Stewards Training: Use Case Studies to Build Hands-On Skills

Not enough steward training programs pay attention to beefing up stewards’ analytical skills. Using real-life case studies--short written scenarios--is the best way to learn how to review information, pose questions, develop concepts, see patterns, and make strategic choices.

Case studies should be:

  • Based on real events, not fictional or hypothetical situations.
  • Aimed at having the learners weigh possible alternatives.
  • Decision-focused, asking “What would you do?”
  • Short enough to be read, thoroughly discussed, and analyzed within the timeframe of your training session.
  • Detailed enough to enable participants to consider possible solutions, but they should not reveal or make obvious the “real” outcome.
  • Complex enough so that more than one “correct” resolution is possible.

Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1984, a large public sector union in New Hampshire, adopted case studies as training tools at a gathering of stewards in March 2007. The union used real cases from its recent grievance files, and stewards were confronted with having to decide how they would proceed in each case.

Preparing the case study workshop involved a substantial amount of work. Field staff and stewards were asked to recommend complex, interesting cases from the recent past, and three were selected for use at the training. The files for these cases were carefully reviewed, and summaries were written that ranged from one to three pages. Importantly, the summaries ended prior to each case’s key decision point.

The cases involved:

  • 1. The suspension of a state employee who was accused of two offenses: being rude to a member of the public, and using his state-issued vehicle for personal business.
  • 2. A non-disciplinary “letter of counseling” --normally not grievable--issued to an employee for using earned sick leave.
  • 3. Unsafe working conditions after a sloppy building renovation.

In addition to the case summaries, participants received copies of supporting documents that were needed to evaluate each case. In the case of the suspension, participants got the suspension letter and copies of relevant employer policies. For the sick leave counseling, they received the counseling letter, the employee’s sick leave record, the initial grievance, and relevant portions of the contract and employer policies. They were also given management’s responses at the earlier stages of the grievance procedure. For the building renovation case, they received the initial grievance and relevant contract language.

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Stewards were divided into groups of five or six, each with a long-time, experienced steward as facilitator. The groups were given the first case and asked to address these questions:

  • What are the strengths of the union’s position?
  • What are the weaknesses?
  • Is there information missing that you would want in order to investigate further? If so, what?
  • If you were the decision maker, how would you decide this case? How should the union proceed?

Give Them an Hour

The groups were given 30 minutes to discuss the case. An hour would have been even more productive. Then the whole class spent 30 minutes together in a facilitated discussion. Stewards shared opinions and debated, posed questions to each other, and worked collaboratively to build shared knowledge.

Then, after a short break, the process was repeated for the second case and the third. At the end of the day, stewards were told the actual outcome of each of the three cases.

At each stage of the activity, stewards discussed not only grievance arguments but also strategies that involved mobilizing members and increasing leverage in the workplace. For example, when discussing the unsafe renovation case, stewards suggested petitions, group grievances, solidarity activities, and group confrontations with management. No group discussed “hand it over to the business agent” as a possible course of action. The conversations centered on workplace-based strategies in which members would call the shots.

Stewards responded favorably to the workshop, particularly enjoying the use of real cases from the union’s files. They appreciated learning from each other, as opposed to an “expert” at the front of the room. They all felt they had something to contribute to the conversation and were excited by the collaborative problem-solving and hands-on activities.


Don Taylor is a labor educator and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers. He was previously Education Coordinator for SEIU Local 1984.