Aside from a collective bargaining agreement, employees and employers are governed by laws and regulations that are created by state governments, or acts of Congress. A steward thatknows these laws has an option to file a legal action with an outside agency or in court. And since under many contracts a local union can grieve employer violations of law, not just contract rights, knowing about these statutory rights can give the steward and the union added clout in arguing a grievance.
Here is a general guide that will help you understand the laws and regulations that affect our workplaces:
- WEINGARTEN RIGHTS – In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court decided workers had the right to union representation in an investigatory hearing if they reasonably believe the investigation could lead to disciplinary action. Thus, if a worker requests that a union representative be present for a particular meeting, the company must oblige. It is important to remember that an investigatory hearing is not a grievance hearing. But as the steward, you can ask what the hearing is about, confer with an employee before the hearing, and you may participate in the hearing.
- HEALTH AND SAFETY – The Occupational Safety and Health Act says employers have a “general duty” to provide a hazard-free work environment, and there are detailed OSHA standards that apply to particular industries and occupations. In addition, there are also right-to-know laws that can help you find out what chemicals employees are being exposed to, and mandatory OSHA logs available to you upon your request from your employer, that can help you monitor the health and safety situation in your workplace.
- UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES – Workers have the right to engage in a wide range of activities to improve their wages and working conditions. There is legal protection against any employer interference or retaliation when workers deide to join a union, file grievances, wear buttons or T-shirts with union messages, or hand out union literature. In addition, the law also protects stewards from employer interference when trying to perform their duties as shop steward.
- DISCRIMINATION – Various federal, state and local laws forbid discrimination against job applicants and current employees based on the following: race, color, age (over 40), sex, religion, national origin, marital or parental status, physical or mental handicap, and sexual orientation.
- PLANT CLOSINGS – A number of laws, most notably the 1989 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN), require that advance notice be given to unions when a company is planning a shutdown or mass layoff. The law doesn’t stop a company from making these business decisions, but the heads-up to the union can give all the time needed to organize a community or other campaign to reverse the company’s decision or bargain a retraining/severance agreement.
- OVERTIME WORK – Laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act supplement whatever contract provisions we have on the length of the workday/workweek, and overtime pay and comp time. With statute of limitations measured in years, going through the court system with such claims can mean real dollars for overworked and underpaid workers, and can be used as leverage to settle a grievance on these subjects.
- FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE – The federal 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows an employee of a company with 50 or more workers to take unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child or gaining of a foster child, to care for a sick family member, or to take care of one’s own serious illness with the guarantee of continued health insurance coverage and a return to their previous job or to an equivalent job.
Special Status of Union Stewards
As a union steward, you have a special legal status that gives you both rights and responsibilities. Under the law, when you are acting as a union steward, you step out of the shoes of an employee and into the shoes of an exclusive bargaining representative. That means that the rules of conduct that normally apply to employees in their interactions with management do not apply to you.
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