We’ve talked a lot about how unions are democratic and how everyone gets a vote in what your union does. But, like any democracy, there are people who want a say — but don’t want to go all class-president on it.

That’s why unions have officers, leadership positions held by members who want a little more responsibility and demonstrate they can handle it. That increased responsibility translates into organizing, running meetings and communicating with workers and the employer. It doesn’t mean they have vast, unimpeachable power.

While independent unions are in charge of running their own operations, workers who are members of a national union will need local leadership, too. To help you navigate it all, we’ve outlined some common union leadership positions you or your coworkers might be interested in.

Hey, it might inspire you to hit the campaign trail.

Workers at a meeting, taking notes
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

How do union officials get that sweet job?

Union leadership gets elected, just like any U.S. politician. The difference is your union’s leaders don’t need dark money or a hefty Twitter following to get elected — they just need to prove to their coworkers they’d be a good leader.

At least every three years, a union must hold elections to decide its leaders, but you and your coworkers can decide to hold them more frequently. You can even hold these elections via super-secret ballot if you’re all shy. An election committee made up of your coworkers who aren’t running for office should set parameters to ensure elections are fair.

To get elected, union members should be nominated by a coworker. After that, all nominees can kick off campaigns where all hopefuls attempt to convince their peers they’d make the best leader. Those intrepid future leaders should make their opinions known to everyone and must have access to a full roster of all union members in their workplace.

What kinds of positions are there in unions?

The size of your union may influence how complex an organization you’re running — if you’re a small workplace that’s formed an independent union, some of these duties could potentially be combined. Again, it’s up to you and your coworkers!

Regardless of titles, it’s up to officials to communicate regularly, educate their coworkers and be available to problem-solve at the drop of a hat. But in general terms, here are some must-have leadership positions to make a union run smoothly.

President and Vice President: The faces of the union. The president of your local union, or unit, will oversee all of the goings on, which means communicating with members, organizing and running meetings, and ensuring every committee is running well. In some unions, the president can appoint committee leaders (except election committees, for obvious reasons).

The vice president helps with all of this coordination, communication and administrative work, and can step up to the plate if the president is unable to perform their duties.

Secretary-treasurer: As the name suggests, this individual must love paperwork. Not only do they take careful notes during meetings, they also serve as the official keeper of all the unit’s records. That means keeping track of a union’s finances, too. Secretary-treasurers are in charge of collecting dues, reporting and cutting checks.

Stewards: Think of stewards like the ultimate hype-person for your union, who actively get workers involved in union activities. They can be elected or appointed by the president, that’s for you and your coworkers to decide. Stewards also serve as liaisons between workers, union leadership and the employer. Because they help with contract negotiations, stewards are great resources if workers have questions about their bargaining agreement, and are the go-tos when workers need to discuss workplace issues. The steward will record those concerns and, if necessary, file a grievance to take action.

Doesn’t that put stewards in an awkward position? After all, they’re kind of going head to head with management and they’re still very much working for the employer. Luckily, the National Labor Relations Act recognizes this potentially sticky situation, and gives protection to stewards to act as an equal to the employer, meaning they won’t get in trouble for speaking plainly during bargaining or when carrying out their duties.  

Image of empty chairs, ready for a meeting.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

What if my union’s officers aren’t doing a good job?

Checks and balances, baby. You know how the U.S. has a bill of rights? So does your union! And — bonus — you don’t even need to write it because Congress already did (although you should all make sure to write a specialized set of rules for how your union runs). And they said that if your union officers are ineffective, you have the right to replace them.

What that process looks like is something your coworkers will need to decide, but rest assured you don’t have to be stuck with a poor leader. Another option, if you’re not feeling confrontational, is to simply vote bad leaders out when the time rolls around.

What if I don’t want a leadership position, but I still want to play an active role in my union?

You can! In fact, please do!

Just because you don’t have a leadership title doesn’t mean you can’t join a committee or spread your union’s message far and wide. There’s plenty of work to be done, and the more people who take an active role in their unit, the more you all will be able to accomplish.

Who knows — maybe someday you will want to run for an officer position. If that possibility rolls around, you’ll already have the experience and organizing chops to ensure your unit runs like a well-oiled machine.