What Labor Needs: Thousands of New Shop Stewards

The labor movement is a mess and drastic reform is in order. Some say that if drastic reform can’t occur through internal struggle and commitment, then maybe it should all be blown apart and scrapped to start over.

There’s talk of mirroring the structure of the employer in order to better negotiate contracts, organize workers, and contest for power. A model of one union for each industry, with locals made up of tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of workers, is proposed.

There is no evidence, however, that these mega-locals, led by bureaucrats and intellectuals, are more effective than elected local leaders, elected bargaining committees, grassroots mobilization committees, and members engaged and involved in their contract negotiations.

Admitting that we need a different model is a good idea. The model set out by the unions who make up the New Unity Partnership, however, consolidates more power and resources into the hands of a few, and it does not respond to the broad range of changes that we need.


In Communications Workers Local 1037, we mirror the employer’s structure by having a union counterpart to management at the worksite—the shop steward. A good steward is essential because the union must exist where workers spend eight or nine hours a day, not in a union office hours away.

CWA in New Jersey represents workers at the Division of Youth and Family Services, the state agency responsible for child protective services. In one of our offices, “Jackie” and “Jacquie” are the shop stewards.

Jackie has been a steward for about 20 years, and she recruited Jacquie about 15 years ago. If you ask the 80-plus workers at this office, they may not be able to tell you the exact name of the union they’re in or who their president is, but they all know Jackie and Jacquie.

Jackie and Jacquie sign up all the new workers hired. Jackie and Jacquie led the workers out on a two-day strike about 15 years ago. During this last Presidential election, Jackie and Jacquie signed up workers at their office to door-knock labor households, and Jackie and Jacquie were at the launch site to hand out the CWA t-shirts when they got there.

Susan, the office manager at this location, is a typical management bully, except for the fact that Jackie and Jacquie have her so well trained now that she stays in her office and hides out. Every once in a while, she forgets. She ventures out and starts pushing people around, and Jackie and Jacquie have to organize the workforce to kick her ass again.

Over the last year, the state has had a plan to “reform” DYFS. The original plan called for privatizing most of the work. But because almost every DYFS office has a couple of Jackie and Jacquies, we turned that around. Management and the elite “Child Welfare Panel” figured out that we’d shut the place down if they tried to contract out our work to non-union private vendors.

Even more important, we worked inside the “weeds” of the reform plan. We negotiated over language. We negotiated an agreement that protected our work, put caps on caseloads, and made the employer hire hundreds of new social workers, upgrade clerical work, and provide better services to clients. We could never have done this without worksite leadership.

Would this have happened in a mega-local? I don’t think so. The leadership of that kind of local wouldn’t have had the time or the inclination to care that much about a couple of thousand social workers.

And even if they cared, they couldn’t possibly know the work well enough to bargain at the level we bargained. Content matters—and our local is small enough that we could afford to focus on DYFS for a year and large enough to have the resources to do so.

I could give dozens of other examples of how our stewards function. The stewards from the Board of Public Utilities have their own newsletter. They expose management on how they treat workers day to day. They use humor and ridicule. It’s unbelievably inflammatory and management hates it. But the members read it cover to cover.

On November 2, a whole contingent of BPUers drove to Pennsylvania to help get the vote out. The stewards organized this road trip.

Four stewards from a private non-profit for the developmentally disabled are now working as part-time organizers for Local 1037. They went through the Organizing Institute and our own organizing training, and they are developing leads at other group homes and non-profits.



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We just won an election in a campaign that was staffed by stewards, and we’re getting cards signed on another this week—most of the lead development and work was done by stewards.

The shop stewards at a Welfare Board we represent just brought out 30 workers to a Board of Social Services meeting to support a co-worker who was unfairly disciplined. They’d figured it out the night before and they had it in hand. They came into Local 1037 a year ago. They had been a bargaining unit for about eight years but they didn’t have any stewards. Now they have 28.


Some of the argument for the mega-locals and the enormous consolidations is that there isn’t enough time or talent out there to develop grassroots leaders. It may be true that there are not hundreds of (SEIU President) Andy Sterns or (CWA Vice President) Larry Cohens just waiting to become leadership. But there are hundreds and thousands of Jackies and Jacquies, Phils and Wandas, Marias and Evelyns, Goldens and Reggies, Alices and Shashis, Lionels and Consuelos.

The 300-plus Local 1037 shop stewards think that they are leadership. They’re right. They fight the boss every day and make a huge difference in workers’ lives. Our local has grown from 4,800 members to 7,500 in the past 23 years, and most of that is attributable to organizing by shop stewards.

Not one of these stewards gets rich off the labor movement. They don’t get a stipend or a bonus and they don’t get any special perks. They put themselves on the line every day, and they do it because they believe it matters and because they are trained and tough and true.

Can our experience be repeated and made bigger? Yes! It exists in dozens of CWA and other union locals, and with training and resources, it can be repeated again and again, precisely because stewards don’t have to be brilliant strategists or trained litigators. They just have to be there and be willing.

Will that get us the “union density” we need? Will it give us the political clout we need? Are grassroots locals with worksite stewards a luxury we can’t afford in these dangerous times?

Shop stewards and grassroots, organizing locals are not the “answer” to labor’s problems any more than consolidation is the “answer” to labor’s problem. A lack of shop stewards and worksite involvement is one of our many problems, and a structure that eliminates the grassroots instead of building it—broader and deeper—can’t possibly be the solution.


Here’s something we should do: Every union sets a goal to recruit one shop steward for every 20 workers over the next three years. All of these shop stewards go to training. That training isn’t about grievance handling. It’s about mobilization of members at the worksite and electorally.

All of those shop stewards get a real union newspaper. Maybe not just one from their own union, maybe a real labor newspaper for all the shop stewards in the country. And all of those stewards go on labor-to-labor walks. They get to know the other shop stewards, not just from their local and their union but from their neighborhoods and across their cities.

And all of those shop stewards help us organize new members. They work on organizing teams—they can do it with those smart young college graduates, if necessary.

Everything we do, every fight we have should be led at the worksite by shop stewards.

Simplistic? No more so than “consolidate and we’ll grow.” Revolutionary? Yes. Because informed stewards and members will demand a voice in their union and their labor movement.

And informed stewards and members will fight for contracts. And informed stewards and members won’t have to be door-knocked four times to figure out that George Bush is bad for working people. And they’ll fight to make their working lives better every day when they mirror management’s structure by kicking the boss’s ass on the job.

Thousands and thousands of new shop stewards. It’s one of the many changes we need to make in our labor movement.

You can read more about CWA Local 1037 in the new edition of A Troublemaker’s Handbook.