Steward Profiles – SEIU 925
By Graham Ford
SEIU 925 is an organizing union, which means that it relies on its members to maintain and build the union. Therefore, in the purist sense, the members are the union. Moreover, the people that truly are the backbone of SEIU 925 are the shop stewards. Stewards are volunteers; they receive no pay and little compensation beyond a pat on the back and well-deserved pride in a job well done. At most, they receive paid release time from their regular work so that they may attend to their duties as stewards. The amount of release time they may use is determined by the union’s contract. Yet, the majority of their work takes place during breaks and lunches. As we will see, it is their hard work that encourages others to become involved, thus continuing the cycle. In large part, it is their hard work that has brought success to SEIU 925.
This document profiles three stewards from the union SEIU 925, formerly CSA 925. Their names are Julie Reed, Jeneil Lagasse, and Dean Speer. In most cases, their stories are very similar, as they are all the product of the same union and abide by the style adopted by SEIU 925. However, we will also see divergence in their style and how they interpret their role.
Julie Reed works in the UW Medical Center. Her tasks primarily involve keeping patient records in order, making sure the all the appropriate information is recorded, and following up with physicians when necessary.
Jeneil Lagasse works at UW Medical Center. She has been there for sixteen years, and is in Laboratory Medicine department. She is fiscal specialist, doing purchasing for the department.
Dean Speer works at the UW Law School where he is currently a program assistant, working under an Assistant Dean. His work relates to most things dealing with students. He describes it as being a busy, eclectic job with many responsibilities.
Role in SEIU 925
Julie has been a steward for about ten years. After having received support from the union regarding her own grievances, she felt she should in return contribute by becoming a steward. She has recently been a member of the SEIU 925 executive board, and is still involved at higher levels of the union.
Jeneil is a more recent recruit, having been a steward for three years. Similar to Julie, workplace issues instigated Jeneil’s becoming a steward, though for more direct purposes. The staff lost a previously supportive supervisor, and many within the office were unhappy with the new management’s top-down approach; thus, she decided to pursue a position as a steward. She felt that it would be good to have someone in the area that knew more about the contract. Since then, she has been a member of the negotiating team and is a member of the Executive Board of Local 925.
Like Julie, Dean has been a shop steward for about ten years. He describes himself as having been ‘strong-armed’ by Kim Cook, as he initially felt that he couldn’t do it, when asked, because of time constraints and other timing issues. Then, a steward left to work in another UW department and Dean thought, “now’s the time.”
What do they do as stewards?
As a steward, Julie provides a support role for the employees under her sphere. When called upon regarding a workplace grievance, she first meets with the coworker to get a feel for the situation. She needs to make sure that the issue at hand is a valid grievance. She feels it is her responsibility to be up front and honest, and will explain to the coworker why the issue can or cannot be pursued. Then, her primary goal is to diffuse and resolve the situation at the lowest level possible, avoiding escalation of the issue. She feels that doing so is a benefit to everyone involved.
Knowing the contract is key, for it is her tool when working with management. It is to this document that she will first refer coworkers, and work from herself, suggesting that they cite an apposite section.
A great part of her role is to provide an experienced, outside person to whom the grievant can look for support. These situations can be very difficult and she finds that her poise, presence, and wealth of experience are as emotionally invaluable to the employee as the contribution she might directly make to the situation.
Jeneil is sometimes called directly by members, and at other times is referred to through the union office. She mainly works with Medical Center staff. Most calls are regarding disciplinary meetings; a few involve grievances.
Her first step is to talk with the person about the issue, paying attention to fairness, looking for direct contract violations, and finding out what the member wants to do. Sometimes they just want to find out if management was right or wrong and do not want to take it further. Often they are returnees, people who had elected to not take action before, but are now prepared to go the next step.
If the person does want to proceed, she will then look to see what contract articles are violated and then schedules a meeting with management. In dealing with management, she works on resolving the issue at the lowest level possible, without including human resources. Thus, she tries to avoid the grievance procedure, as they take a long time and it is in the best interests of everyone if the issue doesn’t escalate. Often, she finds that the matter is merely the result of a misunderstanding.
As a steward, Dean often sees his work as “facilitating better communication” between employee and employer. The members under his purview work in Region 17; this geographic region encompasses most of West Campus, Roosevelt offices, and Fremont. As a matter of principle, he does not represent employees within the law school, for he feels this would be a potential conflict of interest.
Dean believes that many workplace issues boil down to communication. For example, he once counseled an employee who had not talked with her supervisor over a rather long period of time. The employee and the supervisor had been funneling communicating through a third party. Dean asked the employee to please immediately make an appointment to talk with the supervisor. In the end, this was a very good approach with a positive outcome.
Sometimes it is his responsibility to represent an employee in hearings, be they disciplinary, grievance, or action plan related. The steward is present as a representative and advocate for the employee. Sometimes attorneys may also be present
Given the circumstances under which Jeneil became a steward, her relationship with management was shaky at first. They were very careful as to what they said to her. It is better now; they respect her. Yet, it isn’t really friendly, though that’s not what she would want. Management thinks more before they do something, and they’re not surprised when employees stand up for themselves. In her opinion, things have improved since she has become a steward.
One case demonstrating this is when the employees needed a room in which to meet with union representatives. These meeting always take place during break times and the contract provides for these meetings to be held on the premises. At first, when the workers requested the use of a conference room, management turned it down, thinking that it was not appropriate. Then, after considering the situation, Jeneil and the others insisted upon using the conference room and the management subsequently signed off on it.
Julie seems to have had a more pleasant experience, with a more convivial relationship with her superiors. She believes that she has garnered the respect of her employers, and is proud of this. By being fair and professional, she has an effective working relationship with management, which allows her to effectively carry out her duties as steward.
