­ty of work­ers them­selves and their own demo­c­ra­t­ic-deci­sion mak­ing about who should lead and how.

At KP, the weak­ness of this top-down union mod­el is being exposed every day. SEIU head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton has been forced to dis­patch hun­dreds of full-time staffers to Cal­i­for­nia to avoid decer­ti­fi­ca­tion there. These staffers are now flood­ing Kaiser facil­i­ties, with up to fif­teen assigned to each one. They roam the halls like the union equiv­a­lent of drug com­pa­ny detail men” (the ped­dlers of free sam­ples from Big Phar­ma, who often bring gifts and lay out free food in hos­pi­tals for doc­tors and oth­er staff). The work­place net­works that SEIU oper­a­tives failed to destroy or con­trol with­in the giant hos­pi­tal chain are coun­ter­ing this inva­sion on behalf of the new Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW).

While NUHW does have some full-time orga­niz­ers of its own, they are few in num­ber com­pared to the vast army of pay-rollers work­ing for SEIU. NUHW’s Kaiser cam­paign bud­get is a frac­tion of the many mil­lions of dol­lars that SEIU will spend to main­tain its grip over a unit of 44,000 work­ers. What makes NUHW com­pet­i­tive — in the largest NLRB elec­tion in 70 years — is a vol­un­teer army of stewards.

These folks have some­thing that SEIU con­scripts don’t have, par­tic­u­lar­ly those para­chut­ed in from out-of-state. And that is per­son­al rela­tion­ships with Kaiser work­ers. Whether UHW stew­ards quit after the trustee­ship, were lat­er purged, or qui­et­ly con­tin­ued to serve their fel­low mem­bers, as best they could, they tend to have cred­i­bil­i­ty that union out­siders lack. Their years of ded­i­cat­ed assis­tance to co-work­ers earned them the respect of many oth­er mem­bers. They are well-known and influ­en­tial in their own workplaces.

When many stew­ards declared them­selves for NUHW 18 months ago, every­one around them knew this was a deci­sion based on prin­ci­ple, not polit­i­cal expe­di­ence. No one would be get­ting any spe­cial perks or rewards from NUHW — which has no patron­age jobs or paid time off to dis­pense, unlike the incum­bent union. Nor would there be pats on the head from Kaiser man­age­ment, which has dis­played a strong pref­er­ence for SEIU over NUHW — and com­mit­ted mul­ti­ple unfair prac­tices to prove it.

In the Sept. 13-Oct. 4 mail bal­lot that will decide whether SEIU remains the largest union at Kaiser, or NUHW replaces it, the role of cur­rent UHW stew­ards has become even more sig­nif­i­cant. In a series of remark­able defec­tions from SEIU (all chron­i­cled here), rank-and-file lead­ers in a num­ber of Kaiser facil­i­ties have thrown away their pur­ple lan­yards and donned the red t‑shirts and but­tons of NUHW.

The largest col­lec­tive deci­sion of this sort was made at Kaiser San­ta Rosa, a hos­pi­tal employ­ing 1,200 SEIU/UHW-rep­re­sent­ed work­ers. On August 2, forty-eight stew­ards — the entire elect­ed stew­ards coun­cil — held a ral­ly to announce their mass res­ig­na­tion from SEIU. In a let­ter to their co-work­ers, they wrote:

Many of us have been stew­ards for years and have tak­en pride in our effec­tive­ness at bar­gain­ing and enforc­ing our con­tract, as well as serv­ing on the var­i­ous com­mit­tees and teams that have made our facil­i­ty such a great place to give and receive care.’

The San­ta Rosa 48 quit not because they want­ed to stop rep­re­sent­ing oth­er Kaiser work­ers. They stepped down in order to have the free­dom to express our sup­port for NUHW.” They described their cur­rent absence from stew­ard duties as only tem­po­rary.” Their let­ter pre­dict­ed: When we win, we will be your stew­ards again” – but as part of a union whose work­ing mem­bers will make the deci­sions about bar­gain­ing pri­or­i­ties and who rep­re­sents us on the job.”

At Kaiser in San Jose, UHW chief stew­ard and nation­al bar­gain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive Shar Vig­il was among 17 stew­ards there who also open­ly endorsed NUHW in August. A 30-year Kaiser work­er, she was imme­di­ate­ly informed by her SEIU staff per­son that she no longer held either union posi­tion. For Vig­il and many oth­ers, SEIU’s lat­est purge of elect­ed work­place lead­ers is just anoth­er rea­son to choose a demo­c­ra­t­ic, mem­ber-dri­ven union” instead.

Steve Ear­ly is the author of The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor, forth­com­ing from Hay­mar­ket Books. He is an active sup­port­er of NUHW and an even longer-time sup­port­er of shop stewards.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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