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Union Business Agent

Union Business Agent

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Union business agents represent the interests of the members of their labor union. They are elected by the members and paid by the union to speak on its behalf to both management and the public. Business agents work at the level of the union local. The term "union local" refers to a branch of the union membership. The actual duties of a business agent vary with each union local and depend on its size and needs. In a small local, which may be made up of the workers of one factory or company, the business agent heads the union office. The business agent not only handles negotiations and grievances but also sets up the office. The agent hires staff, keeps records, and collects membership dues. The locals of very large unions sometimes represent all the workers in a wide geographic area. In large locals the business agents work in large offices with other union officers, such as the local president or secretary.

Business agents participate in contract negotiations. Negotiations are held with management to work out a labor contract that is acceptable to both workers and management. The contract terms include specified wage scales, hours, and working conditions. When a contract is signed, it is in force for a stated length of time. Union business agents work to protect their members' rights guaranteed under the contract.

One of the union business agent's main tasks is to handle grievances as head of the local's grievance committee. Grievances are complaints that workers have against management. Workers make their complaints about salaries, benefits, safety standards, and working conditions to a member of the grievance committee who works in their department. The committee member meets with the workers' supervisor to settle the problem. When matters cannot be settled at this level, the business agent is called into the grievance procedure. Business agents are familiar with the terms of the contract. They are in a good position to bargain with managers for fair grievance settlements for workers.

In addition to these duties, union business agents handle general union business, such as writing reports and correspondence. They also encourage new people to join the union. They collect membership dues from those who already belong to the union. Many agents set up union meetings. They are responsible for planning meetings and finding meeting places. Some business agents arrange for outside speakers to come to the meetings. Agents often give time to individual union members who have questions about union matters or personal finances.

Besides representing the union to members and management, union business agents are active in the community. Some agents lobby for new labor laws or support political candidates who pledge to support labor causes.

Education and Training Requirements

There are no formal educational requirements for this job. The main requirement is union membership support, which is necessary because agents are elected to their jobs by union members. Most union officials have spent many years in their unions as unpaid committee workers and leaders.

Most union business agents have a high school education, and many have some college training. Some unions offer training programs in labor relations and union leadership. Officials may also take college courses in labor relations.

Getting the Job

Union business agents must run for election and win a majority of the votes. Active members of the union and current officials can advise workers about how to campaign for the post. However, membership support is the only way to get the job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement depends on performance and popularity. Business agents can be elected to positions as president, vice president, or secretary of the union local. A few successful leaders go on to become officers of the national union after many years of service.

Although membership in labor unions continues to grow, this growth is slow relative to growth in the work force as a whole. Workers trained in labor relations will have the best job opportunities.

Working Conditions

Working hours for a business agent vary from day to day, but they are generally long. Agents sometimes work around the clock during drawn-out negotiations. They also work under considerable pressure at times and usually have a busy schedule. They spend much of their time speaking to people. The job calls for leadership and dedication.

Where to Go for More Information

American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations
815 16th St. NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 637-5000

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries vary with the union. Union business agents usually receive a salary that is figured as an increase over the salary of the highest-paid journeyman in the union. Benefits include paid vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

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