The shop steward of the future - LO conducts major survey

A major new survey of Danish shop stewards, published in September 1998, indicates that the shop steward of the future will not only be involved in bargaining over pay and working conditions. Shop stewards, it is suggested, will become increasingly involved in more strategic and financial decisions at the workplace. This presents new requirements for shop steward training, and may also be a challenge for the trade union movement.

A major survey of the working conditions and profile of Danish shop stewards (tillidsrepræsentanter) was presented on 28 September 1998 to 2,700 shop stewards at a "shop steward summit" in Odense. The Shop steward survey 1998 (Tillidsrepræsentantundersøgelsen 1998) was carried out for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) by the Industrial Relations Research Group (FAOS) at Copenhagen University, and a total of 7,704 shop stewards from 20 LO-affiliated trade unions filled in questionnaires. This is equivalent to around one-third of the total of 25,000 or so shop stewards in LO's member unions. In addition, 50 shop stewards and managers were interviewed. The survey provides a profile of shop stewards in 1998 and a picture of how they experience their working conditions.

The main findings of theShop steward survey 1998 are available, in Danish, on the Internet, along with impressions from the presentation of the survey.

The shop steward of the future - well-trained in finance and strategy

Among the notable findings of the survey is a suggestion of the requirements which will be placed on the shop steward of the future. Analysis of the shop stewards' answers gives an indication of these requirements and of how the trade union movement should support shop stewards in future.

A general trend seems to be that shop stewards are becoming increasingly involved in financial and strategic decisions. Managers seem increasingly willing to involve shop stewards in such decisions. If the steward is involved in a decision, it is often much easier to sell the idea to the employees. However, many shop stewards state that they are not sufficiently well qualified to make decisions at these levels. Among the competences which most stewards feel they need to improve are negotiating skills (60%) and knowledge of finance and accounts (48%).

Together with statements from interviews, these findings indicate that the role of the shop steward is changing. Cooperation with management and new requirements placed on shop stewards and consequently on their formal training, mean that stewards are expected to be able to take a more active part in formal decision-making which goes beyond the day-to-day level. This may also result in the shop steward, and in the long term the trade union movement, being faced with a dilemma. The more the shop steward becomes involved in financial affairs and strategy at managerial level, the higher the risk that he or she will become distanced from his or her colleagues' daily problems and instead see things from the perspective of management. This may become a challenge for both the individual shop steward and the union movement - raising the question of how to tackle the new opportunities for participation while maintaining contact with the support base, the rank-and-file members.

Five theme reports

The above are some of the main findings from two of the five theme reports - The shop steward of the future and New roles, new knowledge- which make up the Shop steward survey 1998. The five reports cover the following issues.

  1. Shop steward '98 gives a profile of shop stewards, in terms of: their age and sex composition; why a person chooses to become a shop steward; the average shop steward's length of service; family situation; sectoral affiliation; and educational and training background.
  2. The cooperating shop steward deals with conditions at the workplace. It finds that the shop steward is the buffer between management and employees in both cooperation and disputes. It is the shop steward who must communicate and mediate between the views of two parties, and for many this is precisely the exciting aspect of the role. However, many shop stewards do not feel that they have sufficient time for their work as a steward, and many lack feedback from their colleagues about whether they are doing their job properly.
  3. The shop steward of the trade union movement deals with the relationship with the trade unions and the collective agreement system. Shop stewards can be said to be the backbone of the trade union movement as well as the external face of the unions to their members. A majority of shop stewards are satisfied with the service provided by the local trade union, but there are also many who feel that it is difficult to have influence on the work carried out higher up in the organisation. The report also outlines the shop stewards' attitude to unorganised colleagues and to decentralisation.
  4. "New roles, new knowledge" deals with training courses concerning trade union policy issues, both today and in the future. Around three-quarters have taken such a training course and of these, some 75% find that it has strengthened their qualifications for their work as a shop steward. The content of vocational training courses is also discussed, and the report points at future areas of coverage for training courses for shop stewards.
  5. The shop steward of the future deals with the shop steward as a citizen. A central aspect of the theme is the shop stewards' views and outlook on life and how these make themselves felt in concrete actions within and outside the workplace. A general finding is that shop stewards are active people who relate consciously to political issues without necessarily being members of a party. Based on the questionnaire and interviews with both employers and shop stewards, a view of the shop steward of the future is presented. He or she must, as mentioned above, be a knowledgeable and skilful negotiator, who has the necessary qualifications to discuss financial and economic issues, new technologies and types of management.

More details on some specific aspects of the survey's findings are provided in a further EIRO article, DK9811192F.

Further work

The Shop steward survey 1998 has not been concluded with the publication of the five theme reports, and a further three lengthy books are currently being prepared for publication in spring 1999. While the five theme reports to a large extent represent "the average shop steward", the three further books will try to dig deeper under this surface:

  • the first book uses the questionnaire as a point of departure, linking a number of interesting points in order to explain some connections. It may, for example, be interesting to highlight whether there are specific groups which have disputes with the management or whether specific family matters are of importance to the work of shop stewards;
  • the second book is based on the many interviews which have been conducted. Case studies will describe whole workplaces, using the role of the shop steward as a point of departure, and some specific issues will be discussed; and
  • the third book concerns future requirements for training and education. Based on both questionnaires and interviews, the aim is to present some facts about the training and educational situation of shop stewards and to present some views on their future requirements.

Commentary

The new survey fills a void. It is some 30 years since a survey covering shop stewards across the unions affiliated to LO was last carried out. In 1993, a survey was conducted of some 5,400 members of LO unions, which was very valuable in showing how the average worker felt and thought about politics and life, while in 1996, a survey was undertaken of shop stewards in one LO union, the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (Handels- og Kontorfunktionæernes Forbund, HK). However, until now extensive research into shop stewards in all LO unions was missing.

The survey puts the future requirements faced by shop stewards on the agenda, thereby giving trade unions and employers (and their organisations) an opportunity to discus the stewards' future role. One of the most interesting results of the survey is the fact that contemporary shop stewards are becoming ever more involved in financial and strategic matters. This might indicate that the traditional, more adversarial relationship between management and employees' representatives really is declining - or at least, that the conflict has moved on to a higher level, at least in some enterprises.

Among the more controversial items to arise might be the question of how shop stewards can retain legitimacy vis-à-vis union members, as their influence on - and understanding of - financial and strategic management matters increases. This might be quite a challenge for unions which, in their role of providing support for shop stewards, will have to take this question into consideration: how do shop stewards achieve a balance between enhanced managerial responsibility on the one side, and their role as employee representatives on the other? (Steen E Navrbjerg, FAOS)

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