A Business Agent is a representative of a local union, and their job responsibilities include many roles such as negotiator, grievance handler, organizer, and trainer. They know the ins and outs of both the union and the workplace industries, allowing them to advocate on members’ behalf to elicit real change. Business Agents also support members in managing any issues that arise in the workplace, and in their personal lives. We sat down with Brock Penner, who has been a Teamsters Local Union 987 Business Agent for nearly 8 years, to learn more about what a day in the life as a Business Agent is like.
Q: What is the role of a Business Agent?
A: The main role of a Business Agent is to file grievances, deal with arbitration cases, and negotiate contracts. However, the aspect that many members may be unaware of is that most days we are also acting as counselors by listening and supporting our members in what they are going through personally.
Q: What kind of experience or insights does a Business Agent bring to the table?
A: Not only do we have experience negotiating numerous contracts, we are also constantly networking with other Business Agents across North America. This ensures we are current among all industries both locally and across the country and depending on timing it allows us to try and address any concerns at the negotiation table before it becomes a major issue.
Q: Is there just one Business Agent assigned to a unionized workplace?
A: Yes, in most cases only one Business Agent is assigned to a unionized workplace. However, in some cases, we do have a couple of Agents overseeing the member workplace to ensure effectiveness and efficiency.
Q: Does a Business Agent exclusively serve one workplace or multiple workplaces?
A: All Business Agents have multiple workplaces and are responsible for between 600 to 1,000 members depending on the region that they are assigned to. Business Agents must juggle their time between multiple locations ensuring that they are supporting every workplace they are assigned to.
Q: What role does the Business Agent play in the bargaining process?
A: Business Agents are expected to be the head chair and lead negotiator for the union. This means taking amendments (i.e., what the members want changed, added, or deleted from the current collective agreement). During this process Business Agents also informs members on what is practical, impractical, what may take job action to possibly achieve, and ensure members know nothing is guaranteed until an agreement is reached. Business Agents then compile all the amendments into a complete proposal package for the employer. The negotiation process starts after the proposal is submitted and that’s where the hard work for both the Business Agent and negotiating committee commences. They work to achieve the best possible agreement for the members to vote on.
Q: If there is a grievance, what can the Business Agent do?
A: The Business Agent assists the Union Stewards in the grievance process during the first steps, including helping with the proper writing of the grievance. Business Agents will also step in and interact with the upper management if the grievance is denied by the lower-level management. If there is no resolution within the grievance process, the Business Agent along with a legal team will research to see if there is enough merit to move the grievance to arbitration, considering any current case-laws.
Q: What role do Business Agents play in training/ educating Shop Stewards?
A: The Business Agent identifies who would be a good fit as a new Steward and which Stewards need additional training. In most cases, the Business Agents continue to stay up to date on their training skills so they can be effective facilitators. This often requires dedication as Business Agents have to give up their weekends to ensure the Stewards are equipped with the tools they need to be effective.
Q: If a workplace is considering unionizing, will a Business Agent be assigned to walk them through the process? Can you give us a little insight into this process from your perspective?
A: Typically, the Business Agent will be assigned to the workplace after the certification vote has been successful and preparation for negotiations has begun. For us at 987, we have one of the best organizers and if they feel as though it would be beneficial for an Agent to be involved right from the start, then we will assist the workplace earlier. However, this typically only happens if it’s an industry that the Business Agent is already representing.
Q: How did you become a Business Agent?
A: My process was quite unique, I started at Coca-Cola in 1999 when it was a non-unionized facility. My co-workers and I realized we needed representation from a union, so we reached out to Teamsters 987 and had success with organizing our workplace. I was very involved in this whole process and continued to be on the negotiating committee, I was also a Shop Steward while I was there. During that time, I took on any opportunity to be active within the union and representing my co-workers. One day, I found a job posting to become a Business Agent with 987, I applied and went through a lengthy interview process. I have now been working as a Teamsters 987 Business Agent for nearly 8 years and really enjoy assisting the members we represent across the various facilities I support.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job as a Business Agent?
A: The rewarding part of this job is after having negotiated what the membership says is a great contract or when we have successful grievance/arbitration cases that are life changing for our members, whether it’s getting their jobs back or clearing their names from what the employer has accused them of as willfully doing. This always reinforces why I do my job and love representing members, being an advocate for the working class, and ensuring there is fairness in the workplace. When someone is wronged, I’ll do everything in my power to fight for them and make it right! Integrity, fairness and respect, this is what I try and live by and what I expect of my members and the employers I deal with.