She especially believes that carefully managing the time that she spends on union related activities is important. She does not let being a steward excessively impede upon her work, and commits much of her own personal time to union related responsibilities.
Dean rarely has had issues with Law School management. At first, when he moved up to his current job in the Assistant Dean’s office, some staff started seeing him as working with and for management. A few even stopped talking to him, as a peer.
For Dean, his steward duties go in waves. When busy, he uses a reasonable amount of release time, which he usually finds sufficient.
Julie uses a combination of personal and release time to fulfill her duties. Often, she will use her personal time to do a preliminary check of a situation, and then apply release time to the pursuing of matters.
Though she is not overly burdened by her duties, Jeneil avoids using release time. She does almost all of her work on her break time, lunch, or after work. Rarely does she use paid release time, and only if she cannot arrange it otherwise.
The union provides steward-training workshops, which Julie tries to attend regularly. The activities include a lot of role-playing, in which they explore the possible situations that may arise.
The last time Jeneil attended a training they mixed the groups up so that more experienced stewards were with newer stewards, allowing them to share experiences. Often, they analyze and act out various scenarios, scenarios that may or may not have happened previously.
Like Julie and Jeneil, Dean describes steward training as group work, varying based upon who attends the session. They occur two or three times a year. Most recently, he attended a session which focused on the layoff process, learning what an employee’s options are and the role of UW Human Resources.
Much of the training he has gotten has been “on the job,” learning as he went. If he needed help, he has found he can get assistance from the Union office.
Julie did attend the strike. Fortunately, she was able to participate in the picketing and march. She found it an exciting and productive demonstration of solidarity.
Some of her coworkers were adversely affected, as they received letters of reprimand for participating. She says that this is a matter of contention before the union. She herself did not receive one, as the strike worked in with time for which she had already arranged to be gone from work.
Jeneil went out on strike with several in her department. Like many people who were gone that day, she received a letter of reprimand. These were generic, form letters sent down by the hospital administration.
The hospital administration’s reasoning was that it affected patient care and that it was improper use of vacation time, however letters were issued whether or not this was true, and even when employees had pre-arranged to be gone with their supervisors. It didn’t even matter if they were at the strike or not, out on sick leave, or were using vacation time ‘legitimately’. In one case, a supervisor had OK’d an employee’s leave ahead of time, and then when the supervisor was instructed to give the employee the letter, the supervisor followed up the letter of reprimand with another letter explaining why she felt that the disciplinary action was wrong.
She picketed at the hospital, mainly the east and west gates. The picketers included four or five other unions, and she felt it was successful in creating public awareness. On a different occasion she participated in ‘Informational Unity Breaks’ in which she and others handed out pamphlets during their breaks to stopped cars.
Though he did not go out for the entire day, Dean did participate during his lunch. Some employees and units in the Law School did participate, and a couple departments even shut down in support.
Being on the contract negotiating committee gives Jeneil a unique perspective into what she would like to see changed. In particular, she is in charge of updating the section that dealt with disciplinary actions.
Beyond clarifying the wording of this section, she would like to see a few structural changes. Primarily, she wants to see implemented a time frame for disciplinary action on the part of management. After the strike, some employees received letters of reprimand months after the fact; this was unreasonable and unfair, and she would like to see such action prohibited.
For Dean, there was no contract issue for which he felt particularly strong, though he did provide his input via the survey the union distributed. At this point, he is most wary of ‘take aways’, as he doesn’t want to see the employees lose ground they have thus far fought to gain.
Especially pertinent to her job, Julie would like to see the wording of the contract tightened up. It is natural that the employees and employers will interpret the wording differently, but she thinks it can be improved. Given that it is so important to her as a tool when working with management, she wants less room for interpretation and the requisite clarity in communication with management that would follow.
Cost-of-living raises would be good. She is also unhappy with the trend towards rising health insurance premiums. Additionally, she feels that there are problems with the restrictions on usage of sick leave.
Thoughts on the Union
Dean points out that the union is only as strong as its members, and feels that sometimes the membership loses sight of this. He also believes that everyone needs an advocate and encourages organizing efforts. It is “good to know we don’t work in isolation,” he says, “we all bring strengths and weaknesses [to the workplace], which can also be a positive thing.”
As a member of various committees, Jeneil assures that what needs to be improved is being worked on, mainly, communication to the members. They are spread out, and a member that is across the city needs to receive information and support. To do so, they are utilizing the Internet, mail, one-on-one attention, and working towards increasing the steward to member ratio. Lab medicine effectively has one steward for twenty-five members, however some areas don’t have a steward on hand.
She also feels that the union needs to expand into Eastern Washington. State politics are increasingly important to the union’s goals, and therefore it is imperative that they have a larger, more expansive base.
More contented, Julie is very happy with the union and believes that it should continue in the same direction. She concurs with the belief that it is up to the members to improve the union.
Dean is going to stick with being a steward. As he says, “it’s something I enjoy,” and will keep with it. What stewards do is effective, even when “we don’t get the full results of what we were hoping for.”
Ambitious, Jeneil wants to increase her union activies. She applied for, but didn’t get, a full-time rep position. Given that she is on five committees, she says that it was probably for the best. Her real goal is to focus on organizing in Eastern Washington.
One of her favorite parts of being a steward is the teacher-like effect she gets sometime. For example, someone she worked with recently who was new to the union became a steward partly due to her efforts. This in itself was rewarding, as she felt proud of being a role model.
Julie has considered going to work full-time for the union. She feels very close to the organization and admires the work that it does. Yet, she is concerned with spending time with her two small children and feels an overriding responsibility to them. Currently, she is training another steward whom, she hopes, will in the future take over more and more of her duties.
©2002 Graham Ford
These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.