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Legal Rights for union members

Most recent : RICO monitorship

previous questions :

Outside election supervision

Merged, removed from office, and paying more...

Can members see the minutes?

AUD's union democracy benchmarks.

Mailing rights for amendment

Leaders of state employee union out of control

That's not the contract we voted for.

Grievances: do I have to go through the union?

Membership lists in elections;

Disciplined for speaking up at a union meeting ;

Electioneering by union staff;

Withholding dues;

The union credit card;

Changing unions;

Forming a caucus;

Getting an audit;

Voting rules;

Can't get the union constitution;

Free speech and web pages

Got a question? send us an e-mail. (Include your name and e-mail address if you want us to contact you. Our e-mail is info@uniondemocracy.org.

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Questions and answers about legal rights and organizing

Disclaimer: the information presented on this website is general and intended for educational purposes. It is not a substitute for practical legal advice on any specific situation.

Like a blog, this page lists items in the order they were posted. Use the list of links on the left to find a question on a particular topic. To submit a question, send us an e-mail. If you need a prompt answer, please tell us. You can also call: 718-564-1114 , info@uniondemocracy.org

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September 2004 -- What if our union is put under a federal RICO monitorship?

It's been almost twenty years that the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) has been under the threat of a federal supervision to rid it of organized crime, ever since a Senate commission named the ILA as one of the four unions most dominated by organized crime. The other three - Teamsters, Laborers, and Hotel Union - have all already been through court supervision (the Teamsters's is still in effect). We don't know when or if the Department of Justice will move against the ILA, but recent racketeering indictments of top ILA officials have prompted press reports that a federal RICO monitorship is coming soon. What will it look like and will it be good for the ILA reform movement?

The following Q & A is intended to answer that question and others that have been put to AUD recently by concerned ILA members.

How does it work?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) builds a case that the union is a racketeer-dominated organization. The strength of their case depends on evidence it accumulates through investigations by the FBI, testimony at trials, convictions of officials, etc. Based on the evidence, the DOJ files or threatens a suit under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Under the RICO law, a federal court can order the union to be placed under the direct trusteeship of a court-appointed official. The filing of a RICO suit sometimes brings the union to the table. Union officials may agree before a suit is filed to a "consent agreement" or after the RICO suit is filed, they may reach a "consent decree" which is enforced by a federal court. The agreements and decrees may contain the terms of a monitorship.

What can the ILA members expect from a RICO trusteeship?

Union Democracy: Most of the agreements explicitly invoke union democracy as a means for ridding the union of organized crime influence. In the Teamsters, the terms required the union to amend its constitution to change the system of electing International officers from delegate vote to direct elections. In LIUNA, the union was required to put the question to a vote in a referendum (85% of the membership vote to adopt direct elections for top international officers.) The Hotel union, however, was permitted to maintain its system of delegate votes at conventions.

Investigative and prosecutorial powers: Court-appointed monitors would have access to union books and power to remove officers and members who break the law, violate members' rights, or associate with organized crime figures.

Reporting: Most court appointed monitors have issued detailed reports to the membership on specific allegations and findings of wrongdoing, and on the discipline meted out to corrupt officials.

Who will bargain and enforce the contract?

In the three other RICO suits against International Unions, the executive board has continued to administer the day-to-day affairs of the union, and to bargain and enforce contracts. Court-appointed monitors have vetoed the hiring of staff with criminal records or ties to organized crime, but almost all other representative decisions are left to elected union officials.

Will the monitorship strengthen or weaken the union?

It's understandable that longshore workers are wary of government intervention in their union. The Bush administration, after all, has proven itself to be no friend to workers and even less so to unions. But the same was true in the late 1980s when Rudolph Giuliani, then U.S. Attorney in New York, brought a RICO suit against the Teamsters. The union reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that allowed court-appointed monitors into the union. In the union's first election of international officers by direct membership vote, the right to a fair election was guaranteed by a federal judge and organized crime suffered its first major defeat in the labor movement.

The Teamsters monitorship, now 15 years old, has not transformed the union into a beacon of hope for the labor movement. But the union and its members are far better off than when they were under the thumb of powerful mob bosses. Benefit funds are not pilfered; hundreds of corrupt officials have been removed for stealing and democracy has gained a foothold: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a 25-year old reform caucus takes advantage of the democratic space created by court supervision of the 1.5 million-member union. In 2003, a TDU-backed candidate for international president gained 35% of the vote after being outspent 10 - 1 ($3 million, to $300,000) by incumbent James P. Hoffa.

Racketeers rely heavily on fear of violence and intimidation to maintain their control of the union. In a local controlled by racketeers usually only a small group of courageous union members are willing to challenge mobbed-up officials. When the racketeers are removed and court-appointed officials maintain a presence in the union it is an opportunity for honest unionists to come forward and assert control over the direction of the union. But it is up to you.

The lesson of the Teamsters monitorship and the others is that the government can't give members an honest and strong union. What they can do is create conditions for good union members to come forward and make needed changes. The outcome depends on you.

Can ILA members influence the terms of the agreement?

That too is up to you. Ultimately, the deal will be made by the Department of Justice and the incumbent union officials, maybe by some of the same ones who will be removed as part of the consent decree. Usually, though, the Department of Justice staff working on the case are open to input from the affected members. After all, the explicitly stated aim of all consent agreements is to "return the union to its members." If you are active, if you speak up, if you organize, they are likely to listen. ILA members who want to tell the government what they think is wrong and what can be fixed can contact AUD. We will put you in touch with the right people or pass your concerns on anonymously.

Will the monitorship be good for those who want to build a strong, democratic union?
History says yes. But it's up to the members. Don't depend on the government to do the work for you.

For more on the ILA see articles from Union Democracy Review

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Previous Questions:

January-February 2003 -- Outside Election Supervision

Q: We have had problems with stolen elections in the past and don't trust the incumbents to run the upcoming officer elections fairly. Some of us would like to see an outside agency conduct the election, but which is the best one? How do we get the union to agree to use an outside agency?

A: It is crucial that union members have full confidence that their votes will be counted. The election process, from the printing of the ballots to their counting, must be above suspicion. A union that is committed to democracy can take certain measures to conduct an election in such a way that members have full confidence in the process. (Contact AUD for help with this.) But, whenever there is any doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution and hire a reputable, neutral outside agency to handle the election.

But which agency? There are several local organizations, and a few national ones that offer themselves for this service. We don't keep a list of "AUD approved" organizations. There are too many and we don't have the resources to monitor them all.

A division of the American Arbitration Association supervises union elections. Because over the years it has earned a reputation for integrity, its election guidelines provide a key of what to look for. Some agencies will conduct bits or pieces of an election process, according to the wishes or convenience of their paying clients. The union that hires them can use the "supervising" agency's name to give the whole election process a stamp of integrity, even if only one part of the election process has been actually supervised. At a time when steelworkers elections were routinely stolen an outside agency counted ballots, but before they ever got to the counting station, those ballots had already been rendered fraudulent.

The AAA says that it does not permit that kind of fraud. It insists on control of all phases of the voting process from printing to distributing to counting the ballots. In a letter posted on the AAA website (www.adr.org), election officer Jeffrey Zaino explains that AAA upholds "democratic traditions by protecting the rights of all members in good standing and ensuring voter confidentiality by secret balloting...doing a background check of its clients and personnel to guarantee that no individual involved with the administration has a vested interest in the outcome of the election...[and] prior to each election thoroughly review[ing] both applicable federal law and the bylaws or constitution of its clients." According to Zaino, if a potential client does not meet these minimum standards, the AAA will not take them on as a client. There are surely other reputable outside agencies, but to the best of our knowledge, none of them has established the track record of the AAA. Other organizations, like Honest Ballot Association, for example, may offer their stamp of approval to elections where they have done nothing more than tally the ballots.

In the end, all election agencies must make the same decision: are they ready to guarantee the integrity of any election they supervise, even at the risk of losing some business.

Watch Out
A few warnings: If the AAA conducts an officer election, members can have confidence that the balloting, i.e. the printing, collecting, and counting of the ballots will be fair. But there are other aspects of the election process that can be manipulated even if an outside agency is involved. The union may not provide an accurate list of addresses to the agency; disputes over good standing requirements will not be resolved by the outside agency; nor will they deal with accusations of threats and intimidation; a candidate's right mail to the membership and campaign is not enforced by the outside agency. Even with an outside agency, members must still learn their full range of democratic rights and be vigilant about exercising them.

How, as a challenger, do you get the incumbents who control, or appoint those who control, the election process to use a reputable outside agency? This question is big enough to deserve its own FAQ, but we will deal briefly with it here. Most union bylaws give the incumbent officers, or an election committee appointed by the incumbents, control over the election process. So the most reliable way to assure that the union uses a reputable outside agency is to change the bylaws to require it. Some bylaws may empower union meetings to pass resolutions that are binding on the officers; it is often easier to pass a resolution requiring the use of an outside agency than to meet the required conditions for changing the bylaws (sometimes two thirds or three quarters of the members at a meeting must approve of the amendment).

Activists should be aware, too, of the risks of campaigning for use of an outside agency and not winning. Be careful to avoid the message that the vote will surely be stolen unless the AAA conducts the election. By fully exercising your rights to observe the election process, inspect the lists, etc, it is still possible to get a fair election. If you persuade the membership that the election won't be fair unless the AAA conducts it, members may what wonder what the point is in voting.

For suggested election procedures and timelines, see the DOL website.
For an example of election rules, see The Coalition of University Employees.
For a copy of the great hands-on guide How to Get an Honest Union Election.
For an excerpt from How to Get an Honest Union Election.
For AAA.

