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Union Representative


Union representatives provide support to workers and deal with employers on issues such as working conditions and rights. Union representatives provide services to union members, answer questions members may have, and ensure that all members are receiving the benefits and rights they are entitled to under the terms of the union contract.

Union representatives must be well-versed in industrial relations and negotiating employment contracts, management methods and labor laws. They must be aware of any workplace issues affecting their members, and they should also develop a sound knowledge of the organizations for which their members work. Representatives are usually driven to provide their fellow employees equal and fair labor practices. They act as a liaison between the management and the union members. Union representatives often address large groups of people on issues affecting their union and make sure that all members understand their rights.

Analogous to a labor relations specialist or a human resources specialist, union representatives focus their work on employment trends, negotiating and interpreting collective agreements and often mediating labor relations disputes. They are specialists involved in collective bargaining disputes and discussions, and they focus their work on union contract issues such as salaries, holidays, sick days and employee conduct. Often acting as a mediator between management and union members, they help ratify agreements between both parties and find solutions that everyone can agree on.

The union representative role has become increasingly meaningful as companies and organizations realize the importance of having an employee who acts as a negotiator and liaison within a company. Many workers voice complaints or violations of union laws and the representative steps in to rationally assess the situation with management officials. Union representatives are well versed in all human rights laws, labor codes, union accords and safety guidelines.

A union representative plays an important advising and consulting role to all employees in a company. They are responsible for staff welfare and morale, including the health and safety of union employees and working conditions. A difficult aspect of the union representative's position is dealing with the "dirty work" within a company. They often have to act as mediators to employees with clashing personalities, recommend the firing of people and reprimand negligent employees, which can be extremely hard to do.
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  Interests and Skills  
Union representatives need to have planning and organizational ability, and be skilled in negotiation, mediation and leadership. They should also have problem-solving skills, report-writing skills and interpersonal skills. They need to be skilled at talking to large and small groups and must be able to explain complex issues clearly.

Union representatives need to be assertive, adaptable, creative, culturally sensitive and non-sexist. They should also be able to accept criticism, and be able to lead, motivate and inspire confidence in others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Organize union member meetings
  • Advocate the union policy to both union members and to management
  • Help workers with employment disputes
  • Negotiate employment contracts
  • Provide leadership, support, advice and training for delegates
  • Help develop union policies on conditions of employment
  • Administer all union member benefits such as group life insurance, sickness and accident benefits, health insurance, holidays and retirement pension plans
  • Administer and handle labor relations issues, collective agreements and mediation disputes within the organization
  • Make sure performance standards are consistent with the union's mission and structure
  • Meet with supervisors to resolve employee grievances and issues
  • Study legislation, arbitration decisions, and collective bargaining contracts to assess industry trends
  • May liaise with the media
  • May organize industrial action campaigns such as strikes or pickets
  • Union representatives work in offices and in the union members' workplace, such as a car manufacturer. A typical day will entail discussing labor issues and grievances with management and union members and attending labor relations meetings. Regular office hours are required of all union representatives however some may work irregular and long hours and may attend after-hours meetings. There is constant communication between the union leader and members and management therefore the office work is of a social nature. In some cases, union representatives will travel to meetings, negotiations or members' workplaces.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Union representatives are employed in both the public and private sectors. They usually exist wherever a union is in operation. They often work for business and organizations such as universities, health care institutions, large retail stores, governments, manufacturing companies, and financial institutions (where there are many employees) and act as private consultants or mediators to smaller unions looking for labor relations solutions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Union representatives may often begin their careers as entry-level human resources specialist. Then with more specialized experience; they advance within their field to become a union representative. Sometimes union representative are workers within their organization who see inequalities in the workplace and rise up to the role of representative. Other advancement prospects may include starting a labor relations consulting firm, advancing to an executive management position in a similar union, becoming a private mediator or arbitrator and switching careers to work in public relations, career counseling and motivation, social work or teaching.

It is hard to move right into a union representative position right out of university because people lack the technical and practical experience of dealing with people, which can only be learned on the job through experience. Going back to university to obtain a master's degree may also help in getting promotions.

  Educational Paths  
Although there is no direct path to becoming a union representative, most have completed either a university degree or college diploma in a field related to labor relations such as industrial relations. Today, many union representatives also have master's degrees. Many also come to their positions with business and law backgrounds. A law degree is an excellent stepping stone for a union representative career.

Nevertheless, as with most careers, experience and knowledge of the industry is always going to be the best training. Learning how to deal with all members of a union (both management and staff) and speaking before large, sometimes angry groups are skills that take some practice.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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