Seven years ago, when I started working in the nursing home, I didn’t really know what the union was about. I vaguely remembered reading the chapter in my high school social studies book about the Chinese railroad workers and some guy whose name I can barely recall wanting to make work safe for all workers. I just knew I had to belong and that it gave me health care, which I never thought I’d need. It also knew that because of my union, I got regular raises, which I thought was good.
Fast forward two years. A day shift in my department had come open at my job and I apparently had this thing called “seniority,” which meant I could have the day shift over other people in my department. I still wasn’t sure what it meant, but I thought it was cool that I could get the job that I wanted. However, one of my co-workers felt that she deserved to have the job, even though she'd been in the department less time. I didn’t know what to do. So I read my union contract, and then I talked to my union steward. I discovered that under my local union contract, Local 1116, I had “departmental seniority”, which meant that I got the job. I was really excited and started reading the contract more and more to find out what other rights I had as a union member and I started sharing this with my co-workers.
Pretty soon, people were coming to me and asking me questions about the contract. I would answer them as best as I could but I always said they should ask the union stewards. Eventually, I was asked if I would be interested in being a steward. I said that I’d be happy to help my co-workers out.
I had been a steward less than a week when I was asked to represent another steward who had gotten in trouble. I went in there really nervous, with my contract shaking in my hand. I listened to what the management had to say and I knew that they were wrong. I held up the contract and read the section that cleared my co-worker. I was told very firmly by our administrator that the job of the steward was to sit there and shut up. I looked at him and said “My job is to protect my co-worker. If you pursue this discipline, I will file a grievance.” I had taken my first step as an advocate for workers’ rights in the workplace, and we went on to file and win our grievance.
Throughout the years I worked as a steward, I found out that the best approach to solving problems was to find the common ground that both employer and employee had. In a nursing home, this was simple: what was best for our residents. From there, we had a starting point from which we could move forward and find solutions that benefited everyone. The employee did not always get what they wanted, and neither did the employer. We were always able to come to an agreement that both sides could live with and that, to me, was successful.