November-December 2002 -- Merged, Removed from Office, and Paying More...

Q: Recently my International Union merged my local into another before my three year term of office ran out. Did they violate any Laws or Acts governing the Terms of Elected Local Union Officials?

After the merger, the International instructed the Company (both locals represent employees in the same company) to deduct a larger amount of dues from the member's checks without their authorization. The new dues rate is higher than the dues we used to pay to the old local. The members never signed a check-off assignment card authorizing the Company to deduct dues for the new local created by the merger.

Have the Company and International violated any Laws or Acts for the members not authorizing this deduction to the other local?

The locals that were merged cover private sector workers and are in a state that has laws/statues governing authorized deductions from paychecks. We have several sections in our contract on how check-off assignments cards are executed.

A: We can only give you a general answer. (Answering legal rights questions often requires getting the whole story in a lot more detail.)

First, assuming the International constitution gives the International the authority to merge locals - which it most likely does - and assuming that the International followed the procedures contained in the constitution to a "T" - which they probably did - the International can order one local to merge into another, even if it means cutting short the electoral term of the officers of the non-surviving local. So, the merger and the shortened term of office may not violate any law.

In fact, this "reorganization" device has become a favorite among some international union officials as a means to get around the legal restraints on imposing trusteeships contained in the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). (For more on the LMRDA trusteeship provisions.) Instead of putting your local in trusteeship, they just merge it into another. But, unless you can show that the merger was ordered in bad faith for the purpose of depriving the members and officers of the non-surviving local of their political and free speech rights, the LMRDA does not help here. You would need a "smoking gun" since the International can always come up with an argument about why it makes sense to merge the locals and courts are reluctant to substitute their judgment for that of the International's elected officers.

Second, the biggest problem with the dues increase is not some possible dues authorization problem, it is that the members did not vote on the increase. Under Title I of the LMRDA, members are guaranteed a right to vote by secret ballot on dues increases. (For the text of Title I.) By increasing the dues of those members who were transferred to a new local, without a secret ballot vote of the members on the proposed increase, the International has almost certainly violated the law. Although a few courts have created obstacles, you stand a good chance of enforcing your right to vote by filing a private lawsuit. Contact AUD for a referral.

There is no simple answer to the dues check-off authorization issue. It depends on what the authorization card that people have previously signed actually says; such cards generally authorize the employer to deduct union dues, without specifying any particular rate. As you wrote, it also depends on the language of the union contract(s), the local and state laws, and possibly other documents. That would take more research to pin down. Start with the contract and authorization card, then look into state and local law. A call to the State Labor Relations Board (which may go by a different name) and/or the National Labor Relations Board should help you track down the legal information.

The long-term solution to this problem would be to change the rules and procedures for merging locals - by requiring a two-thirds vote by the affected members, for example. That would require a campaign to change the union constitution, a difficult task. And, there may be other, more pressing problems that members will want to deal with first.

While you sort out your options on the dues increase, you should also start planning to organize with the members of the new local to make sure you can hold the new leadership accountable. (For more on organizing in the union.)

One more comment: anti-union forces, including the employer, will encourage members to withdraw their authorization saying that this somehow "punishes" the union. In reality, the biggest effect of a member's refusing to pay dues is that she or he loses union membership and with it the right to vote on contracts, vote in union elections, etc. As a result, the union leadership becomes less accountable to the members, not more accountable. (For more on withholding dues.)

For the text of the LMRDA and a summary of its provisions.
For a map and list of National Labor Relations Board fieldoffices.
For legal research websites, to find state laws and more.
For a discussion of the tactic of withholding dues.

July-August 2002 -- Can Members see the Minutes?

Q: Do union members have the right to see the minutes from executive board meetings? Can we get a copy, or just inspect them? What about minutes of membership meetings? If members can not get them, what about officers or stewards?

A: This is a situation where you may want to give us a call. The answer depends on the specifics of the situation and we can only give a very general answer:

There is no law that requires union officers to show union members the minutes of executive board meetings or give them a copy. The place to look is your union constitution or bylaws. (Remember to look at the local and international constitutions). For example, the constitution of the Coalition of University Employees requires the union Secretary to "maintain all minutes of meetings of the general membership and of the executive board...promptly transmit copies of the minutes to each local, and make them available to all members promptly upon request." Your union may not have language like this. (The members can amend the constitution to include a rule like this, following the procedures in the constitution.)

The same is true of membership meetings: the union is not required to provide members with copies of, or let them inspect, the minutes of membership meetings. It depends on what the constitution and/or bylaws say. (Unfortunately, unions are not even required to hold membership meetings, unless the union constitution or bylaws require it.)

In the eyes of the law, shop stewards are usually not considered officers of the union, so when it comes to internal union matters, they are in the same position as a rank-and-file member.

There may be circumstances where the union officers would have to turn over the minutes to a member or group of members as part of a complaint the member or members had filed with a government agency or in court. For example, members could ask for the minutes if they needed them to determine if a dues increase was properly approved, or if the union's LM-2 financial report was accurate. That will depend on the details of the situation, and you will first have to convince a government agent or a judge that there are real grounds for a complaint.

Union officers may be able to claim the right to see the minutes of executive board or membership meetings because they need to carry out their duties and obligations and are liable for the union's actions. Officers may be entitled to see the minutes in order to make corrections. Again, it depends on the case. For example, a Treasurer or trustee could demand to see minutes that involve decisions on spending or other financial matters. When we say the officers "can claim the right," we mean that if the President refused the officers would have a good chance of convincing either the parent union, or, if necessary, a judge to order the President to give the officer access.

(There may be circumstances where members or officers could use state laws governing membership corporations and or associations to gain access to the minutes, but this is an outside possibility and an area where legal help is needed.)

Finally, there is a difference between being allowed to see the minutes and being allowed to have a copy. In most cases, the law does not require the union to give members a copy of union documents.

Three suggestions:

First, your union can distribute minutes to the membership. There is no law against it. We think this is a good idea; it is even better if the minutes provide relevant and important information and are clearly written. Why not make it easier for members to participate and be in the know? You can vote to do this in a membership meeting.

Second, nothing stops a member or union officer from taking her or his own unofficial minutes and distributing those to the membership, printing them in a newsletter or posting them online (you have strong free speech rights, but be careful about confidential or sensitive information about bargaining or strike strategy -- if in doubt give us a call).

Third, if you ask for the minutes (best to ask as a group, by a petition) and the union officers refuse to let you see them, you can make this a political issue: "What do they have to hide? Whose union is it? We're good enough to pay their salaries, but not good enough to see the minutes?" and so on. Political pressure may be enough to get you the information you want.

For the minutes provision of the constitution of the Coalition of University Employees
For an example of unofficial executive board minutes from a Transport Workers Union Local (click on executive board)
For ideas about how to get the union bylaws or constitution
For ideas about how to get the contract
For sample letters you can use to get contracts and constitutions.
For information on your right to publish a newsletter or website
For the text of the Federal Law (LMRDA)

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June 2002 -- AUD's Union Democracy Benchmarks

Q: I have a very basic question. What do you at AUD think is a democratic union? How do you judge -- what are the benchmarks? Is it enough to have elections and union meetings? Is a union democratic if it just obeys the legal requirements, even if those requirements are minimal? Do you have a list of unions that you consider democratic?

A: We do not maintain a list of " AUD -certified" democratic unions. We feel that judgment is best left in the hands of union members themselves, the people most familiar with the real workings of the institution. Visit the rank-and-file sites on our links page to see how various unions measure up in the eyes of some of their members.

But, we like the idea of union democracy benchmarks, so we put together the following checklist. Warning! This list has many limitations; we welcome your feedback.

AUD's Union Democracy Benchmarks ( updated 8/12/02)

  • Fair elections that promote participation. Union goes beyond the minimum DOL requirements for elections (see links below): provides more time for nominations and campaigning, union representatives encourage members to run for office. All members in good standing eligible to run; no continuous good standing or meeting attendance requirements. No ban on non-member contributions (except employers and unions) to candidates for union office. Officers back members' right to time off for campaigning. If necessary, elections run by legitimate outside agency.
  • Frequent, contested elections. More than minimum required by law; members regularly challenge incumbents; there is turnover in officers and representatives.
  • Access to membership list. In elections, candidates have access to membership list (name, work location, phone, e-mail) for campaign purposes, including right to copy the list.
  • Open publications. Local newsletter/website publishes members' views, including those critical of officials, representatives, or union policy; union encourages debate and discussion of issues and candidates. In elections, all candidates have equal use of union publications and means of communication (website, newsletter, e-mail list) to put out their campaign material.
  • Member ratification of contracts. All contracts and side agreements between the union and management subject to ratification by secret ballot by members covered by the contract.
  • Strike votes. Members vote on striking, on return to work, and on other decision during strike; strike votes not used to force members to ratify contracts ("either you vote "yes" or you vote to strike").
  • Informed vote. Complete text of proposed contract changes, amendments, referenda, etc. distributed to members prior to ratification with sufficient time for meaningful membership review and discussion. Union circulates different opinions about the contract offer.
  • Elected representatives. Shop stewards and business agents elected, secret ballot, by members they represent, subject to recall by members they represent; stewards and active members trained in legal rights and organizing; stewards council that meets to plan and coordinate action.
  • Grievants' bill of rights. Workers participate fully in the grievance process at every step, with full information about their case and its progress.
  • Access to information. Union representatives give members current and complete copies of the contract and the union constitution/bylaws. Contract and Constitution are published on union website. Members have easy access to information on officers' salaries, budget, and expenses. Union representatives regularly inform members of their rights under federal and state law, and how to enforce them, including rights and responsibilities under the LMRDA.
  • Regular local meetings. At least quarterly; announced ahead of time; time and place convenient to members; agenda circulated in advance; real business conducted, not just a pep rally; members encouraged to speak, make proposals, vote, and ask questions. Reasonable quorum (not so high as to prevent member meetings). Minutes available to members.
  • Independent organizing and communication. Members organize in independent committees and caucuses, publish rank-and-file newsletters and websites, run candidates for union office. Union officers encourage this.
  • Inclusion and equality. All members are treated fairly; union fights discrimination by management and among members; officers and representatives reflect membership in terms of gender, race, language, craft, seniority, etc. Contracts, Constitution, meetings, publications translated into languages spoken by members.
  • Education for members. Union trains members in legal rights and organizing, including how to participate effectively in the union and how to organize on the job.

