Under federal law, every member of a labor organization must have an equal right to nominate candidates; vote in elections, and attend and participate in membership meetings – subject to reasonable rules and regulations in the union’s constitution.
The law also dictates that every member of a labor organization must have the right to meet freely with other members and express his or her views at union meetings, subject to reasonable rules pertaining to the conduct of meetings.
Title I of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), known as the Members’ Bill of Rights, was adopted in 1959. It was intended to protect the rights of members within their unions and uphold union democracy.
The motivation for passing the law was an extensive investigation by a U.S. Senate committee chaired by then-Sen. John McClellan (D-AR), with Robert F. Kennedy acting as chief counsel. The investigation revealed that some union officers were enriching themselves through racketeering, using union funds for personal business, and engaging in transactions that were tainted by a conflict-of-interest. The investigators also found abuses in democratic processes, including coercion and intimidation of dissenting members, election fraud, and gross violations of members’ civil rights.
However, even the Department of Labor (DOL) had to admit that although serious, the violations were not widespread. A 1983 quote by Jack Barbash, a noted economist who helped facilitate the merger of the AFL and the CIO, is posted on the DOL’s website:
The experience of Landrum-Griffin in the decade and a half of its operations suggests that the prohibited practices were marginal occurrences, but needed to be dealt with through public authority. No endemic problem of financial and democratic wrongdoing is apparent in American unions, if litigation under Landrum-Griffin is any guide. The law’s most significant impact has been to make the position of challengers to incumbent officers more tenable.
The adoption of the Members’ Bill of Rights was important to the labor movement because it provided protection in federal law for union democracy, and enabled dissidents, reformers, radicals, and mainstream unionists to resist repression, stolen elections, or corruption in their unions.
A Members’ Bill of Rights has been incorporated in the APWU’s Constitution & Bylaws that mirrors and expands on the rights outlined in the LMRDA. The expanded rights include the right to be treated as a human being, to be treated with respect, and to be free from discrimination in union affairs.
The most important of these rights are the rights of union members to nominate and vote for the leadership of their unions, and the right to fully participate in the business of the union. The rights of members related to elections and election processes are codified in Article 12 of the APWU Constitution and are administered by the National Election Appeals Committee. However, the rights to fully participate in union activities are applied in each local and state union.
Although these rights are listed in the Members’ Bill of Rights, freedom of speech and the freedom to be heard have limits. Despite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. By the same token, no member has the right to disrupt the business of the union or prevent other members from exercising their rights. According to the law, unions have the right to prohibit members from engaging in conduct that would interfere with the union’s performance of its legal or contractual obligations.
You might think a Members’ Bill of Rights would be unnecessary because all the listed rights should be widely recognized and accepted practices in a union. However, we can all get so caught up in the moment that we occasionally forget to respect others. The Members’ Bill of Rights serves to remind us of our obligations to our fellow union members. The discussion of business should not be personal, should not be profane or offensive, and should be intended to benefit the union and the membership.
The free exchange of ideas and opinions is expected and should be encouraged within the union. This is a fundamental principle of union democracy. But remember that rights come with responsibilities to our union and our members. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the law.
APWU MEMBERS’ BILL OF RIGHTS
1. Every member has the right to be respected as a human being.
2. Every member has the right to be respected as a brother or sister of this Union.
3. Every member has the right to freedom of speech and the right to be heard.
4. Every member has the right to the freedom to listen.
5. Every member has the right to the freedom of the press.
6. Every member has the right to participate in the activities of this Union.
7. Members shall not be denied the right to seek any office or the right to vote in this Union because of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, handicap, political affiliation, age or religion.
8. Every member has the right to support the candidate of his/her choice and to participate in that right with others.
9. Every member has the right to a fair trial, to be represented by an individual of his or her choice and to proper appeal procedures.
10. Every member has the right to be secure in his or her basic rights without fear of political, economic, physical or psychological intimidation.