Shop stewards form the foundation of our trade unions. Without a team of committed, hardworking, disciplined and knowledgeable shop stewards, our principle of workers’ and democracy won’t function.
A shop steward is a representative of union members in a particular workplace.
The duties of a shop steward range from representing workers to taking up grievances such as unfair dismissals and discrimination. A shop steward can also negotiate wages and conditions of employment, recognition agreements, procedures, and health and safety issues.
The management and workers have different interests. The management wants workers to work as hard as possible for as little pay as possible. Workers want fair pay and working conditions. This leads to a struggle between management and workers. If workers bargain together (i.e. collectively) they have more power because it’s difficult for management to replace all of them at once. Collective bargaining with management can improve workers’ wages and conditions.
What matters can be raised in collective bargaining?
There are many issues that can be raised in collective bargaining. The issues can include; wages, hours of work, health and safety, facilities for the union, public holidays, shifts, maternity, bonuses, leave, shop steward facilities, provident fund and overtime pay. There are also many more sophisticated demands that can be put forward for collective bargaining, for example, training for all, literacy, job security, non-discrimination, affirmative action and centralised bargaining. The management can unilaterally introduce issues in the workplace or push into negotiations, such as worker participation schemes, productivity schemes, flexibility and contracting. Be vigilant and watch out for this tactic. If the management acts arbitrary, collect as much information as possible about the issue and contact your union organiser.
Where can we bargain?
Collective bargaining can take place at a number of levels, as follows: the workplace, company, industry, corporate and national negotiations.
In this article, we’ll learn more about bargaining at the workplace level.
Definition: Workplace level bargaining happens when workers and the management at one factory or workplace get together to discuss issues of common interest. They can negotiate wages and working conditions.
How to prepare for meetings and negotiations with the bosses
STEP 1: Analyse the issue
Look at the issue. Is it a collective or individual issue?
STEP 2: Decide which kind of meeting you’ll take up the issue.
Depending on the kind of issue, you’ll either present it at a regular shop steward, a management meeting, a special emergency meeting, or formal negotiations.
STEP 3: Get a clear mandate
Make sure you get a clear mandate from workers at a carefully planned general meeting. For smaller issues, shop stewards can obtain mandates from the constituency or in departmental meetings.
STEP 4: Meet to plan
Hold a shop stewards’ meeting to work out detailed plans. Identify the main point of the complaint or proposal and make it as clear as possible. In major issues, the proposal often goes to management in writing. Do the research and collect the facts and figures before your meeting with the bosses. Next, plan tactics: What will you say? Who will say which point? What evidence will you put forward? What is the fall-back action?
STEP 5: Prepare the proposal and agenda
Prepare any written documentation and an agenda for the shop steward and management meeting. Prepare a written proposal for major negotiations of wages and conditions of work.
How to handle meetings/negotiations with the employer
Make clear demands and don’t complain.
Give clear motivations. There must be reasons and facts to back up the demands.
Stick to the point. Don’t let management take you off the point.
Don’t disagree in front of management. Call for a caucus if there’s any unclear issue or division among comrades.
Take copious notes. Be careful if management is taking the official minutes. Have your own minutes.
Remind management that you are representing workers and you can’t take decisions without instructions. Ensure management has given a clear answer to workers.
How to report back to workers
Plan your report with shop stewards.
Pick out the main points from the meeting and write them down.
Make sure you are clear what management’s answer or proposal is.
Put the points in order. Don’t jump around from one unconnected point to another.
Think about what questions workers might ask you and prepare the answers.
Prepare suggestions for workers for the next step.
- Make sure all shop stewards have a chance to speak. Don’t always leave it to the chairperson
- Look at workers, make sure they are following you
- Allow questions but control the meeting
- Steer the meeting to a conclusion.
Negotiating wages and working conditions
Wage bargaining is a tough issue for unions and the reasons are fairly clear. For employers, higher wages mean lower profits. This is important to remember because it makes it clear that wage increases aren’t won by clever arguments and skilled negotiators. So, what can win you a wage increase? Wage increases are won by strong and disciplined organisations. This means we must have both information and bargaining skills. The truth is that good organisation and thorough research and planning will assist to get the needed increases.
Wage bargaining must be carefully planned. The main job of planning rests with the shop stewards and the organisers. Good shop stewards will know what workers are talking about and they want. Proper planning requires you to ask the following:
- What are the workers’ expectations?
- What is the company likely to pay?
- Should our main demands be wages or should we look at other benefits also?
- If a dispute seems likely, what ways are we going to use to settle it?
- Who should sit on the negotiating team?
- What information do you need from the company?
Getting a mandate
This means holding general meetings so that workers can give the negotiating team their ideas. Such meetings will always be a discussion between shop stewards and workers, as different possible alternatives are looked at. Shop stewards must plan the general meeting very carefully.
Preparing the proposal
Before drawing up the proposal you should make sure that you have the information you want from the company. The following are things to look at before preparing a proposal.
- Consumer Price Index (CPI)
- Standard of living of workers and their situation
- Differentials – Grades; merit systems; women workers’ wages; rates for the different jobs.
- Allowances and benefits – shifts; service; attendance; bonuses; housing; food or living out expenses; overtime
- Percentage increase or money increase
- Number of employees at each rate of pay in each grade
- Company information, e.g. type of company and financial situation.
The negotiating committee will then meet with the company. At the end of the meeting(s) different things can happen, but remember:
- The negotiating committee never accepts the offer unless members can accept it
- The negotiating committee may agree to support or recommend a proposal when it reports back to the membership
- It may agree to report back the company’s proposal
- It may agree to report back but recommending that the company offer be refused
- It may be agreed that another meeting will be held soon and then after that there will be a report back
- If after many meetings there is no agreement then the negotiating committee may declare a dispute.
The negotiating committee must report back to members explaining fully what happened. In these meetings, the team will either be told to go back again or be given a new mandate. There must also be a full discussion of all alternatives.
Remember that shop stewards must make clear plans between meetings. The shop steward will be in a position to see whether it is likely that the negotiations are heading for a deadlock or not.
If it’s clear that a deadlock is looming, then tactics will have to be planned either to strengthen the organisation or to avoid the deadlock, depending on the situation at the time. Shop stewards must be talking and listening throughout the negotiations so that they bring back proper information when reporting back to workers.
The following items will appear in a typical agreement:- the period of operation, hours of work, overtime rate, public holidays, sick leave, annual leave, acting allowance and other allowances such as service and living out, annual bonus and other bonuses, wages per grade and personal increase.
The Union can also democratically develop core demands to be presented and adopted by each workplace as part of awage campaign. In this way, members from different companies build unity with each other around common demands and struggles.