See also Some Modest Proposals for a Teamster Code
For AUD's Mission Statement.
For the text of the LMRDA (including election provisions).
For a plain language summary of the LMRDA.
For useful books: Democratic Rights for Union Members, Democracy is Power, and the Transformation of US Unions.
For links to rank-and-file websites.

Limitations:

The AUD Union Democracy checklist is not exhaustive -- we have undoubtedly left out items that in a given set of circumstances could be critically important.

Many of the items on the list are subject to legitimate debate -- is it always more democratic to have elected business agents? Are direct elections by members always better than delegated elections?

It is possible for a union to meet many of these benchmarks in form, but not in substance, for example holding regular union meetings that really only serve to rubber stamp decisions already made by the officers. The reverse is also possible, a union's officers might do a fine job of representing members even in the absence of certain democratic practices or rules.

There are principles that are important to the union movement that are not strictly speaking union democracy issues: whether to oppose concessions, how much to prioritize new organizing, the role of unions in politics. This list is about what makes a union democratic, not about what union members should use that democracy for.

A union does not become democratic once and for all, but rather as a result of constant vigilance and struggle.

The checklist is neither our ultimate wish list, nor just the bare legal minimum. (See our summary of legal requirements.) It assumes that your union is already meeting its legal obligations under federal, state and local law. This checklist is intended to spark your thinking on the subject.

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May 2002 -- Can I get a mailing for "one member one vote" amendment?

Q: I am trying to obtain the mailing list for the subscribers of my international union's monthly magazine. I want to mail out campaign newsletters calling for a referendum vote on a proposed amendment to the international union constitution. The amendment we are trying to pass will give every member the right to vote in elections for their international officers, instead of the system we use now, where officers are elected by delegates. Any information you may offer, or references to other contacts will be greatly appreciated.

A: There is bad news and good news. The bad news is that the union has no legal obligation to give you its membership mailing list, and no obligation to send out a mailing for you on this issue, even if you provide the newsletters, envelopes and postage.

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) gives you rights to free speech and to participate in union affairs, especially elections. (See links below.) In the case of a referendum that is initiated and conducted by the union, courts have interpreted these rights to mean that members can send mailings to the membership, at their expense, in order to inform them of opposing viewpoints. Sounds good, right?

The problem is that this does not mean that a member can require the union to send a mailing on just any topic they choose. So, in your case, where you want to inform members about a constitutional amendment that was initiated and supported by members, not by the union leadership, the union is under no obligation to send your mailing. (At least, no court has yet interpreted the law to require unions to do this.)

Now, there is another possibility, legally speaking. In officer elections, the LMRDA requires unions to send campaign mailings at the candidate's expense -- to the entire membership, or just targeted sectors, members or groups, depending on the candidate's preference. It also requires the union to let candidates inspect the membership list prior to the election. See Membership Lists in Elections, on this page. (Note: these rules are for union elections, and do not directly apply to other types of voting, i.e., contract ratification referenda or constitutional amendments.)

One way you might be able "to skin the cat" and get the union to send your mailing about the constitutional amendment would be to declare your candidacy for union office. The law guarantees "bona fide" candidates the right to send campaign mailings. You could make the constitutional amendment the central theme of your campaign platform.

Remember that you will be required to pay for printing and mailing your literature; it's also important to understand that all membership mailings will be processed by the union or its designated commercial bulk mail facility. You will deliver an appropriate number of pieces of your mailing, in the proper format, to the union or its "mailing house," along with your check for the proper sum of money to cover any postage and handling fees, and they take it from there. (Note: the union has no right to review or censor the contents of your mailing.)

And now for the good news.

You have seized upon a stark and popular political issue -- one member, one vote. What could be more democratic than that? This is a rallying point around which you can build a grassroots campaign, organizing members to show their support for the referendum.

Our advice would be to focus your efforts on building such a campaign. Spread the word; use websites and e-mail lists; send chain letters; print bumper stickers and t-shirts -- whatever it takes. Get members to show their commitment: organize rallies and protests, circulate petitions, get others involved. Formulate resolutions for your local meeting; build your network of like-minded members and through that network get your resolutions presented at local meetings; run candidates for convention delegate who support your cause.

Given the fact that you do not have the legal rights you want here, you have no real choice but to go the grassroots way. The good news is that's how strong unions are built, from the bottom up. As you campaign, you also build a network of supporters. Members become energized around the issue; many will become activists; a political movement may well be born.

A starting point would be to form local groups, then pull together a meeting of activists in your union from across the US to craft a plan and organize the campaign effort. If you want AUD's assistance with that, we would be glad to help. We helped to organize such a meeting of Carpenters in 2000 that led to the formation of a national reform group that made a strong showing at their union's convention. If you have not already found people who think like you in the rest of the union, try the rank-and-file links on our website or give us a call.

(PS: If, by some minor miracle, you get a constitutional referendum, you should demand that the referendum be conducted by secret ballot, under specific rules -- just like an election. See our pamphlet How to Get an Honest Union Election for specific ideas.)

For the text of the LMRDA (including informed vote).
For a summary of the LMRDA.
For more on organizing a caucus in your union.
For a copy of "How to Get an Honest Union Election."
For links to other rank-and-file activists.
For information on how to set up an AUD educational workshop.

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April 2002 -- Leaders out of control

Q: We are members of a state employees union who want to run for local office in the next election, which is eight months from now. The next leadership is going to bargain our new contract. The problem is, our constitution says only members who have been in good standing for five years can run for the top offices. But more than half of the union membership came in during the past four years. We want to change the constitution, but the officers refuse to hold any meetings. When we tell them the constitution says they have to hold monthly membership meetings, they say the constitution we have is not the real one. They say the constitution was amended, but some of the changes were not put in the printed version. When we asked when this new constitution was passed and who voted on it, they don't have any answer. These people are totally unaccountable. What are we supposed to do?

A: Let's take these problems in order, starting with the easiest and ending with the most difficult, and most important.

Your officers claim that the printed constitution that members have is "not the real one," but they refuse to produce a copy of this "real" constitution. Ask for the "real" constitution in writing, to the local president, by certified mail (see "Can't get the union constitution" below and link to sample letter). In your letter, note that you asked before, that the person you asked (name names) refused to give it to you, and give the president ten days to get you a full and complete copy of the current constitution. If the union refuses, you will need to contact an attorney in your area to see how to enforce your right to a copy (call AUD for a referral).

If you were in a private sector union, or a local with a mix of private and public sector members, your task would be easier. Unions are required by law (the LMRDA) to file the union constitution or bylaws with the US Department of Labor. In addition, the DOL has held five-year membership eligibility requirements to be excesssive.

In the same letter, ask for information on the next regularly scheduled union meeting. Remind the local president that the next meeting should be held, according to the constitution you have, on such and such date. You can also indicate that you intend to present a proposed amendment at that regular meeting. You should talk to an attorney about filing a suit to force the union to hold membership meetings, as per the constitution you and other members have.

Of course, the officers may just fabricate a copy of the "real" constitution, claim it has always existed, and deny your request for a meeting. In that case, if you believe they are lying, you can ask about when it was ratified and seek out other details to test its authenticity.

If the officers succeed in imposing their amended constitution, you may still be able to challenge the clause requiring five years of membership in good standing in order to run for top offices. On its face this rule is anti-democratic -- over half of the membership is excluded from running for office, even people with several years on the job. You may be able to challenge this provision in court. (To find out, you will want to talk to an attorney familiar with this area of the law. Again, call AUD for a referral.)

If you can not force the union to remove this restriction, you will have to try to amend the union constitution. To do this, you will have to follow the procedures in the constitution. Usually, you have to propose a change in writing at one meeting and there is a vote held at the following meeting. Follow the constitutional procedures to the letter.

Obviously, if you do not have the votes to win this amendment in a union meeting, there is no point trying to amend the constitution. You will need to make a major effort to organize members to turn out and vote. That means, above all, going to members and talking one-on-one, face-to-face about the changes you are proposing. It also means having a well-rehearsed plan for the union meeting, so you do not get bamboozled by the officer who is chairing, and his or her supporters.

(You should also have a backup plan: start looking for people with five years good standing to run with you on a slate.)

The biggest challenge -- and the biggest opportunity -- is that you are facing an election followed by contract negotiations. To win election and to win a good contract, you need to get out there and organize -- talk to every member of the union in person several times, put out a newsletter, set up a website. Find out what your coworkers' top priorities are and propose ways to win their demands. You need to demonstrate that with your leadership, with the reforms you will make, and with their activism members will have a better chance to get a good contract.

Eight months is not a long time to build a campaign. You should sit down with your fellow activists and map out a plan and a timeline from now to the election and then to the contract negotiations. Do not get bogged down in the legal battles. You need to be out with the members, talking, listening, building trust. Maybe you can designate one person on your committee to be the "legal person." She or he can be in touch with attorneys and report back to you on the latest developments.

