Association for Union Democracy


What is a union?

A union is an organization of workers who unite to protect their rights on the job. There are all kinds of unions. Some are parts of huge organizations with members across the United States while others are local and independent. A strong union keeps members informed, active and involved. A strong union encourages workers to protect their rights, negotiate contracts and resolve workplace problems. Remember that a union is as strong as its members.

Who are the representatives of the union?

Most unions have several representatives. The Steward is one of your co-workers who is in charge of handling problems and answering questions about the contract and the union. Unions have local officers who are workers elected by the other workers to be in charge of running the local union. Many unions have business agents, a person who works for the union and who is responsible for helping you deal with problems with the employers. You will not see the Business Agent every day but should be able to call her or him and ask questions.

What is a contract?

A contract, or collective bargaining agreement, governs the relationship between the employer and the union. It is negotiated by the workers’ union representatives and the boss. A contract gives workers rights they would not have without a contract; it also grants the boss certain powers to regulate the workers. If you want to help decide what is in the contract, tell your union representative your ideas or find out how to become part of the negotiating team.

Typical contract provisions

All contracts are different and you should check the provisions in your contract, but here are some of the clauses included in most contracts:

1) Just Cause: You cannot be fired or disciplined without just cause. The company must show that they had a reason to fire or discipline you.

2) Seniority: Most union workplaces have a seniority system. The amount of time you have on the job may determine your benefit levels. For example, the contract may state that if there are layoffs, the people who have been at work for the longest period of time must be laid off last and the people who have been at work for the shortest time must be laid off first. Different contracts have different types of seniority clauses.

3) Pay, Holidays, Sick Days, Benefits: The contract will set rates of pay for all workers and show which days are holidays and how many sick and vacation days people have. It will also provide for the employers payments to health and welfare and pension funds. If you have questions about what you are being paid, the answer should be in the contract.

4) Grievance Procedure: The grievance procedure is the way you challenge the company and enforce the contract. If your rights under the contract have been violated, you can ask your union to file a grievance against the company. The grievance procedure will not help you fight every unfair thing the employer does. It only helps enforce the rights that are in the contract, rights that you have by federal, state or local law, and rights that come from past practices of the company. Past practices are things the company has always done in the past but has stopped doing or failed to do in your particular case.

Right to representation in disciplinary meetings (Weingarten Rights)

According to U.S. law, most workers have the right to have a union representative present at any meeting or interview with management that they think may result in disciplinary action against them by their employer. If you think that you may be written up, fired, or disciplined in any other way as the result of an interview with a supervisor, you should ask that a union representative, such as a shop steward, be present. If the supervisor then refuses to let you have a representative present, you have the right to refuse to answer. (The rights of public employees may be diffferent in your location.)

How do I protect my rights?

What happens if I have a problem at work? Lets look at what happens to two workers as they try to resolve their workplace problems.

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