Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Party

Steward Systems: Build a Network of Leaders, Not Grievance Processors


First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 5, No. 29, August 11-17,1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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“I was elected steward twice and I quit twice too. I couldn’t deal with the hassle.”
“I’ve seen over a hundred committeemen since I’ve been here and only one was worth his salt.”
“I got elected steward a year ago. There’s 12 other stewards, but all the workers come to me with their problems. I can’t get anything done this way.”

Stewards First-Line Representatives for Workers

Steward systems are part of most union contracts. Stewards are the workers’ representatives closest to the rank and file, the first line of battle between union and boss. Forcing the company to recognize your steward system (fighting4 for more stewards, doing more union business on company time, paid stewards) is part of building up the fighting capacity of unions under correct leadership.

Existing steward systems vary from industry to industry. In small electrical plants the fighting capacity is very weak and even the union president works on the line (no full-time paid union rep). In other big unions like the United Auto Workers not only the union officials, but also the committeemen (stewards) are on the company payroll working full-time for the union.

Like unions, under American bourgeois democracy, steward systems are legal. Through their union misleaders, the capitalists have put most steward systems to sleep. At best some steward systems are dormant – in one garment factory where we tried to file a grievance through the senile Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, they didn’t know how to file it. It was the first grievance filed through that steward system in 35 years. At worst steward systems under capitalism are turned into strangleholds on the workers – like in the United Steelworkers where the union is so top-heavy and bureaucratic, every steel worker cynically swears the griever (steward) is the last place to look to for protection. Even “well-oiled” steward systems serve the capitalists too – without the Marxist political direction to put the trade union economic fights into perspective, smoothly functioning steward systems are at best skillful grievance filers who absorb the workers’ anger before it hits the boss.

Fighting Steward Systems Part of Building Working Class Fighting Capacity

Unlike the grievance procedure, a capitalist delay tactic, which we cannot reform, steward systems are part of the working class’ fighting capacity. Communists leading in the unions have to fight to turn them into weapons serving the workers’ fight. Particularly in the plants, where workers are most disciplined in their collective relations to production, you cannot propagate the Party’s line without organization.

First of all, if there is no recognized and paid steward system, you have to organize the fight for it. Otherwise, you will end up trying to take care of everything yourself, contrary to the basic Marxist principle that it is the masses who make history, not individual heroes. As one friend of the CWP, recently elected local president, said to his co-workers, “We can’t get anywhere when the union office is my living room. We need a separate headquarters to build up our strength. We have to stick together to jam the management office and demand a union office and paid stewards. If you’re not willing to fight for this, there’s nothing I, even as the president, can do by myself. And you have to be willing to pay, a little higher dues because we can only rely on ourselves to build up an organization that really represents us.”

Another comrade is a full-time paid committeeman in the UAW. But he’s supposed to lead 500 workers in his division himself – impossible! So he has to organize his own line stewards to strengthen the workers’ leadership, and also fight for official recognition for the line stewards by the union/company. Without this fight to accumulate a network of leaders, you can only become a social worker swamped in paperwork and problems.

Steward Systems Not CWP’s Strategy for Socialist Revolution

On the other hand, building fighting steward systems is not CWP’s strategy for socialist revolution. The Trots and revisionists sink down beneath the trade unions saying, “make revolution through the workers’ fighting steward systems,” and “make socialist revolution through a general strike” (their proposal for every situation). Even genuine fighting steward systems built by the CWP are not sufficient for seizure of state power (through a national steward system, etc.). Making every factory into our fortress is one fundamental component of the struggle for workers’ rule. The socialist revolution is the result of the overall Party’s strength and influence in winning the majority of the American people to the cause of genuine workers’ rule. Communist organizing among the workers requires, besides steward systems, simultaneously higher level organization and politics (organizing workers also into the Party schools, postering teams, agitation/propaganda teams, etc.).

Build A Network of Leaders Not Grievance Processors

What kind of stewards do you want to develop? Do you want stewards to merely file the grievances so you can do more important political work? No! Those kind of stewards would turn into social workers and eventually drop out or turn against the workers anyway. Our steward systems must be a network of leaders, not grievance processors, fighters who the workers look to for leadership in all aspects of their lives (not just on the job concern, but concern for workers personal and family lives too). You have to educate workers, in particular the stewards, on our line – “don’t go through the grievance procedure” (see Workers Viewpoint, July 5, 1980, “Don’t Drown in the Waterfall of Grievances . . . ”).

A lot of stewards get fed up, turn inactive or turn against the workers because they lack perspective on what is the root of the problems and what is the larger solution. Of course, different stewards will have different levels of unity with our politics/stand. But political education must be done not only in steward and union meetings, but every day, to develop the workers’ leaders.

Workers Must Be Able to Supervise and Recall the Leadership

As a steward and leader in the plant, one of the first tasks you may face is cleaning house. As one local president said, “We’re spending as much time getting rid of old deadweight stewards as we are bringing in new ones.” For the first time, with strong centralized leadership, the workers are able to exercise their right to immediate recall of union officials.

Some union constitutions state in words the members’ right to immediate recall of stewards they feel aren’t representing them. But we aren’t interested in formal democracy for the “right to have an equal say” in itself. In the course of the workers’ struggles, the very important principle that the workers must supervise and be able to recall their own officials must be upheld and implemented. This principle was first put forward in the Paris Commune, then fought for in the Soviets of the Russian Revolution, and resolved on an even higher level by the revolutionary committees set up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which the Chinese revisionist leadership have now disbanded wholesale). While our steward systems have a much lower level of democratic centralism (organizational principle that democracy, can flourish only under strong centralism) than the Party, leadership can be sound only if it is accountable to the masses.