As a steward, your chief powers are in your ability to listen, to investigate, to persuade, to build credibility with management, and to build trust with the members. But you also have specific legal rights. These rights don’t give you a license to bully management, but they do give you specific legal protections against managers trying to bully you.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, and most other labor laws, stewards have a protected legal status. This means that when you are engaged in representational activities, you are considered to be equals with management.
This status as an equal allows you as a steward to raise your voice, gesture, use salty language, challenge management’s claims of truthfulness, threaten legal action or raise the possibility of group protests. On the other hand, you are not protected if you engage in representational conduct that is (in the NLRB’s words) outrageous or indefensible and is of such serious character as to render the employee unfit for further service.
You as a steward are protected against reprisals. It is a violation of the no-reprisal rule for an employer to:
- Unfairly give you a bad evaluation.
- Deny you pay or promotion opportunities
- Segregate you from other employees.
- Deprive you of overtime opportunities or other benefits.
- Enforce rules more strictly against you than other workers.
- Threaten or strike you.
- Overly supervise you.
- Transfer you.
- Give you a poor reference for a prospective job based on your performance as a steward.
If you are challenged by a supervisor, be clear that you are acting in your official capacity as a union steward. Always meet challenges as calmly as possible. Try to save your salty language as a tool of last resort.
Knowing your legal rights should bolster your confidence in confronting management, but legal rights alone do not give you power. Your real power often resides in your ability to exercise good judgment, engage in productive dialog, and find solutions that allow all parties to retain their dignity.