Making Peace with Fellow Union Members

Two workers speaking in a vehicle with others seated or around the vehicle.

At the end of the day, people respect a steward who is all union, all the time. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com.

What’s the role of a shop steward? Traditionally we think of someone who’s knowledgeable about the contract, the law, and how things function in our workplace and union.

But one role often gets neglected: the peacemaker.

I don’t mean someone who makes peace between workers and the boss. A steward has to be a fighter. But I do mean that the steward should foster a culture of solidarity, establish healthy debate, and facilitate collective decisions.

In our efforts to build unity, often we overlook the conflicts among workers, or try to ignore them. That’s a mistake. Divisions and personal issues, if left unresolved, can grow into conflicts that make it easier for the boss to manipulate the group.

When I first volunteered to be a shop steward 20 years ago, I viewed my role as the union enforcer. I expected everyone to have a natural understanding of collective action and to follow our orders blindly.

I inadvertently isolated members who felt they didn’t have a voice in the direction of the union, or who held different perspectives about issues, or who had suggestions for a different strategy. I made little effort to work towards consensus.

If I could replay my own experiences I would try to understand the opposition voices and invite them to participate.

I’m not arguing that union strategy must be completely supported by every member. But it’s the steward’s job to take the time to educate members about why the strategy was chosen and the plan to win.

A peacemaker looks for common ground. Help workers to focus on their common issues and build collective action. That’s how you really build power.

ANATOMY OF CONFLICT

Stewards rarely get much training in thinking about the social environment of our workplaces. But American culture has become extremely factionalized and segregated.

Division among the workers is typical. Just like the broader society, our workplaces are divided by status, race, interests, and political ideologies.

It’s no accident that employers separate us through craft titles, work groups, schedules, status, and even the physical layout of the workplace. Workers who don’t regularly communicate or socialize can easily misunderstand each other.

Tensions may begin with “I am a higher craft, so I do not do associate with a lower craft” or “I am the hardcore union person and he is the boss’s pet.” What starts off as a misunderstanding can spill into open conflict.

Snubs and mini-wars create an environment where the union is immobile and people don’t feel secure—and where workers are more focused on each other than on what the boss is up to.

If employers seek out divisions they can exploit, a shop steward must do the opposite—identify groups of workers, find ways to communicate with the leaders of each group, and figure out how to strengthen the bonds between the groups.

BOSSES EXPLOIT DIVISIONS

During an organizing campaign that brought 300 new call center workers into our union, I learned more about how the boss can capitalize on workplace tensions.

Organizing a union from the ground up in the face of aggressive anti-union tactics was a learning experience. It was very different from my own workplace, Verizon, where generations of strikes have established a strong union tradition.

When people make up their minds whether to support a union drive, the biggest factor may be their personal perceptions about bosses, organizers, and other workers. When there’s more distrust, resentment, and judgment among workers, the boss wins.

The union-busting consultants and frontline managers at the call center ran a shrewd campaign of one-on-one conversations where they learned about tensions in the shop.

They “befriended” certain workers who had individualistic attitudes. They offered special status to those who would talk about their co-workers and resist organizing.

They held separate meetings for workers they had identified as pro-union, anti-union, and neutral. One worker who was leading the anti-union campaign even got flown to Texas for a special visit with the executives at company headquarters.

By preying on personal animosities, the union-busters erected a wall between co-workers. Those who received favored positions saw the union supporters as troublemakers and deviants. Those organizing the union saw the others as sellouts and ass-kissers.

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Union leaders failed to genuinely reach out to the opposition. The two sides hardly spoke to each other.

Although we won the campaign, deep resentments among these workers linger to this day. I often wonder how things might have played out differently if just one person had worked to bring people together.

KEEP THE DOOR OPEN

For two decades, personal resentments have loomed over every action we’ve organized. In response to these long-running animosities, in our local we have coached our shop leaders on how to be approachable and nonjudgmental.

Recently I sat down with a member who has openly criticized my leadership and the direction of our local for 12 years. I realized I had never approached him to try and understand his positions. We ignored each other in person and chastised each other in private.

I chose to humble myself and reach out to him. I wasn’t confident it would work, but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to be a respected leader.

When we met, I was careful not to be defensive. I just listened when he explained why he had such a negative perception of me.

I didn’t point out the wrongdoings I saw on his side, because solidarity was more important to me than these superficial complaints. Instead I asked for unity and promised to treat him with respect and openness.

I invited him to join the team, and to lead his shop. After all, he was leading people the whole time—and unfortunately, many times, against our leadership. He said yes.

I visited this new comrade the other day at his shop. As I stood there speaking with him about strategy and solidarity, another member pulled up to us and said, “Wow, I never thought I would see you two talking like that. What a good thing for our shop.”

That case ended in the best outcome I could have hoped for. But another recent example shows that this approach has benefits even when you don’t win the anti-union person over.

One of our chief stewards was in a tough situation. A vocal member was publicly badmouthing her. The steward was upset at first, but she decided to reach out—not an easy thing to do after your reputation has been questioned. She contacted the person and offered to sit down and listen to the concerns.

The member refused to discuss the issues and kept up the negativity. But because the steward had taken the high ground, the rest see her as a true leader who is approachable and fair.

AVOID NEGATIVE SHOP TALK

One last story of shop floor animosity is about a worker who had scabbed during the 1989 Verizon strike. This guy was treated really badly for a decade. After a certain point, it felt wrong and counter to solidarity. After all, he was still a member of our union.

I took the unpopular approach of opening up dialogue with him and trying to make sure he felt comfortable speaking up. We routinely talked union and strategy. In fact, I found him to be more engaged than most of the people who publicly shamed him.

A decade later, during the strikes we had in the 2000s, this guy ended up being one of the best strikers we ever had. He was super-intelligent and adept at chasing down scabs himself.

Openly calling him a scab and treating him poorly allowed management to view an ugly part of our culture. You have to make space for even a scab to reconcile with the group. We’re all in the same boat, and we need each other to build power.

Remember that the boss is the manipulator, using the company’s resources to influence people’s behavior. Blame the boss, not your co-workers.

Shop stewards should never engage in negative conversations about people. I often overheard people talking about the guy who scabbed—conversations that were disguised as jokes, but most often were attempts to deflect the conversation away from the speaker’s own low level of participation in union activity.

Because stewards want to be popular, they sometimes shy away from talking about solidarity. However, do not expect to become a respected leader if you engage in bullying. For the same reason, stewards can’t go around making sexist, racist, or homophobic comments.

At the end of the day, people want union reps to be unifiers. They respect someone who is all union, all the time.

Steve Lawton is the president of Communications Workers Local 1102 on Staten Island, New York.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #481. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.