What is a shop steward?

Ivan Israelstam, Chief Executive of Labor Law Management Consulting writes:

Even when employees belong to trade unions it is not always compulsory for the employer to recognise shop stewards. That is, the employer does not always have to agree to accept the election of and to interact with shop stewards. Before the trade union can legally force the employer to recognise shop stewards as worker representatives the trade union first has to:

1. Gain recognition itself from the employer; and

2. Show that the trade union on its own (or in conjunction with other trade unions) has sufficient representation at the workplace; and

3. Have, at the workplace, at least 10 trade union members on its own or jointly with other unions.

It is vital for the employer to enter into an agreement with the union before recognising the union and the shop steward. The purpose of this recognition agreement is to enable the employer to keep a tight control over the activities of the union and of the shop stewards. Without such an agreement the shop stewards can exceed their powers and disrupt production.

Shop stewards have a number of trade union duties that can take them away from their normal production work. These shop steward duties include:

• Wage negotiations. This may involve the shop steward in leading or assisting with the negotiations and in numerous preparatory and feedback meetings

• Hearing employees’ grievances and negotiating in this regard with the employer

• Representing employees at disciplinary hearings. This does not only use up time at the hearing itself. It can necessitate the shop steward spending protracted periods of time preparing for the hearing and dealing with appeals brought against the discipline meted out

• Attending training courses and conferences arranged by the trade union for purposes of developing the shop stewards’ knowledge and skills

• Holding meetings with members regarding union issues

• Representing members at the CCMA or bargaining council.

Where the trade union has complied with the three requirements mentioned earlier the employer cannot stop the shop steward from doing his/her union duties. However, the employer can and should:

• Refuse recognition of the shop steward until a properly drafted union recognition agreement has been signed

• Impose, via the recognition agreement, strict controls on the activities of the shop steward

• Make the shop steward fully aware of the consequences of breach of the terms of the recognition agreement and of the employer’s code of conduct

• Take swift yet legally correct action where shop stewards flout the rules

• Join a reputable employers organisation such as the GDPEO in order to gain access to expert legal advice and representation.

Details: Labour Law Management Consulting, 011 888 7944, 082 852 2973, or e-mail ivan@labourlawadvice.co.za

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