You Get What You Give


As I’m writing this, myself and the staff of Local 655 are working hard to finish preparations for our 2024 Shop Steward Seminar. Last year, our theme was one simple word: “engagement.”

We are carrying many of the lessons of that theme into this year as well, forging newer and stronger relationships with our stewards in order to best serve all of our partners. Stewards, and partners, who engage with their local union are the best instruments of improving this family. It’s your feedback, our rank-and-file partners, and your involvement in bargaining that gives us the information and leverage we need to get the best possible contracts.

The door swings both ways. The best union representatives and Labor leaders in general are engaged with the hard-working people that pay their salary with their dues. Good leaders and reps know their partners, guide them through questions and challenges, and are there to assist them when they have issues at the workplace.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Union staff and leaders that aren’t engaged with their partners do a poor job of leading and representing them, and union partners that don’t engage with their union often suffer for it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that they had a particular problem but “the union didn’t help me.” When I ask them who they talked to at their union hall, too often they say “I didn’t call anyone.”

Sometimes partners who fail to contact their union when issues arise suffer negative consequences because their grievance is no longer timely, or the problem has already occurred and no one at their union hall was able to stop it, because they weren’t informed.

Engagement is a mutual process.

Your union rep can visit your workplace as often as possible, and they still can’t be there 24/7, nor do they have the foresight to predict every problem or read every mind. It’s our responsibility to be available and accessible to you, to communicate and build relationships with you, to earn your trust and provide you with service and representation.

But we can only take it so far. You, the hard-working people that make up this union family, have to take ownership of your role and your workplace. The simple fact of life is that many of us will spend as much time at work as we do with our families. Our workplace is our livelihood, our paycheck keeps our bills paid and our benefits keep us healthy, give us time off and provide us with a good retirement and strong rights on the job. If we don’t take ownership of our workplace it won’t improve.

The union partners who take the simplest actions: like taking a rep’s business card and picking up the phone when they have a question or concern, will always get more value out of their union than the ones that never look twice at a contract.

Those that don’t engage have always baffled me. You pay for this organization to function! Your dues keep the lights on, pay for attorneys to provide us with legal counsel, and pay for this union staff. We work for YOU. Why wouldn’t you make sure you got as much out of this as possible?

For that same reason, I am frustrated and perplexed by Labor leaders who don’t give everything they have to the people that elect them and pay their salaries. Labor leaders have a responsibility to fight for working families to make their lives better. It isn’t a job, it’s a call to service.

Unions are one of the most powerful forces for improving and expanding the Middle Class that have ever existed, and yet they rely entirely on us, working together and taking action, in order to achieve that better life. The mere existence of unions is not enough. Tools are useless unless they are put in our hands and put to work. No matter how much we might want it, the hammer won’t pick itself up and smack the nail. We have to put in the work.

I’m excited for the upcoming seminar where we’ll have a chance to deepen our engagement with each other and improve this organization. These things we accomplish will flow downstream into the workplaces we represent and allow us to do more for one another and our entire union family.

Whether you’re a Labor leader, a union staffer, a shop steward or brand new to this organization, you should remember that we can and will make improvements to the workplace and fight for working families, but our success will depend on our mutual effort and mutual aid. The tools are most useful when actually used, and the more you use them, the better you can build things.

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