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Labor Union Business Agents

The Job

Union business agents act as representatives for the working members of the union, who are often called the "rank and file." Agents are usually elected by members in a democratic fashion, although sometimes they are appointed by the union's elected officers or executive board. A union agent normally represents a certain number of workers. In an industrial union, an agent could speak for workers in several small plants or a single large plant. In a craft union, an agent will represent a single trade or group of craft workers.

Unions are structured like corporations and government groups in many ways. In the same way that a company will follow the procedures described in its articles of incorporation to conduct meetings and elect its board of directors, a union follows the rules set down by its own constitution and democratically elects its leaders and representatives. Union leaders must be responsive to the wills of their union members, or they may be overruled in union meetings or defeated in their next bid for reelection. In industrial unions, local chapters are directed by a central union, which is led by a regional director and is part of a larger national or international union.

Craft unions are organized somewhat differently. Each craft is represented by a different business agent, and several of these agents work on the staff of a district council. These district councils are like an organization of unions, each governed independently of the others, banding together for bargaining strength.

One of the most important aspects of a union business agent's job is the role as a liaison, or go-between, for workers and employers. This role becomes most apparent at the times when the union and its employers need to negotiate a new contract. The business agent needs to know what the members of the union want in order to talk with management about wages, benefits, pensions, working conditions, layoffs, workers' compensation, and other issues. The agent explains the union's position to management during prebargaining talks. During negotiations, the agent keeps the members informed of the progress of contract talks, and advises them of management's position.

The business agent needs to be able to drive a hard bargain with employers while at the same time be aware of employer limitations so that an agreement can be reached suitable to all parties. If a contract agreement cannot be reached, a third party may be needed. Conciliators, or mediators, are dispute resolution specialists that may be brought in to keep the talks moving on both sides. Arbitrators, sometimes called referees or umpires, help decide disputes by drawing up conditions that bind both workers and employers to certain agreements. Only as a last resort will labor union business agents help organize a general strike, which can hurt both labor and management financially. During a strike, workers are not paid and employers lose money from a loss in production.

In addition, the business agent is responsible for making certain that the union is serving its members properly. The agent often handles grievances filed by union members and, if necessary, will work with people in the company to solve them. It is also the agent's job to make sure that employers carry out the terms of the union's contract. The agent is in constant contact with union members through the shop steward, who is the general representative for the union. The steward is either elected by the membership or appointed by the business agent.

Agents are also responsible for much of the public image of the union. This involves everything from contacting newspaper reporters and other members of the media to organizing charity drives. The business agent is often in charge of recruiting new members for the union, finding jobs for members who are out of work, conducting union meetings, and renting meeting halls.

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