Section 1: The Union Steward

October 7, 2015



Historically, the steward system was created to help newly formed unions stay functional by creating a formal leadership role within the local. This structure served to support members and make sure the collective agreement was enforced. A steward’s primary job was to make sure that collective agreements were worth more than the paper they were written on.

Today, the role of a steward has expanded beyond enforcing the contract to include connecting with members and building more inclusive unions. As the role of unions has developed, so has the role of stewards. But one constant remains: as steward, you are the daily point person – the “support system” – for members with questions and concerns. 

It's a tough job. Sometimes there are more kicks than pats on the back. You have to give up a lot of your own time. You have to set an example because your members and the employer keep an eye on you. You've got another full-time job to do in addition to your regular job in the workplace – without extra pay.

But it does pay off. There is great satisfaction in doing a tough job well, of being a key link, and in being a leader in your own organization.  

WATCH: Why do we have stewards?

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Stewards play a central part in building stronger unions. They have two fundamental roles: they make sure working conditions reflect the collective agreement, and they connect the membership to each other and to the union.  

The two main jobs:

  1. Make sure working conditions reflect the collective agreement – Without you, the collective agreement is just paper (or pixels). Your job is to bring it to life. How? By making sure management follows all the clauses that your union negotiated in bargaining. Stewards deal with complaints, investigate and settle grievances, and ensure that working conditions live up to the contract. Stewards combine knowledge with practice to solve problems and build healthier, happier workplaces. 
  2. Connect members to each other – and to the union. Stewards act as hubs for union networking in the workplace. Your direct contact with members helps connect them to their union – and to each other. For many union members, a steward might be the only actual contact they have with their local and the wider labour movement. That’s why a steward’s ability to engage and connect with members is essential – from casual face-to-face contact to local meetings to regular communication like newsletters and updates on websites and social media. 

When members are connected, they participate. More participation builds stronger unions and better working conditions for all. 

WATCH: What is the steward’s role? 

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Fear not. No steward ever knew all the answers when they first took on the job. You will learn by studying, listening and participating in day-to-day union activities.

But all stewards agree on a few things you must know:

The collective agreement
No contract is perfect. Get to know your contract’s limitations and feel free to discuss them with fellow stewards and union officers. Understand how its provisions apply to special departmental conditions. Notice what each section covers. You don't have to memorize it word-for-word, but you must know where to look for the provisions which apply to any particular type of situation or grievance. Get familiar with the grievance procedure, its steps and time limits.  

Sometimes the union and the employer have agreed on interpretations which aren't written into the contract. When faced with a dispute over the meaning of some wording, look for the most reasonable interpretation. Check with your local union staff representative, your president or a member of the negotiating committee for any clarification you might need. 

Employer policies
Read these, especially those sections dealing with disciplinary action. Read employer websites and financial reports, watch the bulletin boards and read the notices, updates and print and e-newsletters. Watch the media reports of news of your employer and industry or sector.

Relevant legislation 
You don't have to be a lawyer, but knowing something about the important labour laws which affect the union and your members will help you do your job – to protect your members, build your union and settle grievances.

As a member of the Canadian labour force, you work under either federal or provincial jurisdiction with regard to labour laws. The Federal jurisdiction covers railway, telegraphs, communications, canals and other works connecting the provinces. It also has jurisdiction over industry and business declared to be for the “general advantage” of Canada or for the advantage of more than one province. Labour legislation governing the Yukon and Northwest Territories also comes within the jurisdiction of federal legislation. All other employees are governed by their provincial labour legislation, usually entitled the Labour Relations Act or Trade Union Act.

The best way to improve laws is by creating public pressure and electing pro-worker/pro-union governments. Your local labour council is the perfect forum to discuss the effects of legislation on unions. (See the chapter on Political Action for more.)


Arbitration cases. You should have a general knowledge of arbitration cases and decisions involving your collective agreement. These decisions are known as “jurisprudence” and are very important to current and future grievances.  

Duty of fair representation. All employees (not necessarily members) in the bargaining unit have the right to be fairly represented by the bargaining agent (union). “Fair” representation means that the union must not act in a manner which is “discriminatory, arbitrary, (or) in bad faith” toward any employee. This means that the union must serve and represent all employees equally. You must do so in a very conscientious manner which is completely void of hostility and/or malicious intent.

Physical working conditions. You should have a general knowledge of all operations performed in your area. This includes the working conditions, the production requirements and the machines or equipment associated with them. You should know which machines are always out of order and which ones run well. 

Jobs and rates of pay. You should know the jobs in the department and the rates of pay. If there is an incentive system, understand how it works. Keep all the information on rates, seniority lists, past grievances and any other relevant information in a folder or notebook or on a device. Keep the info handy yet somewhere that is not accessible to management.  

Supervisors. Get to know all the supervisors you deal with, from their area of responsibility and authority to their personal traits.

Your members. You should know all the members you represent, their personal characteristics, interests and concerns. How? By listening to them and getting to know them as people. The better you know your people – and the better they get to know you – the easier it will be for you to talk about the union.

Your union. One of your key jobs is to build the union. To do this, you need to know your union, what it’s all about, what it’s doing and why. Learn the structure of your organization so that you can make the best use of it through its website and social media, education programs, conventions, etc. Know your constitution, your local by-laws and dues breakdown. Read your union newsletters. Attend union meetings. 

