Job Stewards Get Engaged and Empowered

March 21, 2014

MoveUP’s annual Job Steward Seminar kicked off in Vancouver today. Vice-President Gwenne Farrell opened the day in her role as chair of the union’s education committee. She introduced the theme of the weekend of training: “Energize, Engage, Empower” and explained that this year more opportunity would be given for members to meet with others from their own workplace and ask questions of their union representatives.

Next, Vice-President Heather Lee presented the Ardell Brophy Award to Executive Board Member Laurie Kirk, who works at Coastal Community Credit Union. The award is given each year to a steward who demonstrates fierce dedication and commitment to their union, and who provide mentorship to new union activists.

Lee praised Kirk’s commitment to MoveUP members and also to helping organize new credit union worksites. Laurie Kirk (right) accepted the award, saying: “I just wanted to say thank you. I am very passionate for what I do. There are weeks upon weeks where there is no day off, and I do it because I love it. And hopefully I continue to do it.”

President David Black followed and helped set the context for the weekend: “The job steward seminar is the most important thing we do. Bar none. This, here, is where we get smarter and get stronger. You, our stewards are key, are absolutely crucial, to our success as a union. This weekend is all about giving you the understanding, the insight, the techniques, and the skills to be effective advocates in your workplace,” said Black.

Black noted that while a lot of people think of historic fights when they think of unions, things have changed in the political and social context in which unions operate, and unions like MoveUP must change too so that stewards are more empowered to take action to help their coworkers.

“We are going to work to make sure our members feel comfortable coming to you with their concerns. We are re-educating and empowering stewards to retake ownership of their collective agreements in their workplaces. Remember, most collective agreements allow job stewards to do your work on company time. And we are shifting the union’s office procedures to support your work in your workplaces,” Black said.

The morning plenary session closed with guest speaker Carol Landry, the first woman International Vice-President of the United Steelworkers union.

Landry began with a message to all the MoveUP job stewards: “Let me thank you for the great work that you do, job stewards…members look to their activists, usually job stewards, to take care of them and be their voice.”

“You are on the front lines every day and for many members they look at you and you are the union,” she added.

Landry shared her own experience with how she got involved as a job steward in the 1980s when she worked in the mining industry in B.C. She was one of the few women working in the mine and among the union stewards. Joining the bargaining committee she and her coworkers fought on several issues, including the fact that the mostly women working in the office and technical positions were getting paid much less than their male coworkers, despite being required to have advanced education and skills.

“Being a woman in the mining industry in the 1980s had some challenges,” she said. But ultimately after leading an 107-day strike, she and her union brothers and sisters were successful in getting five years of wage increases.

The training and experience she gained through that process propelled her to becoming president of her union local in the 1990s. In 1999 she began working for USW and served members in British Columbia, including MoveUP’s own office staff for a time. But Landry has never forgotten her roots and still remembers every day how important stewards are to keeping a union strong.

“Even today I consider myself a steward,” Landry said, “Sometimes it seems thankless but every day you’re doing something good for someone out there and you should feel proud of that.”

Landry said in her recent work in the United States, she has seen attacks on unions and she worries about them heading north. She specifically cautioned participants to protect our public health care system and defend against so-called “right-to-work” legislation.

“The whole idea behind right-to-work is to weaken unions and bring down wages and benefits,” Landry said, noting in the 24 “right-to-work” states wages are significantly lower and workers in those states are 50% more likely to die or be seriously injured on the job than workers in states that have fairer labour laws.

Landry noted that defending our rights requires unions to work globally, because more and more of our employers are working globally and making decisions at that level. However, local stewards are a very important piece in the puzzle.

“You are the face of the union, the voice of the union, so I think you have a role that you can play in your communities, in your workplaces, in getting messages out,” Landry said.

Landry concluded by again thanking the stewards for their work, “You carry a huge burden each and every day in your workplaces. Your coworkers look to you for your guidance, they want you do be their voice. And though they don’t always say the words, I’m sure they appreciate everything you do.”

For the rest of the morning, stewards broke out into groups based on worksite, except for smaller units, who grouped together by sector. Stewards then got the opportunity to talk to each other about any ongoing issues or concerns, and to ask questions of the office union representatives.

In the afternoon, stewards began the classes in which they will spend the rest of the weekend. These include: Bullying and Harassment, Collective Bargaining, Facing Management, Job Steward Levels 1 and 2, Parliamentary Procedure, Pensions, Stress in the Workplace and Youth Action.