Even if the incumbents get reelected, you may be able to get some of your people on the negotiating committee, and you can organize a rank-and-file contract campaign to put pressure on the elected officials and on management. (See "The Transformation of US Unions" for an example of this approach from TWU local 100.)

An attorney friend of ours says, "even if you win a legal victory it will prove to be worthless unless you've organized massive political support behind your would-be candidates and/or your specific contract negotiating demands. Legal victories can give you an opportunity to play the union governance game, but you've always got to have a game plan and organize majority political support for it."

For a sample letter to get your constitution.
For more on organizing a caucus in your union.
For books on legal rights and organizing available from AUD.
If you want to learn how to organize for union democracy, contact AUD to set up an educational workshop.

March 2002 -- That's not the contract we voted for!

Q: "I have a question about what we can do if our union representatives lie about what is in a contract and get us to vote for it on that basis. Our local president lied and misrepresented facts about a contract that was put to a vote of the members. The lies about the contract had a large influence on the election outcome; we voted "yes" because we thought there were no give-backs on health insurance and work rules. My question is, can the vote be contested? If the contract we were given to vote on was incomplete is it legal? By incomplete, I mean if it is being added to or taken away from without our chance to see it before voting."

A: In theory, you have legal recourse. Federal law does not require that unions allow membership to ratify contracts. The right to ratify has to be in your union constitution or bylaws. (If you need to know how to get a copy of the union constitution, see the FAQ "Can't get the union constitution".) However, the law is quite clear that if your union constitution does require member ratification of contracts (and most do), then the ratification votes must be "fair and meaningful." Side agreements, too, must be ratified. This principle is well established in the law.

Unfortunately, another principle is usually given greater weight by the generally pro-business courts: that is the employer's interest in having stable labor relations. So the courts generally rule that even if a contract ratification vote was manipulated or even fraudulent it is unfair to punish the employer -- who presumably arrived at the agreement in good faith and is planning their business around the contract's labor costs etc. -- by voiding the contract.

So the legal answer is yes: you have recourse, but except in very rare circumstances, the remedy will be something like court-ordered safeguards that apply to future ratification votes and not a new vote on the just-approved contract. In rare circumstances -- an unusually sympathetic judge, an outrageous misrepresentation or fraudulent vote, a group of workers who immediately challenged the vote in court, and an excellent attorney -- you might win a revote, but not usually.

If members are mad enough about the situation you may be able to organize a campaign to recall the officers, or amend the bylaws to reinforce members' right to an informed vote. For example, you can provide for an elected contract committee subject to recall, and establish rules that ban any member or officer from meeting separately with management to bargain on behalf of the union. You can require that a full and complete copy of the final agreement be given to each member two weeks before the ratification vote, and that there be meetings in every workplace to discuss the contract and its contents… you get the picture.

No circumstance better illustrates the need for union members to organize the rank and file to elect honest union representatives and stay organized to hold them accountable. Under the law, officers have power they can use to sell out the members; the weak legal protection of the right to ratify contracts is the best example of this.

For more on organizing a caucus in your union.
For the text of the LMRDA (including informed vote).
For a summary of the LMRDA.
For books on your legal rights available from AUD.
If you want to learn how to organize for union democracy, contact AUD to set up an educational workshop.

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February 2002 -- Grievances: do I have to go through the union?

Q: A few months ago I told the Chief Steward I wanted the union to file a grievance. He just looked at me and told me I don't have a case. He wouldn't even listen to my story or witnesses or anything. I kept bugging him about it, so he said, "I'll see what I can do." It has been six months and he has not told me anything. In the meantime, we have crazy problems here -- things like no toilet paper in the bathrooms, women getting sexually harassed by a manager, people getting passed over in favor of friends of the manager. The Chief Steward is just a suck-up to management. I'm tired of being jerked around. My question is, do I have to go through the union? Can I just take the company to court myself?

A: We don't have to tell you that you have problems. You’re stuck between a rotten employer and a weak union. What we can tell you is that the solution is not in court. There are exceptions to this, but bottom line: you and your coworkers have to get organized.

First, sit down with a few coworkers and sort out the different problems you have. Some are violations of the contract, some are unfair or unjust acts, some are violations of the law, and some are just things you don't want the employer to do.

For most workplace problems, you have to solve the problem through the union grievance procedure or through direct pressure tactics, or a combination of both. If the law has been broken or the case is especially outrageous -- you mentioned sexual harassment -- you may be able to go to court and should talk to an attorney, more on this below. But, in most cases, you will not be able to address the problem by filing a lawsuit. So, what should you do?

Do not let the union representatives off the hook. Keep filing grievances, but change the way you do it. Do not just tell the Chief Steward you want to file a grievance, put it in writing and send it to the union hall by certified mail, return receipt requested. (Keep your copies.)

Better yet, get your coworkers to sign on to the grievance like a petition, to show this is an issue that affects everyone. Then, if they do not tell you what is happening or if they are taking too long, follow up with another certified letter. You can also put the Chief Steward on the spot at a union meeting or in the workplace -- ask him to report on the progress of the grievances. The point is to demand that the union representatives do a good job -- they work for you. It is important to file grievances because it shows you tried to address the problem. If the problem becomes a legal case, this will help you.

You should read your union contract carefully, make sure you understand the grievance procedure and the time limits. You may be able to file grievances as an individual or a group of workers -- even up to step two or three of the procedure -- without the union representative. This can give you a way to get in front of the boss and let him or her know how you feel about the problem and what you want them to do about it. The union rep. has a right to be present at any grievance meeting, but at least at this step you can present your case. If you plan to do this -- you need to be prepared to present your case well. Call AUD for advice.

What if the employer broke the law? Let's take your example: workers are being sexually harassed. Workers who have been sexually harassed have several options. They can file a grievance. They can contact the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (contact info below). They can go to a private attorney. They do not have to wait on the union to take action. (Note that if the union fails to take action on a sexual harassment or discrimination case, the union can become liable, too.) One thing to watch out for: if the employer has an internal complaint procedure to deal with sexual harassment, you should use it. If you do not, the employer may get off the hook. In any case, you should talk to an attorney.

However, in some cases, even when the employer breaks the law, government agencies or judges may insist that you handle the problem first through the grievance procedure. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, "defers" charges to the grievance procedure and seldom challenges the result.

Bottom line: if you really want to change the way your employer treats you, filing grievances is not enough. You have to organize with your coworkers to take actions that put pressure on the company. Get together with your coworkers, in a non-work place on non-work time, and talk about what you can do to pressure management to deal with your concerns. There are many, many ways to pressure the boss -- from lower risk actions like wearing buttons or stickers to the higher risk slow downs and sick outs -- and you may invent new ones. Before you take job actions, make sure you know what the risks are. Read the contract carefully: many contracts include a "no strike" clause that limits workers' rights to take certain kinds of actions. Also, make sure you do everything as a group -- lone rangers are weak.

Finally, dump that chief steward. As long as you have a union rep. who is more likely to suck-up than fight, your problems will keep coming back. If the Chief Steward is elected, run your own candidate against him. If he is appointed, petition the local to remove him. If the union officers refuse, then change the bylaws to require elected stewards. (You will need to see your union bylaws to find out how to do all of this.) It can be done: workers in a meatpacking plant in Washington State did exactly this, and won. They dumped the chief steward, elected a new one and new stewards for every shift, and later went on to take over the local. Their problems are not over, but now they have stewards who give a damn.

Resources: If you want to learn what a grievance is, how to file a grievance, how the grievance procedure works, and examples of what to do in a good situation (where the union is helpful) and in a bad one (where the union is part of the problem), see our guide "Your Job, Your Rights" on this site.

If you want detailed information and advice on how to use the grievance procedure -- and on direct action alternatives/additions to the grievance procedure -- there are several good books available from AUD. The top two are: The Legal Rights of Union Stewards, by Robert Schwartz, and The Troublemaker's Handbook, by Dan LaBotz. We also publishes a Manual for Survival, that includes useful material on fighting sexual harassment. Another good online source is the toolkit on the UE website.

If you want to learn how to do this kind of organizing, contact AUD to set up an educational workshop. We can teach you the best organizing techniques and help you figure out how to build power on the job and in the union.

For the website of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

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January, 2002 -- Who should see the membership lists in an election?

Q: We are having a discussion in our union about whether, in legal terms, it is necessary or forbidden to give to each candidate for office a list of the eligible voters in that race. We are a statewide organization with several locals. We recognize that the questions of whether it is good or stupid to do so are different questions (and we would welcome your input on those as well). If you have any facts for us, we would appreciate them.

A: Here's what the law says:

"Every bona fide candidate shall have the right, once within 30 days prior to an election of a labor organization in which he is a candidate, to inspect a list containing the names and last known addresses of all members of the labor organization…" (LMRDA, Title 29: Sec. 481(c))

"Bona fide candidate" means a person who is running for office, but not necessarily already nominated. Under LMRDA, such candidates have a right to inspect the list, not just of eligible voters, but of all members of the labor organization (local, council, national, etc.) involved in that election. The union does not have to give them a copy of the list, just allow the candidates to inspect it.

This is a minimum requirement. There is nothing preventing the union from providing more access, or providing a copy of the list, to candidates, or to members, for that matter. If the union has constitutional provisions that provide for more access, then the constitution holds, and can be enforced in state or federal court.

The main thing to remember is that the principle of equality also applies: whatever information is made available to any candidate must be available to all candidates, on an equal basis.

So, is it a good idea to give each candidate a copy of the list?

