By John Cusick
Whether it's organizing, fighting for a contract or legislation, pressing a political campaign or representing members who have a grievance, the real work of the union is accomplished at the local level. And it's led by shop stewards whose faces are familiar to members at their workplace.
This is particularly true of large locals like 1037 in Newark, N.J., and 9400 in Paramount, Calif. Local 1037 represents 7,500 public workers and Local 9400 has about 9,000 members, mostly in telecom. Both count on shop stewards to be the face-to-face voice of CWA.
"Here's something we should do," says Local 1037 President Hetty Rosenstein. "Every union set a goal to recruit one shop steward for every 20 workers. All of these shop stewards go to training. That training isn't just about grievance handling. It's about mobilization of members at the worksite and electorally."
Local 1037's well on its way to achieving that vision, with more than 300 shop stewards distributed throughout the state and local governments that employ its members. Local 9400, also a statewide local, has 314 stewards. Most are at SBC — now known as the "new AT&T" — locations. But about 10 are TNG-CWA, a dozen or so, Verizon, 30 at ADT Security and 15 at two casinos located on Indian reservations.
Local 1037 pulls every new steward off the job for two intensive days of training and once a year conducts a shop steward conference where all the local's stewards are invited to spend the night and a day with others in workshops and plenary sessions, talking and getting to know one another.
Local 9400 President Micheal Hartigan places a similar emphasis on the training his local's stewards receive. Executive Vice President Bill Demers and Vice President Jack Metzger conduct eight-hour classes for stewards through both the Northern California and Southern California Conferences of Locals. They cover everything from grievance handling, to the Family and Medical Leave Act, to violence in the workplace.
They periodically conduct video conferences for stewards, tying together the local's five offices scattered around the state.
Emphasis is given to training chief stewards, who train assistants who pass that training down the line.
Frank Arce, for example, is Local 9400's chief steward for a bargaining unit of 2,500 members in Northern California. He has five assistant chief stewards, 20 area stewards and about 100 shop stewards.
This structure mobilized hundreds of members for rallies and informational picketing on a weekly basis before and during a four-day strike at SBC in 2004. The result was a contract that preserved quality, company-paid health benefits.
"We'd have different mobilizers at different locations," Arce said. "We'd move around, because management would send the police out just to give us a little harassing."
To defeat several anti-labor propositions on the ballot in the recent California special election, stewards mobilized hundreds of CWA members. Bneta Davido, a shop steward at San Ramon, organized 200 hours of phone banking for the AFL-CIO central labor council there.
"Any time Gov. Schwarzenegger was anywhere in our area, we got the word out so that anyone who was able would get out there and demonstrate against his proposals," Arce said.
Jacque Wasserman, shop steward at SBC's provisioning and maintenance office in San Ramon, was part of that effort, conducting informational meetings that led 20 members to participate in phone banking against Prop 75. She also drove eight workers in the local's van to a Dec. 6 Human Rights Day action against Comcast in Oakland, and worked as an organizer to sign up new members at eight Cingular retail stores.
Shop stewards like Tammy Wasielewski, at SBC Park Center in Anaheim, were instrumental in helping the local raise $45,601 in 2004 for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, CWA's charity of choice. She contacted the charity in August 2005 to arrange speakers, generating $500 in donations through the payroll "giving campaign." And just last month, she arranged for Area Steward Robert Rodriquez to take photos of employees' kids on Santa's lap. Proceeds from sales of the photos generated another $900 for the charity.
Back East, Chief Shop Steward Rene Demuynck of Local 1037 helped build a steward's committee at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities that now has nine members. They regularly publish and distribute a newsletter to about 280 members and about five years ago organized resistance in their agency to management's merit pay scheme that threatened seniority rights.
Through the newsletter and workplace meetings, they convinced the entire workforce to refuse to cooperate with annual assessments that would have given them merit ratings.
"Workers were required to meet with their manager to assess their prior year's work," Demuynck said. "Everybody who went in, on the advice of the union, said 'I will not sign anything or agree to anything in this meeting that would determine what my work should be.'"
For several years, with no data, none but "satisfactory" ratings were given, until the state regulation establishing merit pay was allowed to sunset under a Democratic administration.
Other examples of service and leadership by Local 1037 shop stewards:
- Bob DePeola at the Fairlawn Division of Taxation succeeded in having an Hispanic investigator transferred from under a supervisor who discriminated against him because of his accent.
- Kendra Cromarity and Caroline Fernandes at Jersey City Employment and Training built a mobilization committee from the committee that recently organized their workplace.
- Reggie Jones at the Department of Youth and Family Services, a former Olympic boxer and silver medalist on the U.S. team, is a local hero who inspires younger workers with his determination to fight for them.
Said Rosenstein, "Informed stewards and members will demand a voice in their union and their labor movement, and will fight for contracts. They won't have to be door-knocked four times over to realize that George Bush is bad for working people."