Aside from a collective bargaining agreement, employees and employers are governed by laws and regulations that are created by state governments, or acts of Congress. A steward thatknows these laws has an option to file a legal action with an outside agency or in court. And since under many contracts a local union can grieve employer violations of law, not just contract rights, knowing about these statutory rights can give the steward and the union added clout in arguing a grievance.
Here is a general guide that will help you understand the laws and regulations that affect our workplaces:
• WEINGARTEN RIGHTS – In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court decided workers had the right to union representation in an
investigatory hearing if they reasonably believe the investigation could lead to disciplinary action. Thus, if a
workerrequests that a union representative be present for a particular meeting, the company must oblige. It is
important to remember that an investigatory hearing is not a grievance hearing. But as the steward, you can ask what
the hearing is about, confer with an employee before the hearing, and you may participate in the hearing.
• HEALTH AND SAFETY – The Occupational Safety and Health Act says employers have a “general duty” to provide a
hazard-free work environment, and there are detailed OSHA standards that apply to particular industries and
occupations. In addition, there are also right-to-know laws that can help you find out what chemicals employees are
being exposed to, and mandatory OSHA logs available to you upon your request from your employer, that can help you
monitor the health and safety situation in your workplace.
• UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES – Workers have the right to engage in a wide range of activities to improve their wages
and working conditions. There is legal protection against any employer interference or retaliation when workers deide
to join a union, file grievances, wear buttons or T-shirts with union messages, or hand out union literature. In addition,
the law also protects stewards from employer interference when trying to perform their duties as shop steward.
• DISCRIMINATION – Various federal, state and local laws forbid discrimination against job applicants and current
employees based on the following: race, color, age (over 40), sex, religion, national origin, marital or parental status,
physical or mental handicap, and sexual orientation.
• PLANT CLOSINGS – A number of laws, most notably the 1989 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN), require
that advance notice be given to unions when a company is planning a shutdown or mass layoff. The law doesn’t stop a
company from making these business decisions, but the heads-up to the union can give all the time needed to organize
a community or other campaign to reverse the company’s decision or bargain a retraining/severance agreement.
• OVERTIME WORK – Laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act supplement whatever contract provisions we have on the
length of the workday/workweek, and overtime pay and comp time. With statute of limitations measured in years,
going through the court system with such claims can mean real dollars for overworked and underpaid workers, and can
be used as leverage to settle a grievance on these subjects.
• FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE – The federal 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows an employee of a company
with 50 or more workers to take unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child or gaining of a foster child, to care
for a sick family member, or to take care of one’s own serious illness with the guarantee of continued health insurance
coverage and a return to their previous job or to an equivalent job.
Special Status of Steward
As a union steward, you have a special legal status that gives you both rights and responsibilities. Under the law, when you are acting as a union steward, you step out of the shoes of an employee and into the shoes of an exclusive bargaining representative. That means that the rules of conduct that normally apply to employees in their interactions with management do not apply to you.
The rights and new rules of conduct that apply to union stewards are based on the following three principles:
1. Equality With The Boss. As an employee you are normally in a subordinate role to supervisors and are subject to the
regular and customary rules of discipline.
When you are acting in your official union capacity, you no longer are in a subordinate role, but become an EQUAL with the supervisor. You can openly disagree or argue with management during grievance meetings; questions management’s authority; demand certain actions of management, all without risking disciplinary action.
The law recognizes that collective bargaining and the steward’s job requires open, direct, candid communication between equals. A steward cannot effectively represent a worker if he or she can be subject to discipline for aggressive representation.
The equality principle only applies a steward is acting in his/her official capacity as a steward, such in a grievance hearing meeting, representing a worker in an investigatory hearing, investigating a grievance, etc.
1. No Retaliation. It is unlawful for management to retaliate against a steward just because he/she is a steward or union
leader. It is unlawful for management to take actions against stewards that are intended to punish or intimidate in
order to discourage the steward from doing their job.
2. Equal Discipline Standards. Stewards are employees and union representatives. When they are acting only as
employees, not as stewards, they must be treated just like other bargaining unit employees in the same or similar
situation. It is unlawful for management to hold stewards to a higher standard of conduct, just because they are union
These principles are the source of a union steward’s legal rights. They also serve as guidelines for steward-management relations. If management, by its conduct, violates these principles, it may commit an unfair labor practice under appropriate law.
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