In general, we think making it easier for people to run for office and get their word out to potential supporters contributes to democracy. It facilitates member participation in the life of the union, and makes it easier for members to discover and prevent abuse of their rights. (The only reasonable exception, in our view, is if releasing that information could result in the employer discovering a member's union membership and retaliating against them. For example, in an organizing campaign where the union does not yet have recognition.)

There are other ways to handle this issue, including providing member contact information to any other member -- not just to candidates -- on request, with an opt-out provision for certain information (if a member does not want her phone, address, e-mail etc., shared to all members, she can submit a request to withhold the additional info.). You may also want to explicitly limit the use of the information to union affairs, to prevent a member who also sells ACME Cell Phone Service from flooding members with junk mail and unwanted calls.

You may want to consider putting language like this in your union constitution or bylaws, or election rules:

"The union will provide all bona fide candidates for union office [or all members] with a list of all members of the local or statewide organization in which the election is taking place, with contact information (including name, work location, last known mailing address, e-mail, phone) for those union members (i.e., a state membership list for state-wide elections, a local list for local elections). Candidates [or members] receiving such lists will sign a statement promising not to use the information for purposes not related to internal union affairs, (i.e., not for marketing or other purposes.)"

For the full text of the LMRDA.
For a brief guide to the law online.
For a booklet on "How to Get an Honest Union Election."
For an essay on the theory of union election law, "Democracy in a One Party State."

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December, 2001 -- Thrown out of the meeting and brought up on charges.

Q: Last month, our local president removed two members from the union's general meeting. Then he filed union disciplinary charges against them, accusing them of disrupting the union meetings and violating a section of the local by-laws that bans "indecorous, invective speech."

In the meeting, the two members asked the president questions about the local finances and his decisions on spending and other issues. He ruled them out of order and told them to sit down and shut up. They protested and continued asking their questions. There was swearing and yelling on both sides. He had the sergeant at arms remove them from the meeting.

These members are long-time "dissidents," who have stated that they plan to run for office in the next election. It's not the first time that members or officers have used foul language or gotten into shouting matches at meetings, but it is the first time members have been brought up on charges for it.

I agreed to represent the two members at the disciplinary hearing, but I have questions. Should we even bother with the hearing? The trial board is made up of the very officers we are trying to get rid of. Also, what laws back me up here? What else can/should we do? (We are in a private sector union.)

A: If this is an attack on dissidents because of their internal political activities, you should definitely defend them. In doing so you are also standing up for the free speech rights of all your fellow members.

The first line of defense to an attack on free speech is… more free speech. If the president wants people to sit down and shut up at union meetings, the logical answer is to organize people to stand up and speak out -- albeit in an orderly manner. Put the president in a position where he has to file bogus charges against everyone, or no one. You can also put on pressure outside the meetings, for example by holding an "informational picket" of the union's offices. If concerted activity can pressure your employer to improve working conditions, it may also persuade your union officials to improve the political climate in your local.

You can also publicize the president's actions in a flyer, newsletter, or on a website. Make your case to members. Look for ways to connect this issue to concerns that members have about job-related problems: "if we can't speak freely at union meetings, how can we get what we want in contract negotiations?"

Use the occasion to: a) educate people about their democratic rights and about the value of democracy and serious debate over legitimate differences, b) show the president that filing charges will only add to his problems, and c) get members involved in activism.

How to organize your coworkers to take action, how to be effective in union meetings, and how to put out newsletters or websites are all topics that are better dealt with in a longer discussion or an AUD workshop. The keys are to make your action collective, be prepared, know your rights and the union procedures, and, most important, have clear goals and objectives that are meaningful and important to your fellow members and coworkers.

The law.

Legally speaking, you are in a gray area. Title I of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) says, in part:

"Every member of any labor organization shall have the right... to express any views, arguments, or opinions... at meetings of the labor organization... upon any business properly before the meeting, subject to the organization's established and reasonable rules pertaining to the conduct of meetings."

So, to the extent the two dissidents may have been violating rules for the orderly conduct of meetings, they may have exposed themselves to discipline even if the real, motivating reason is their dissident activities. (This is why experienced union activists will tell you to be a 'model member' -- why give you opponents a weapon to use against you?)

If the members who were brought up on charges did not swear, refuse to stop talking, yell at the president, and disrupt the meeting, you would have a clear-cut free speech case.

In that case, by filing charges against the members, the president would be violating their free speech rights under the LMRDA. He might even be attempting to prevent these members from challenging him in the next election -- another violation of the LMRDA. (Many unions require members to be in "continuous good standing" for the prior two or three years to be eligible to run for office. Even a one-day suspension could deprive these two members of eligibility to run for office.)

You would still need to decide if the case is worth a major fight. Are the two accused members serious about organizing for change in the union? Or are they just interested in grandstanding and provoking the officers for the hell of it? How does this issue fit into the bigger picture? You need to choose your battles.

Assuming you decided to fight, you should call AUD for more in-depth advice, and a possible lawyer referral, and take these steps:

  • Take the internal hearing seriously. Whether you plan to go to court or not, you need to prepare and present a good case. Attend the hearing, cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, state your objections, and get your evidence into the record. (This is important not only for the hearing, but to lay a good foundation for any legal action.)
  • Collect evidence. You will have to prove that the two members are "known dissidents" and that the president knew of their stated intention to run for office. You will want to line up witnesses, collect statements, gather copies of newsletters, website pages, flyers, and anything else that will enable you to make your case. And you will also want to show that this was not the first time that there was swearing or animated discussion at a union meetings and that these two members are being singled out for retaliation.
  • Find out who is on the trial board. The LMRDA provides that they must be fair and impartial. If they have something to gain or lose, depending on the outcome, you should challenge their impartiality "on the record." Do it in writing and keep a copy.
  • Insist that the union make a "record" of the hearing. Either a tape recording or an authentic transcript.
  • Make your case. Remember that the charging parties have the initial burden of putting in evidence to prove their case. Through cross-examination, you may even be able to get prosecution witnesses to help you build your own case, i.e., to admit that foul language has often been employed but no one has previously been charged. When the prosecution has concluded, you must then be given the opportunity to present your own witnesses and exhibits, and finally to present whatever "argument" or "summation" you think is appropriate.
  • Look beyond the hearing. If you lose, file an appeal with the International, and consider filing a lawsuit in federal court seeking reversal of the discipline, lawyer's fees, and possibly damages. (But remember: most activists do not seek damages because they would serve only to weaken the union financially.)

Reality check. Even if you can prove the president's desire to suppress dissident speech and hobble political opponents, you may still lose the legal battle. The president may lie at the hearing and produce witnesses to 'corroborate' his claim that the accused members disrupted the meeting and violated the bylaws. Of course, if the trial board is politically tight with the president, it will likely find against you no matter what the facts show.

And if the union president and his attorneys can convince a judge that yours is a "mixed" case, involving not just a question of free speech but also application of a reasonable rule governing the conduct of meetings, the judge may insist that you exhaust internal union appeals, before hearing the case. Thereafter, the judge may choose not to rehash the facts and may instead accept the trial board's "findings of fact."

Finally, going to court costs money and can take a lot of time. Only you can decide if it is worth it, based on the stakes involved.

For more on Title One rights.
For the text of the LMRDA.
For an article on continuous good standing.
For links about Robert's Rules.
To set up an AUD workshop.
For a book with chapters on being effective at union meetings.

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November, 2001-- Electioneering by union staff.

Q.: In a contested election for the office of president of a national union, a rank-and-file member received a call at home from a staff member employed by the local union. The staff member urged him to vote for the incumbent president. Is the use of union staff to campaign permitted under federal law? Under what circumstances?

A.: Yes and no. Here's the deal: the LMRDA prohibits the use of union resources to promote (or oppose) the candidacy of any particular candidate, unless the resources are made available to all candidates on an equal basis. For example, if one candidate gets to use the union xerox machine or postage meter, then every candidate gets to use it. If the president gets to make a campaign speech during a union meeting, then so also do the opponents. This should mean that if a union staff member, on union time or with union resources, campaigns for the incumbent president, it is a clear violation of the law.

Imagine a union business agent who visits a workplace, gives a speech about the virtues of the incumbent president, and hands out campaign literature. The BA's actions would violate the law. But, in practice, they are not usually so blatant.

Here's the problem. The Department of Labor (DOL) permits what they call "incidental" campaigning. This happens when a union officer or staff person, on union time, engages in campaigning incidental to the performance of their regular union duties. For example, if your business agent comes to the workplace to investigate a grievance, and then happens to get into a conversation with union members about the campaign, that's not a violation. (The same is true of phone calls, if the primary purpose of the call is to discuss a grievance.)

If the BA also hands out campaign literature, that may cross the line. The DOL handles these complaints on a case by case basis, and it is often difficult to prove that the staff member's actions were in violation of the law. You can imagine the gray areas that arise from the concept of "incidental" campaigning.

Getting back to the original question, what if the union staff member calls a member at home to campaign? Under what circumstances is it permitted?

If the staff member is a member of the union, s/he is entitled to campaign -- just like any member -- but not on union staff time (unless incidental to union business), and not with union resources. If there are any charges for the phone call and it's made from the union office, that would violate the law. Even if the staffer is calling you on her/his own time, if s/he is using the union database, then that is probably a violation. The union's list of its members' phone numbers and addresses is a union resource. On the other hand, if the list is one that the staffer collected on her own, say prior to going to work for the union or by talking to members, there would be no violation. That's what the staff member will probably claim; it can be hard to disprove such a defense.

If the staff member is not a member of the union, s/he is permitted to campaign on her or his own time, not with union resources, unless the union has language in the constitution or bylaws that bans non-members from campaigning.

