October 21, 2016

Unions 101

How are unions organized?

The democratic structure of unions shapes the behavior of union officials, staff and stewards. Members elect their leaders, oversee their activities and have ultimate authority to overturn their decisions. All local unions (“locals”) have an elected executive board, which meets regularly to set policy and oversee the affairs of the organization. The board is composed of elected officers and other elected positions.

Locals that are large enough have full-time or part-time elected officials and/or professional staff to carry out the day-to-day work of the union. Local unions are affiliated with an international union or unions, which oversee the activities of member locals based on the bylaws and constitution of the particular international union.


Most locals have stewards who are working members trained to handle on-the-job problems and grievances. Some locals elect their stewards; in others, stewards are volunteers, and/or are appointed. Stewards typically are in close contact with the paid/elected staff from their local union. The structure of the steward system can vary from union to union depending on a number of factors, such as the local’s history and its relationship with the employer.

In most cases, the union’s goal is to have a steward in every unit and on every shift, but this is often a challenge. At Kaiser Permanente, the stewards’ role has been expanded through direct participation in joint decision making, performance improvement systems and unit-based team sponsorship as envisioned under the National Agreement.

Union staff

Most locals have full-time hired or elected staff (called field representatives, business agents, internal organizers, etc.) whose responsibilities include coordinating negotiations and contract administration for particular bargaining units. The jobs of these individuals can include a variety of activities, depending on the local union. For example, they may train and assist stewards, coordinate bargaining activities and develop internal organizing campaigns. The role of union staff in partnership activities also varies from union to union. Find a contact for your local union.

Membership meetings

All locals have regular membership meetings. The rules of internal union activity are laid out in the constitution and bylaws of the union. These documents spell out everything from the election procedures and duties of officers to the procedure for ratifying contracts to dues rates.

Union support staff for the Labor Management Partnership

Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions staff
Coalition staff partner with key Kaiser Permanente staff to co-lead regional unit-based team development, LMP education and training, and subject areas such as Healthy Workforce and Workforce Planning and Development. Coalition staff are dedicated to developing union capacity to advance the partnership at all levels in Kaiser Permanente.

Union Partnership Representatives
Union Partnership Representatives (UPRs) are experts in all facets of the Labor Management Partnership. Many UPRs are senior union leaders in their local unions. UPRs participate in LMP committees and joint decision-making forums. They organize, mentor and sponsor unit-based teams in their regions. They are trained facilitators and are well versed in performance improvement methodology.

Labor Liaisons
Labor Liaisons act as the liaisons between local union leadership and LMP programs. Their responsibilities include UBT sponsorship and skill building for UBT members within their own unions. Labor liaisons have a thorough familiarity with local contracts and provide support to local union stewards.

Trainers and Facilitators
Within the LMP, hundreds of KP employees have received “train the trainer” education, allowing them to teach core curricula to frontline employees and facilitate teams. The LMP Learning and Education Department coordinates the activities of these trainers. In some regions, trainers sponsor and support unit-based teams. To find out how to become a trainer, get in touch with your local training contact.

UBT Specialists
UBT Specialists are frontline workers on one-year assignments to help support unit-based teams. They work closely with Union Coalition staff to support UBTs in the facilities.

Contract Specialists
Contract Specialists serve one-year assignments to assist members in enforcing their local contract .This is considered part of the union’s duty of fair representation. The National Agreement allows unions to select one contract specialist for each 1,500 members to handle normal union representation issues. The 2005 National Agreement envisions that the role of the contract specialist would allow stewards to focus their time and energy on National Agreement implementation and the building of unit-based teams (operations) rather than only on traditional representation issues (labor relations).