And – know yourself! Know your strengths and limitations, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. No-one expects you to learn everything overnight. You’ll start with a basic understanding of the issues at hand and grow your expertise as you perform your job. 

Finally, keep in touch with your local union officers and get to know members from other locals in your union by attending conferences and conventions.  

WATCH: What should a steward know? 

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We are all different and have different strengths and weaknesses. There is no one single personality style that makes for a good steward, but there definitely are certain skills which everyone will need to be a good steward.  These are: organizing skills, educational skills and communications skills.

Organizing skills

Being a good organizer is essential and requires a blend of skills and qualities. It’s vital to be approachable. You could know the collective agreement inside-out, but if you don’t take care to be approachable, then members may not ask you for help, and you may not know what is really going on in the workplace. Good organizers balance getting things done with building connection with their members. 

Checklist: Being a good organizer

  • Assess whether your full membership is represented in union leadership, committees and initiatives
  • Make it easy for members to participate and welcome all forms of support, no matter how “active” a member is
  • There are many different kinds of tasks and roles in a healthy union and many ways members can be active
  • Foster democracy and teamwork
  • Lead by involving members in activities and planning
  • Keep things simple and tackle the biggest problems one step at a time
  • Keep things fun

Educational skills 

Prepare yourself! Learn with courses and workshops provided by your union, your local labour council, your provincial labour federation or the CLC. You’ll find learning opportunities on just about everything from steward training to union organizing and bargaining to human rights. Dive in!

To be a good teacher, stewards need to do a lot of learning first. Study your collective agreement, your constitution and your local’s by-laws and make them accessible to your membership. Some local union education committees do this by having a "feature clause" of the collective agreement, either weekly or monthly. Together the steward and local union communicators explain the union's interpretation of the featured clause, while giving the membership an update on the status of grievances and any arbitration decisions. 

A vital part of the steward’s role is to be excellent listeners. But stewards should also always be ready to remind members what their union does for them. Be clear and ready to tell the union’s story: better working conditions, workplace health and safety, higher pay and better benefits. 

Education tips

  • Study your collective agreement, union bylaws and constitution 
  • Be a good teacher by treating your members respectfully and sharing information freely
  • Learn from your members’ knowledge and support their learning journey

Remember who you are educating. Your members are adults and you should treat them as equals, with the same respect that you expect. Your goal is to share information, not to show how much more you know than anyone else. Education is a two-way process. Unless you learn from your members – from their knowledge, experience and insights – you cannot be a good educator yourself. Besides, not respecting and appreciating the qualities in someone else is the quickest way to alienate them.

Communications skills

These days, people expect to be able to access information easily. They also understand that communication is a two-way street. This means that the union has to tell its story (on its website, in its newsletters, in its materials) at the same time that it listens to its members. When we listen, we tend to be more relevant when we talk.  

In other words, if you listen carefully to those around you, people will pay more attention to what you have to say when you do speak. Your members will feel heard and respected, and this is vital to building the relationship with them and engaging them in the life of the union. 

Better listening builds connection:

  • Go for the connection – not the hard-sell
  • Listen to what is being said – not for what you want to hear
  • Reflect back what you hear


A steward is the front-line leader in the local. This means that principles that apply to the local executive also apply to you as a steward.

  • Set an example. By your actions, show your membership that you believe in the union's policy of an equitable and just society and workplace. Be assertive in standing up against any form of oppression.
  • Work to dispel fear of the boss. Treat your supervisor as an equal and show that you expect to be treated as an equal too. Don't be afraid to speak up in defense of your members or the collective agreement.
  • Hold no bias. Speak up for all your members. Represent all members fairly and equally, regardless of race, politics, religion, sex or sexual orientation; and keep your word.
  • Smash rumours. Rumours, especially from the employer, can cause fears and divisions in the membership. Find out the truth and then talk to your members.
  • Be accessible. Keep in close contact with your membership and let them know where you can be found at all times. Encourage workers to come to you with their problems rather than to the supervisor.
  • Don’t make stuff up. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up! Tell the member that although you don't have the answer right now, you will find out and get back to them as soon as possible. Make sure you follow up. The union movement is full of the resources you need to get the answer.


  • Know the provincial and federal labour laws that affect you, your members and the union.  
  • Support political candidates who support labour's program.
  • Keep up-to-date on labour and political issues and share what you’re reading and watching.
  • Be active in your community and in your local labour council. Encourage your members to do the same.

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Make sure you have:

  • Copies of the collective agreement – at home, at work, in your car, on your computer, phone and tablet
  • Member list – names, email addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers, seniority, classification and wage rates
  • A separate seniority list 
  • A copy of the employer's rules and regulations
  • A copy of the provincial Act pertaining to occupational health and safety.
  • A copy of WHMIS, the Workplace Hazardous Information System
  • Grievance forms plus fact sheets and any other forms the union expects you to use. Electronic or paper-based
  • Union constitution and by-laws
  • Kits for new members. These are brochures, kits or web content that describe your union and its activities. Use them to introduce yourself to new members and explain to them what the union is and the benefits the union brings
  • Pen, paper, notebook or device (always be ready to take notes)

You might have all of this information on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Or you might prefer paper versions of everything. The important part is that the information and the tools are at hand when you need them – and you never know when you might need them!

WATCH: What tools do stewards need?

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