Finally, there are some union resources, like an organizer's car or cell phone, that may be considered "shared," for example, where s/he is permitted to use the car for personal errands, or to make personal calls that are not billed to the union. The union staff is permitted to use shared resources in a union campaign, again, as long as the staffer is not using them while "on the clock," and so long as their use is allowed by the terms of her/his employment agreement with the union.

Enforcement: during or after the election, any member can file an internal union complaint, following the procedures in the union constitution or bylaws. If that doesn't result in a favorable outcome within three months, the member can then file her/his complaint with the DOL. The DOL will then investigate and proceed with an enforcement action only if they determine that the violations were severe enough to have had an impact on the outcome of the election. While that can be difficult to prove in most situations, where the violation is use of union resources, it is generally not necessary to prove that the violation actually affected the outcome.

The moral? The best defense is a strong offense. If you are a candidate, make sure you build a strong grassroots campaign that will enable you to win, and win by a comfortable margin, despite LMRDA violations by your opponents. But, just in case, keep good notes on, and collect evidence of, suspected violations. You'll need to be able to show: WHO did WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE? Don't count on the DOL to find that evidence when they investigate your complaint. Collect documents and get written or tape recorded statements from witnesses, preferably eye witnesses, or a "deep throat" in the union. This is particularly critical when alleging improper use of union resources. Hand over your evidence to the DOL when you file your complaint.

For the text of the LMRDA .
For a handbook on Getting an Honest Union Election.
For a handbook on Running for Union Office.
For links to the Federal Department of Labor.

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October, 2001 -- Withholding dues

Q: We are not happy with our union and want to get their attention. Can we stop paying dues and pressure them that way? Do we have to pay dues? What is the Beck decision?

A: Sounds like you want to get the union to represent you better, and are looking for ways to put pressure on your union officials. At first blush, "hitting them in the pocket book" sounds like a reasonable tactic. However, withholding dues (some people call it a "dues strike") hurts you and your fellow employees far more than it hurts an autocratic or unprincipled union official. The best way to make your union work for you is to organize from within the union.

First, let's talk about what it means to pay dues. In all unions, you have to pay dues to be a member. The union uses that money to cover the costs of representing its members, i.e., for negotiating and enforcing contracts. Dues cover union office rent, officer and staff salaries, telephones, copiers, postage, rental of meeting space, legal bills, arbitrations, and strike benefits. A portion of your dues, usually called the "per capita," goes to the international union, the AFL-CIO (for affiliated unions), and possibly also to an intermediate body such as a district council. Lastly, a relatively small portion (in most cases) of members' dues are used by the union for political purposes, like lobbying for legislation to protect members' interests, taking out ads against "Fast Track," or supporting a candidate for state office. (Union dues may not be used to support candidates for federal office.)

In most states all employees must either pay union dues or, if they choose not to be union members, an "agency fee" that covers their fair share of the cost of workplace representation. This is called "union security" in the contract. Agency fee payers have no right to attend and vote at meetings and in officer elections, and no right to ratify their contracts. (There is also a rarely-used provision in the National Labor Relations Act for "deauthorization" of union security agreements. Under this provision, if over 50% of the workers covered by the contract vote to "deauthorize" the union security agreement, the workers can not be required to pay dues as a condition of employment.) 

In so-called "right-to-work" states, employees cannot be required even to pay an "agency fee", i.e., to contribute their fair share toward the union costs of giving them workplace representation. The union still has a legal obligation to provide representation -- for example in grievances and negotiations -- even for workers who do not pay their fair share. (It is easy to see why anti-union employers, and their friends at the "Right to Work Committee" support "right to work" legislation.)

"Beck" is a 1988 US Supreme Court decision that says that unions cannot force non-members to pay a full agency fee if any portion is used to pay the costs of union political activities. As a result, unions may be required to calculate that percent of their total budget allocated to political activities, and refund that (usually very small) portion of the member's agency fee.

So, what is the effect if workers drop their union membership and become agency fee payers, if they request a refund of the political part of their dues, or, in "right-to-work" states, drop their membership and discontinue any and all contributions to the union? Does any of this make the union leadership more responsive to your interests?

Actually, in our experience it makes the union leadership even less accountable. As a union member, you can go to union meetings, vote in elections, run for office, etc. You are in a position to press for change, to be a squeaky wheel that will get some grease. It is an uphill struggle, but by organizing and collaborating with your co-workers you can use your rights in the union to bring pressure on your union representatives, and even "throw the bums out" and replace them with union officers who are accountable to the members. That's where AUD can be of help. We counsel members about they can be more effective by exercising their rights as "union citizens" to make their unions stronger, more democratic, and more responsive.

If you "throw away" your union membership, you lose the chance to make change and to have any impact on the union leadership. And, if you change your mind, the union may not have to take you back. Even if you do rejoin, you may be ineligible to run for office for several years.

Finally, a strategy that takes you out of the union not only weakens the union, it plays into the hands of management. If your employer gets away with murder now, with a weak union leadership that does a bad job representing the members, think how much worse they can get with a union leadership that is even weaker and faces no opposition from within.

For information on forming a caucus .
For information on changing unions.
For examples of reform groups.

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September, 2001 -- Using the union credit card...

Q: "I have a question about whether or not it is legal for a union official to use the union's credit card to charge personal charges. No matter how small or that the charges are paid off over time."

A: It is illegal.

As Section 501 (c) of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) says,

"Any person who embezzles, steals, or unlawfully and willfully abstracts or converts to his own use, or the use of another, any of the moneys, funds, securities, property, or other assets of a labor organization of which he is an officer, or by which he is employed, directly or indirectly, shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both."

According to a representative of the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), using the union credit card for personal use is "stealing money from the union, no different from robbing a bank."

It is legal for a union officer or employee to use the union credit card for food, travel, or lodging expenses that they incur while doing union business. For example, it is legal for a union officer to use the credit card to fly to the union convention in Hawaii, pay for the hotel room, and buy meals during her stay. (Note: you may also want to look into what expenses are authorized by the union constitution and/or spending policies. The union may only authorize a limited amount of spending.)

It is not legal, to take another example, for a union officer to use the union credit card to buy concert tickets for his friends, or a new swimming pool for her house. (Note: if the officer uses the union credit card and promptly reimburses the union for the expense, there may not be a violation of the law. The OLMS discourages this use of the union credit card.)

If you have evidence that a union officer or employee is "abstracting" money from the union and converting it to their own use, including via credit card purchases, you should contact the local office of the OLMS. Tip: the more proof you have, the better. You will have to convince the OLMS that there is a real problem worth investigating.

The potential penalty for stealing from the union is a fine of up to $10,000, and/or up to five years in prison. In addition, under Section 504 of the LMRDA, a person convicted of embezzlement shall be banned from holding union office, or any position involving decision-making power over union funds, for several years (the exact number depends on a number of factors). The guilty party is also subject to expulsion from the union.

Note: Unions are allowed, under Section 503 of the LMRDA, to loan up to $2,000 to union members, including those holding office or employed by the union. As long as the credit card purchase does not exceed that limit, and as long as the officer "comes clean at once" and pays for his or her personal charges, promptly reimburses the union, or executes an IOU or loan agreement with the union, there probably will be no problem.

For a link to the OLMS .
For the text of the LMRDA.

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August, 2001 -- How can we change unions?

Q: "We are not happy with our union and want to change unions. What are our options? When do we have a right to vote on a new one? Is there a time during the contract or is it only at the end of a contract? Do we lose our whole contract if a new union comes in? Can we keep our benefits? Is this even a good idea?"

A: We get asked this question a lot. People who are dissatisfied with their union, who see that their leadership is unaccountable, who only get stonewalled when they complain or make suggestions, often come to the conclusion that they need to "get a better union." This is a rational desire -- why not change unions until you find one that works for you? -- but it is usually not a practical solution. In fact, trying to get out of your union and into a new one may make it harder to end up with a good union. It would be great if workers could change unions easily with little risk, but that is not the way it works.

What is so hard about changing unions?
First, if you are in an AFL-CIO affiliated union, and most union members are, then you run into the AFL-CIO's "no raiding" rule: no AFL-CIO union can take on the members of another AFL-CIO union for at least a year after the workers leave their old union. This means you can not just switch from CWA, for example, to the Teamsters. Instead, you would have to join an existing independent union or form a new union and wait a year before affiliating with the Teamsters or some other AFL-CIO union.

Second, there are only a few legitimate independent (non-AFL-CIO) unions out there. There is the United Electrical Workers union (UE) for example, and some local or regional independents. You can, like the workers who formed the Coalition of University Employees, start a new independent union. It's a lot of work, but may give you the best chance to control your own affairs. Watch out, there are also a host of phony, company-dominated "independent unions" that will do their best to take advantage of you and run off with your dues.

Third, when you try to change from one union to another, you give the employer an opportunity to try to prevent you from having any union at all. According to the procedures for changing unions, workers will have three choices: the old union, the new union, and no union at all. The employer will almost always campaign hard for "no union."

Fourth, getting a new union is only half the battle. You will still have to negotiate a new contract, from scratch. Often it is easier to build on previous contract provisions than to build from the ground up. The previous contract is no longer in force because one of the parties -- the old union -- is no longer around. This means that the benefits afforded by the previous contract are no longer in effect. For example, if you are not vested in the old union's pension plan, you could lose the value of the employer's contributions into that plan on your behalf. You may have to start all over accruing benefits in the new union's pension plan. Of course, if you are covered instead by the employer's pension plan, the new union could negotiate to perpetuate that coverage.

Finally, there is no guarantee that the problems you faced in the old union -- lack of representation, lack of accountability, lack of information -- will not reappear in the new union. Simply switching unions like you switch phone companies is not a recipe for a stronger, more democratic union. That requires members to take control of the union.

