The Stewards of Labor


In September, Local 655 will host our first Steward Seminar in four years. The seminar was once an annual tradition, but COVID placed a hard stop on the otherwise regular occurrence. As the staff here at Local 655 works to assemble classes and bring in outside speakers to provide knowledge and training to our shop stewards, I must admit I find myself a little disappointed to see how attendance at this critical event is shrinking. 

This year’s seminar will take us to the Lake of the Ozarks. We haven’t used this venue in more than a decade, and the since then we’ve found ourselves occupying a hotel in the heart of Clayton. The return to the lake might seem extravagant, to those who aren’t familiar with the pricing. It turns out taking a group of people to our favored hotel in the Lake of the Ozarks off season is not only cheaper, it’s is substantially cheaper than putting 100 or more of us up in a hotel in Clayton. 

Shop Stewards are an essential resource to any good Labor organization. These individuals bridge the gap between our partners in the workplace every day and the union staff that fights for them. The hardest-working union rep in the world can’t be on the worksite as often as our shop stewards, many of whom are longer-term partners. Shop stewards are the eyes and ears of any good Labor organization. At Local 655 a good shop steward is simply a link between our union staff and the thousands of workers we represent. They alert us to issues we might not otherwise have heard about, they serve as a witness when our partners are asked to meet with management, and they answer basic questions at their worksite. Even more impressive, a truly capable shop steward meets their newly-hired coworkers and spends a few minutes of their time explaining the basics of the contract. They help that new younger worker understand their rights and, when necessary speak to management on their behalf.

I’ve met more good shops stewards than I could ever count. As a union representative and even as President of Local 655 I have been educated by and relied on the wisdom of shop stewards across our organization. Anyone on my staff will tell you that if we as an organization are trying to take the pulse of the partners, or dig into the breadth and depth of a possible problem, the first thing I do is instruct the staff: reach out to your stewards, find out if XYZ is happening where they work. 

I’ve seen incredible shop stewards educate and inspire coworkers, advocate for contract language during bargaining, and help this union save jobs and protect pay and benefits. My career is littered with the legacies of incredible shop stewards who — in a single phone call — have helped this union represent our partners better than we ever could have been able to without their help.

What brings me a moment of pause is to see how the number of stewards we have dwindle. We still have so many of you doing wonderful work and to those individuals let me express my sincere thanks. While being a shop steward does occasionally require more work, it takes caring and compassion for other people and a passion for the union. I’ve seen less and less of our partners step into the role in recent years. 

For some of you I understand why: it sounds like more work for no money. First let me address that fear: a good shop steward can be defined in many ways as someone who simply knows their union rep., cares that all their coworkers are treated fairly under the contract and isn’t afraid to alert their union if a problem arises. It doesn’t add hours to your day or additional burdens to your workplace. It’s a role for people who see the value in a good union contract and want everyone in their workplace to enjoy that same value. 

There are so many people working as partners of Local 655 who care deeply about their workplace and take pride in what they do (as they should) and these same individuals often have a wealth of experience. If you are someone who has been around for a while in your company or your workplace, if you pride yourself on doing a good job and care that things are done right, I’m probably describing you. If you possess all those things and you also find yourself angry when a coworker is treated unfairly, or driven to right a wrong when you see it arise, then you might just be a shop steward in the making.

Do you care about where you work? Do you want to see all your coworkers enjoy the benefits of their union contract and the protections it provides? Do you sometimes look around your workplace and think “someone should do something about this?”

I have news for you. Perhaps that someone should be you. Your union will fight the long and tough fights. We’ll send our staff in to do the lengthy and tedious work that is sometimes required to solve a problem, but my staff – which is almost exclusively made up of former shop stewards — will never know about each individual workplace as much as you will. Your union needs you. Your coworkers need you. 

You can play a small but critical role in literally making your workplace better. 

Are you ready to give it a try? Call your union rep. Become a steward. We’re in this together. Solidarity forever.


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