Learning in Practice How to Be a Shop Steward

My new and good is getting elected as Shop Steward in my union at the shipyard.

When I look back I realize that it all started last January. I decided to start going to the union meetings every month. Since then I have been able to get to six of the eight meetings.

Coincidentally since January, two Stewards have resigned, and this started me thinking that possibly I might run. An additional but really separate incentive was that it was announced that I would probably get laid off in February. (Shop Stewards cannot be laid off according to our union contract.) Still I was going back and forth as to whether I should do it or not, and finally I decided not to think about it any more but to just do it. I did discuss it with my family, the implications of the election, of the lay-offs, and so on, and then decided to do it.

Going into the election I had two advantages: (1) I had been to six of the eight meetings in the last eight months so it was clear to people that I was not just trying to save my job, and (2) I had spent the last three years listening to people and building relationships. (I started working at the shipyard three years ago because I had always wanted to work there -- the place just fascinated me -- and because I wanted to do men's liberation work, and I figured what better place to start than at the shipyard. The union, with 5-6,000 members, was the largest bunch of men gathered and organized in one place in the state.)

So I started to run. The first thing I did was to make a list of all of the crews in the yard. I obviously needed a list of all the people. I could have gone and gotten such a list, but I decided that it would be better to try to do it from memory. In my department on my shift there are 181 men and four women who I would represent. I tried to list them all from memory, and if I could think of a face but didn't know the name or couldn't remember people, I would go ask someone.

It took me three weeks to create the complete list. In the process I realized that I already knew 110 of the 185 people as a result of my work of three years in just getting around and getting to know people. I had my list of people and of the eighteen crews, and I started going around and talking to people. I realized that there were some people I didn't know well or crews that I didn't know well, so in those cases I could go to the person that I did know and ask himor her to talk to people on my behalf. I realized that that would count for more -- having someone who knew me talking to another person about why she or he should vote for me. I didn't know anyone on some crews, but I knew people that used to work on the crews, and I asked them to go back to their old crews and talk me up.

Then I got pushed into making stickers. I didn't want to, but I talked to people about it and they said, "You gotta do it." These were stickers that the candidates make with their names on them and people wear them on their hard-hats which of course they wear everywhere on the shipyard. I was quite embarrassed to do this, but I started asking people to give them out, and pretty soon I started seeing them all over the place.

Then I was talking to the Vice President of the union one day shortly before the election, and he asked me if I was campaigning. He said, "You gotta get out there and talk to people." So I did. I introduced myself to the people I never met and handed out more stickers to them. A lot of them had my stickers but had never met me.

Using the relationships I had built over three years and through the election process, I got 95 out of the 112 votes cast in the election. This was out of 185 members. 112 members had voted, whereas it is not unusual to have only 20% or even 10% turn-out for such an election.

Since being elected I have had more successes. I asked myself, "What do I want to do?"

I decided that I would meet with representatives from all of the eighteen crews every week to listen to what people wanted and what they thought we should be doing. I started by asking certain people from the crews to meet with me. I realized that this was a mistake. I changed my approach and asked every crew to pick someone as a representative to meet with me.

I made another mistake -- I didn't bring in the other stewards. I corrected this mistake. We decided to meet every Thursday. At first five out of the eighteen crews sent a representative. At our second meeting seven crews sent representatives. People decided that once a week is not enough and they want to meet twice a week. (We have since cut back to once a week, not wanting to set up a situation where people would get tired of meetings.)

I set up a meeting with the other stewards once a week. We also meet fairly regularly in the mornings before work.

As a result of these meetings people are now coming up with all kinds of ideas. It is known that the company management is leading up to a new policy on overtime, so we started working on our own policy. To my mind this overtime policy is not the big issue in the shipyard -- there are goals that to me are more important -- but to the majority of the people it is the main issue.

The way things are going there has been a change. I can see the encouragement on people's faces. There is a way that they are talking. There is one guy that has never said anything good about the union -- he has been staunchly independent -- but he wants in on these discussions. There was another guy who was always talking about drinking, and was putting down serious talk. But I was fascinated by his point of view -- he was against management. But now the change is that he is for something.

Even this Friday as people were leaving work -- it is always sort of wild -- I was feeling that we are a factor in what goes on here. There is some hope. Some good things could happen.

This is good because this is a contract year. There will be a lot going on, and the way we now have things set up people will have a direct link with the contract meetings.

Getting elected Shop Steward was not really the success here. I wouldn't say to anyone that they should go out and do that -- that that is the key thing to do. I think the real key thing to do is to build the relationships and do the organizing.

The success of my election was that I was able to see that I had in three years of organizing, without any title or "permission" to do it, built relationships. It was a useful way to see what I had already done. It is also true that running for Shop Steward gave me a kind of "permission" to do it -- a kind of encouragement that I haven't had. It enabled me to take on more and get some encouragement to do it.

Shipyard Worker

Last modified: 2015-07-21 09:36:17-07