Therefore, the best option is usually to work to reform the union you are in by organizing the members into a caucus or committee, by running for union office, or taking other actions to put pressure on the union leadership. That is what AUD is here for, to help union members learn how to fight that fight and offer support along the way.

In some cases, the obstacles are so immense -- if the union is dominated by organized crime, if dissidents face beatings or worse -- that the only way to deal with it is to get out. If that is your situation, call AUD.

Some of the procedural information:
In the private sector, the National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right -- only at certain times and under certain conditions -- to petition for an election to "decertify" the union that represents them. The process can be initiated by workers in a union workplace during two window periods:
1) 60-90 days (60-120 days in the health care industry) prior to the expiration of the current contract, and
2) after the contract has expired and a new one has yet to be concluded and ratified.
Note that although some unions now bargain five or even ten year contracts, a decertification process can be initiated at the end of three years, even if the contract has not expired.
To change unions, you have to submit a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) signed by at least 30% of the members of your bargaining unit which may include workers in other plants. The NLRB will then hold an election. You have to get workers to sign a petition seeking to be represented by the new union; otherwise the only choice members will be given on the NLRB ballot will be between the old union or no union at all. To be successful, the new union will have to win the majority of the votes cast. The election results can then be challenged. The whole process can take months or even years.

For public sector workers, the rules and procedures differ state by state, but tend to follow the NLRB model. Contact your local public employment relations board for more information. For federal government workers, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) also follows the NLRB format.

The employer cannot legally retaliate against you for organizing to change unions -- this is protected concerted activity, just like organizing to bring a union in, in the first place -- but your old union may very likely file internal charges against, and try to permanently expel, members advocating decertification. Those members could then lose their right to run for office and to reform their union from within.

for examples of union reform groups.
for how to organize a caucus in your union.
for a handout on your rights as a union member.
for a checklist of organizing principles.
for the Coalition of University Employees website.
for the United Electrical Workers (UE) website.
for the AFL-CIO website and constitution.
for more on the NLRB and its procedures.

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July, 2001 -- Forming a caucus

Q: "I need information on the caucus I have started. I have questions such as: does a caucus have a formal internal structure? Must a caucus be formally registered with the union, or any other body? Who determines qualifications for membership? And on and on. Sorry, I can't find the answers to my questions on your site, and I'm not sure which books to order from AUD. I would also like to contact rank and file groups to see what they have done and how they do it. Thank you for any help you can give."

A: Great question. Forming a caucus is one of the best ways to organize for democracy, member control, and reform of your union.

What is a caucus? Most caucuses start out (and many remain) small informal groups of like-minded members of a union who wish to pursue some common goals. Most caucuses are independent of the union and they are certainly not subject to control by the union leadership. Nor do you have to register your caucus with the union.

There may be several caucuses in a union, including one or more organized by the union officers, themselves, for example, to promote their candidacies in an election or to advocate some point of view. (These are not to be confused with official union-sponsored caucuses, like a women's caucus or people of color caucus. These official caucuses may be governed by the union bylaws and subject to control by the union leadership.)

Is a caucus different from a committee? No. Call it whatever you want. Some call their caucus a committee -- for example: "The Committee for A Just Contract." The name you pick may tell people what you are fighting for. You will probably want to make it clear in your literature that your caucus is independent of the union to avoid confusion about whether you are speaking as official union representatives. (Again, be careful not to confuse an independent committee with an official union-sponsored committee.)

Who can belong to a caucus or committee? That's up to you and your fellow caucus organizers and members. Usually, a caucus will accept anyone who supports its goals and is willing to work to achieve them.

Do caucus members have to be members of the union? No. One of the larger union reform caucuses, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, accepts into the caucus not only union members, but also their spouses or significant others. Who is eligible to belong is up to the caucus members.

What kind of structure does a caucus have to have? Whatever works best for you. Some activists create a structure that resembles their union's structure, with officers, bylaws, etc. Others are more informal, with an elected steering committee, or just a committee in which everyone participates equally. As time goes on, you may find that you need to formalize your structure and create bylaws. But at the beginning, don't worry about structure. Focus on your goals and strategy -- what it is you want to accomplish, and how you plan to get there -- and get to work.

Do we need to incorporate into a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization or 501 (c) (5) labor organization? No. You can be an unincorporated membership association. Again, don't waste your time and energy on the creation and administration of some elaborate legal structure. Do only what's necessary to accomplish your objectives.

Of course, you will eventually need to raise funds, for example, to print leaflets, t-shirts, or send mailings, etc. You may want to charge yourselves dues or hold a raffle. You'll want to be very careful with money. This is particularly important when it comes to union elections where there are often strict rules about use of funds. If you decide to open a bank account in the group's name, your bank may require you to provide it with bylaws designating some officer who is authorized to handle money and sign checks. O.K. Now the time has come to adopt bylaws. But don't write a book, just stick with the basics: what is the name of your organization, what are its goals, who is eligible for membership, how do you make decisions, who in your group has what authority, how can members change the bylaws.

Once your group has been around for a while, and you've decided to go for the long-haul, you may then find it helpful to set up a parallel, not-for-profit educational organization and perhaps seek funding from foundations. For example, Teamsters for a Democratic Union teams up with a related not-for-profit organization, the "Teamster Rank and File Research and Legal Defense Fund." O.K. Now we're talking about getting lawyers involved, incorporating, and filing for tax-exempt, Section 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. Generally speaking, however, less is more: less structure usually means more participation and greater flexibility.

To recap: the most important considerations when establishing a caucus in your union are going to be your mission and your strategy for implementing it. What do you want to change and how do you propose to make those changes. These are far more important than bylaws or tax considerations. Only after your caucus has gotten off the ground and started fighting big battles will you need to address such legal considerations.

Questions to consider: Where are you going and how will you get there? How are your goals related to the concerns of your coworkers? Do you just want new faces in the top positions? Or do you have a plan for changing the way the union works? Say you win office, what will make the new officers different from the people they replaced? What will you do differently? Do you want to change the union's orientation toward management? Do you want to reorganize the union to make it more democratic? Will you make it easier for the members to vote you out than it was for you, when you were the opposition? Where do you plan to begin? Should you run for office or focus on organizing at the workplace? What role will members play? Will you educate your coworkers and get them involved in actions? How will you help members get hold of the information they need to be in control and hold their leaders accountable? All of this needs to be sorted out in your caucus if you want to be successful.

Remember, most caucuses start in someone's kitchen, a restaurant, or a bar, just a convenient meeting place where you start sharing ideas with like-minded union brothers and sisters. The activists usually begin by tackling some manageable project, not reshaping the world overnight. As new members come on board and their talents are recognized and tapped, the caucus can then afford to become more ambitious. Successful caucuses usually start small and build through action and discussion.

Finally, there are several resources on caucuses available on this site:
for a checklist of principles for democratic organizing ,
for a handout on organizing a women's committee, applicable to all union members interested in organizing a caucus,

for books with information on caucus organizing:
--The Troublemaker's Handbook (your best choice, the closest thing to a handbook on caucus organizing, with lots of practical information);
-- Democratic Rights for Union Members ;
--The Manual for Survival for Women in Non-Traditional Employment ;
--Power on the Job ;
--The Transformation of US Unions ;
-- Democracy is Power .
All of these books are available from AUD. Call or e-mail us to order (click here for a complete literature list).

for links to rank-and-file caucuses in various industries. (Go to the source and ask them how they did it. They may not get right back to you, but it's worth the effort if they do.)
for your legal rights to form and participate in caucuses and committees.

Note: AUD can provide training and education in organizing a caucus in your union. Call us to find out what we can do and how to set it up -- 718-564-1114

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June, 2001 -- Getting an audit.

Q: "I need some information please. Some members are concerned about the finances of the local and want to have an audit done but I'm not sure who to refer this to. They have tried to have the finance committee handle this but several motions have been defeated. I think this would be covered under LMDRA but I'm not sure what agency would handle it."

A: The LMRDA (Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act) does not specifically require audits, so you have to do more work.

Your first step was good, trying to get the finance committee to handle this. The next step might be to bring the issue to a membership meeting in a slightly different form: try to get a motion passed to have an outside audit by a reputable independent accounting firm. The motion can include the election of a committee to find the accountant, coordinate the audit, and bring the results to the membership. To get such a motion passed, you will probably need to mobilize a lot of members to go to the meeting and be ready to get your motion heard, seconded, and approved. If you succeed and the leadership has something to hide, you can expect them to attempt to overturn your resolution and pull the plug on your audit at future meetings. So, you will need to keep your support mobilized and informed.

You can also write to the local, certified mail/return receipt requested, to request that the local carry out an audit. If (when) the local officers refuse, you can send the same letter to the International. If (when) the International refuses, you have a few options:

If you have evidence of wrongdoing -- receipts for improper expenses, reimbursement for fictional expenses, loans to an officer or member from the union for more than $2,000, etc. -- you can go to court and sue under Title V of the LMRDA to get the money returned to the union treasury.

If your analysis of the local's LM-2 financial reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor over the past several years raises some unanswerable questions or suspicion of possible wrongdoing, you can, with the aid of an attorney, file suit under Title II of the LMRDA to get access to, and to analyze the local's underlying books and financial records yourself. You will want the aid of an attorney and/or personal accountant.

If there is criminal activity involved -- fraud, theft, etc. -- you may be able to get help from the local District Attorney's office, the U.S. Department of Labor, or your United States Attorney.

In any event, you'll want to share with your fellow members any information about financial wrongdoing that you happen to discover, what the union leadership is doing (or not doing) to solve it, and what you are doing to deal with the problem. Get the information in the hands of the members: put it in a newsletter or on a website. Post it on a bulletin board. Information can be a powerful political weapon that can be used to reform corrupt unions.

