Editor’s note: CSEA shop stewards are some of our most important activists. They serve as purveyors of information, a sounding board for members’ concerns, confidants and so much more. We created the “Principal Steward” feature to highlight these very important members and their responsibilities.
This month’s “Principal Steward” is Chris Flaherty, a laborer in the Town of Brookhaven who has served as a steward for nine years. The Long Island Reporter’s Wendi Bowie recently sat down with him to discuss how he’s serving our union through his shop steward role.
Long Island Reporter (LIR): What made you decide to become a shop steward?
Chris Flaherty (CF): I was unhappy with the way management was treating my colleagues and me. I wanted to get involved so I could affect change.
LIR: What’s the most rewarding thing about being a shop steward?
CF: Being able to meet more people, getting more involved and seeing how you can bring people together who wouldn’t normally socialize outside of union activities.
LIR: You participated in CSEA’s member engagement visits the last time it came to Long Island. Why did you decide to participate?
CF: All of CSEA’s activities are important to our future. If you’re not getting involved in the whole picture, then you’re not really getting involved at all. I enjoyed it a lot. I was in a lot of different areas in Suffolk County and I met people from the schools and different units. It’s funny how similar we all are; we all go through the same kinds of things at our worksites.
LIR: Is it something that you would participate in again?
CF: Wherever I’m needed, I’ll go. I try to spread myself as thin as I can.
LIR: What’s the most challenging thing about what you do?
CF: Getting people to understand a shop steward’s role. I think a lot of members don’t reach out the way they should, or could. I’d like to alleviate some of the burden on Wally [Greene, Town of Brookhaven Highway Department Unit president].
LIR: Why don’t members know how to properly use you in your position?
CF: It can be difficult when members don’t come to the meetings. If they don’t show up, they don’t understand what the shop steward role is and they won’t become fully vested in how important CSEA is.
LIR: What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?
CF: Being active and doing the different things that we do throughout the town, like participating in the member engagement visits. It was really neat to meet people from different locals and different units and getting to know them. I also got to see how aware so many people are about the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case. I couldn’t believe how many people were self-educated.
Everyone needs to know that there are other things going on, as it pertains to CSEA, other than going to work. There are other things that we need to do for our union.
LIR: Did you have a mentor?
CF: Yes, Wally Greene.
LIR: Did Wally approach you to get involved or did you approach him?
CF: I approached him. When I first approached him, he was a shop steward. There were things going on that made me feel we weren’t being treated fairly. I was a construction manager with the trade unions for years. The things that I learned while I was working with unions and shop stewards while I was there was totally foreign to what I was experiencing on the job in Brookhaven, back then. That bothered me; I wanted the strength that I saw the trade unions had. Back then, people in this unit were out for themselves. All of that has changed.
LIR: That’s great! What do you think led to that change?
CF: I think Wally [Greene] is the most selfless guy you could have as your unit president. He does so much to make sure that we’re going in the right direction. It really only takes one person to make a difference.
LIR: Is there any particular instance that stands out where you felt like you did something really good for a member?
CF: When I help them get their licenses or direct them on who they need to talk to, if they have an issue. I’m always available and I want to help people to do their job and enjoy their job.
LIR: How do you build relationships with people in order to make that happen?
CF: Most of us in the Highway Department are guys. What did we do as babies? We played with Tonka trucks in the yard and we dug holes. Now, as adults, we’re getting paid to do the same thing in our neighborhoods, taking care of the roads that our families, friends and neighbors drive on. How can you not enjoy that? That’s my method for spreading the culture, by getting members to enjoy what they do and make it fun.
LIR: What was shop steward training like?
CF: It was neat because we got to hear from different units across the region. I got to hear what was going on at different worksites. It’s nice to know that we have our union, which helps us provide training so there’s more people on the ground to help correct situations or direct people in the right way.
LIR: What advice do you have for members who want to become a shop steward?
CF: You have to think about why you’re doing it and you have to remember that your primary job is to protect the contract. We have to protect all of our futures and the contract is critical.
LIR: What do you want people to know about the role of shop steward?
CF: You can be a shop steward only in name or you can be somebody who is actively participating in union activities. I think it’s important for shop stewards to buy in 100 percent. The extracurricular responsibilities are necessary. When you decide to take on this job, it needs to be understood that that comes with it. It means knocking on doors and doing the things that are necessary to help us maintain what we have.