Finally, if the problems you are having are serious enough to think about going to court or organizing a movement to force the leadership to do what they should be doing anyway, you need to organize an independent, rank-and-file committee or caucus. The committee can create an agenda for change in the union, and take action to make it happen, including running candidates for office.

for more information on the union's financial responsibilities
for information on Robert's Rules
for a summary of the LMRDA
for the text of the LMRDA

May, 2001 -- defending free speech without going to court?

Q: "Our local has instituted a by-law which allows them to expel a union member for spreading rumours. Because I ran for office in the last election, the union officials have charged me with not only the above but they are charging that my campaign literature was "circulating letters of falsehood and misrepresentation." How can I do something about this without going to court?"

A: Judging by the term "circulating letters of falsehood and misrepresentation," we are talking here about the United Assocation of Plumbers and Pipefitters, (UA), and the language to which you refer is not only in the bylaws, but in Section 199 of the UA constitution. More than once, democratically-challenged union officers have tried to use this provision to punish members for exercising their free speech rights. Section 199 misrepresents UA members legal rights and AUD has helped UA members fight back in a number of ways, more on that below. (Note: the UA is not the only union that uses this kind of language to try to restrict free speech.)

"Circular Letters of Falsehood
Any member of the United Association found guilty of sending out circular letters of falsehood and misrepresentation shall be expelled, and the Local Union that permits s
uch action shall also be expelled."

You asked what you can do without going to court. This is a great question. Too often union members look to the law for some kind of savior who will come down from on high, smote their enemies, and restore a fair and just order on the union, only to be disappointed and disillusioned then the law turns out to be a mere tool, good for some things, not so good for others. Generally, we urge unionists not to depend upon lawsuits to win democracy in their unions. A lawsuit can be time consuming, expensive, and a distraction from the real task of organizing your fellow workers to change the way the union operates. Even if you win, it may not change the basic equation in the union. The leadership may continue to disregard the will and interests of the members.

However, there are cases where a lawsuit is the right tool for the job. When an act of the officials, or a provision of the bylaws or constitution is obviously in violation of the law, a lawsuit may be the right tool. Likewise, when the union uses such a provision to discipline a member, a lawsuit may be the way to go.

For example, three pipefitters were accused of violating Section 199 of the UA constitution when they put out a newsletter that was critical of local union leadership. The local sought to expel them from the union. The fitters called AUD and we put them in touch with an attorney in their area. In this case, all it took was a letter from an attorney and the union dropped the charges. They still publish the newsletter, where they publicized the charges and their victory over them. (We wrote up the case in Union Democracy Review #131)

One of the three pipefitters joined with a few other UA members in the U.S. and Canada to bring a lawsuit against the UA with two goals: to force the union to notify members of their rights under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), and to have Section 199 removed from the UA constitution and all local bylaws. AUD board member Arthur Fox is representing the UA members. (We will report on the outcome in Union Democracy Review.) NOTE: as of 3/2002, as a result of the suit brought by Chuck Callihan and Wilber Thomas, Section 199 has been ruled invalid and the UA has been ordered to remove it from the UA constitution. Click here for more info.

What else can you do, without going to court? To defend and maintain your free speech rights in the union, the first step is to use them, a lot. Speak up in union meetings, ask questions, provide information you think members need to know. Do not limit yourself to speaking up, print a newsletter or set up a website. Distribute useful and interesting information about members' rights, about issues of concern, about officers' salaries, about Section 199, about AUD and other resources. You can stage protests or make fun of the rule by having members write and distribute "circular letters" -- maybe on circular pieces of paper? Remember, there is power and safety in numbers, always try to act collectively -- set up a newsletter committee, organize meetings, bring a group to the union meeting. The Lone Ranger never reformed a union.

If you want to change the part of the union bylaws or constitution, you need to wage a campaign in the union. This is a big task -- you will probably have to win a majority at the convention or in some kind of referendum -- but it is not impossible. Then again, you will want to consider how big a priority this particular problem is, and whether you have other changes to make that are more pressing, such as elected business agents, or hiring hall reforms.

To sum up. Go forth and organize. If your union brings charges against you or retaliates against you in any way because of your free speech, call AUD, spread the word to your coworkers, and get ready to use some law. We will do what we can to help.

for more on union members' democratic rights
for a summary of the LMRDA
for the text of the LMRDA
for a handout on your legal rights in the union

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April, 2001 -- voting rules: do I have to vote for all three?

Q: "Our union is conducting an election for delegates to a convention. They have sent out the ballots and, as in all this union's elections, the members are asked to vote for the total number of positions available. In other words, if there are three positions for trustee, and 10 are running, you HAVE to vote for three or your ballot is rendered "spoiled." This doesn't seen fair to us because invariably the Business Manager will run a lot of his buddies in the election so that he will never lose control. The only source of information we can find is in Robert's Rules of Order which state that no-one can be compelled to vote this way?"

A: Incumbents have long used this trick to retain power. To take your example, say there is an election for three trustees. The ballot lists ten candidates. Say one of them is a reformer and the rest are buddies of the Business Manager. The top three vote-getters will be elected. The ballot requires you to vote for three positions, even if you only support one of the people running. If you don't vote for all three, your ballot is voided. If you vote for three, the votes you cast for the two people you don't want, may end up helping them beat your candidate.

As a matter of policy, unions should not require members to vote for every position. Members should be allowed to vote for the people they want, period. Is it legal for unions to require members to vote for the total number of positions? That depends...

The first thing to do is check the union constitution and bylaws (local and national). If the union constitution requires members to vote for all the positions, and says that improperly marked ballots will be ruled invalid or "spoiled," then you had better follow the rules to make sure your ballot is counted. Unfortunately, in one case, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) decided that it was permissible for a union to require members to vote for the total number of positions. If you run into this problem, please contact us. We are interested in seeing this type of election rule challenged.

If the union constitution is silent on the issue, it is probably up to the election committee, or whatever body runs the election, to establish the election rules. Again, follow the rules, so your vote is counted. You can make this issue part of an election complaint; it might end up having to be decided in court, if the union rules against you. Again, call us for advice.

(Robert's Rules of Order Revised (Quill, 1971) does say that a member "cannot be compelled to vote," (VIII:46) but in this case it is not clear that members are being forced to vote, just forced to vote by a certain method.)

Your question points to a basic organizing problem, though. The best way to handle this problem is to organize broadly enough so you have a full slate of candidates. That way you can not be boxed in even by this bad rule. You may not be able to run a full slate the first time out, but it should be a strategic objective from the start.

for more on union elections
for AUD literature: How to Get an Honest Union Election, Running for Local Union Office, and more.
for links to the Department of Labor and other agencies.
for links to information on Roberts Rules

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March, 2001 -- can't get the union constitution

Q: "I have asked for copies of the union constitution and bylaws on at least three separate occasions and to two different union officers. Each time I have been told they'll get back to me, but when I ask them about it again they reply either that they forgot or can't get the information. I can't tell if this is because the union president won't give it to them or they want me to think that that's why. How do I get a copy without their help?"

A: There is more than one way to get the constitution & bylaws if the union officers resist. First, you can ask around, see if a coworker has one (make sure it's up to date). Second, you can use government agencies to enforce your legal right to get a copy of the contract. Third, you can get a group of members together and petition the local to get copies to every member -- or make a motion to that effect at a local meeting. Choose the one that fits your situation.

Here's how to use the government agencies:

On this site (see link below) you can get a sample letter for getting a copy of your bylaws and constitution. A written request, sent by certified mail, return receipt requested often does the trick.

If the union still does not respond, you can try complaining to the Department of Labor (using the return receipt and letter to prove that the union did not respond). Unions that represent private sector members are covered by the federal Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) which requires unions to file a copy of the bylaws and constitution with the Department of Labor (DOL). If you need them immediately you can always go down to the DOL and copy them there. If the DOL office is far away, they can copy the constitution and mail it to you at a nominal cost. If you are not in a rush to get it, however, you might want to force the union to provide you a copy as they are required to do.

One attorney who is very knowledgeable about this area of the law recently told us that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will enforce your right to a copy of the bylaws, but we have not heard of that being tested so far. Let us know how it goes.

Click here for The sample letter

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February, 2001--free speech and web page

Q: "Our rank-and-file website has caused much grief with our Business Manager due to all the attacks he has taken recently. Last week he allegedly told shop stewards on a job that anyone bringing in printed material from our website would be brought up on charges. They would be charged with undermining the union as described in the union constitution. Is this legal? What can be done about it? Please refer me to the section of the act that allows this as protected actions by members of the union."

A: Union members have broad free speech rights in the union. You are free to criticize union officials and policies in any medium, including online. In addition, recent legislation on internet communications adds further protection to speech on web sites. Any attempt by the union to discipline members in retaliation for their free speech, or threats made to that effect, would be illegal. The law that protects your free speech rights in the union is the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), Title I.

If a provision of the union constitution openly restricts free speech, or is used to squelch free speech, that provision would be unenforceable in court.

The first thing you should do is call AUD. The best protection in this case is to let the members know what is happening: put it on the web site, get out a flyer. Free speech is unpopular with the officers? Time for more free speech! Remember, it is best if you act as an organized group of members: a committee or caucus in the union. AUD can help you learn how to do that, and offer advice. You may also need legal help. Contact us: 718-564-1114 .

for more on union members' democratic rights
for a summary of the LMRDA
for the text of the LMRDA
for a handout on your legal rights in the union
for more on internet free speech
for examples of rank-and-file websites

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