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From the September-October 2008 issue of Union Democracy Review #175

Union officers uncomfortable with online free speech
by Matt Noyes

Two cases in which union members were banned from official union online forums reflect the growing importance of the internet as a new space for member participation and the contrary efforts of union leaders to limit discussion to what they consider acceptable.

Marine Engineers: good beginning but then...

The online bulletin board service (BBS) of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association [MEBA] is a remarkable example of using the internet to promote membership free speech. It was founded in 1996 by insurgents to organize the union's far-flung membership against a corrupt administration. According to Paul Norman, a marine engineer now retired, "Rank & file activists from all around the country became familiar with this new method of communication, the internet. As members overcame their fear of reprisal … they soon became aware of things they would have never learned from the Union publications or by attending union meetings."

Honoring a campaign pledge, the victorious insurgent slate, Members Advocating Democracy, continued the discussion list as an official union project, embracing the frank talk as a means of promoting membership participation and officer accountability. Open to members and retirees only, the BBS operated for twelve years with minimal censorship and no posting guidelines. According to MEBA members, the discussion on the BBS was lively, with sometimes harsh criticism of union officers and equally vigorous rebuttal.

Alas, times change. Last year, Mike Jewell ran against the incumbent MEBA president. He lost. Alleging election violations, he posted the text of his challenge-appeal on the MEBA BBS, where it became a focus for discussion. His protest mentioned a certain "Altman report" which provided evidence, he said, of improper use of union staff to campaign. The report also referred to allegations of an illicit relationship between the union president Donald Keefe and a staff employee.

Jewell's post was not censored, but a member who posted a link to the text of the Altman report on another website found his MEBA post deleted and himself banned from the BBS. Two other members who commented on the link were banned as well.

Among those banned was Paul Norman, a retired member of MEBA District One. There followed a back and forth of reinstatement and re-banning, with Norman being banned anew after posting a link to another embarrassing document, this one a police report filed after union president Donald Keefe was arrested on a charge of spousal abuse after a union meeting.

In banning Norman and other members, the BBS administrator, writing under the screen name "MEBA HQ" relied on Article 13 of the MEBA Constitution, which includes this language: "No member shall traduce, slander, or willfully or maliciously injure the National Association, and District, or any member thereof in anyway." "The attacks," MEBA HQ continued, "are shared outside of the MEBA family resulting in harm to our Union standing with our companies, other Unions and the maritime community at large. Those who post personal attacks will lose their privilege to access the BBS."

Charges of "slander" are sometimes used by union leaders to suppress members' free speech. But the move doesn't stand up to the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), the federal law that protects members' democratic rights. However, the application of the LMRDA to the internet remains to be tested.

The banning of members from the BBS raises the question of due process. The union BBS is one forum for member participation in union affairs. Banning a member without due process could be improper under the LMRDA.

The attack on free speech drew strong reactions on the MEBA BBS and led to an offline campaign to get a resolution passed in all ports calling on the MEBA officers to reinstate all banned members, proposing rules to make it easier for members and retirees to sign up to the BBS, and advocating removal of all filters and blocks from the BBS. The resolution campaign failed; activists attribute their loss to members' lack of interest.

In the meantime, MEBA officials drew up a new set of posting guidelines to validate the previous bans. he guidelines ban "objectionable content" which they define as "otherwise legal content with which MEBA concludes in its sole discretion, it does not want to be associated in order to protect its reputation, image, or to protect its employees, members, affiliates, etc..." Members are advised that use of the MEBA website is a "privilege, not an entitlement."

Paul Norman and at least one other member remain banned. Norman says that "the level of free and meaningful discourse has dropped to near zero."

In OPEIU Local 109

As in the MEBA, the online forum in Professional Helicopter Pilots Association/OPEIU Local 109 started out as an unofficial discussion forum. In 2006, after the union organized Air Methods Corp., the nation's largest employer of emergency medical services pilots, the union turned the forum into an official members-only section of the union website.

According to member Mike Cheek, "with over 1,000 members scattered all over the United States, the forum is the only way to speak our minds and debate the issues." Cheek says that union officers have also used it to conduct union business, like conducting an online membership vote on a proposed cap on union attorney's fees.

Discussion on the forum, which draws an estimated 200 of the local's 1,000 members, has always been spirited and, says Cheek, sometimes "a little salty." The debate got particularly heated in September this year, when members questioned the authority of the local president to unilaterally bargain and sign Memoranda of Understanding, and to create a full time union staff position for the former local president when he lost his job as a pilot. Cheek was one of the more vocal critics. In response, Local 109 webmaster, Jeff Stackpole, (who is also local president) announced new "Forum Rules" that banned profanity, abusive language, repetitive posting, monopolizing the forum, and other misdeeds. A week later, on September 24, Cheek was banned from posting to the forum.

Cheek complains that he was not informed that he had been banned, or which post broke the rules, or how long the ban would last, or how to challenge it. Fellow pilots called for Cheek's reinstatement to the forum and Cheek contacted the OPEIU International Representative seeking to file charges against the Local officers. A few weeks later, after repeated requests for an explanation, Cheek got a letter from the local union staff representative stating that he would be reinstated to the forum if he signed a statement acknowledging his understanding of the forum rules.

Local 109's contract expires in early 2009, and local elections are scheduled for September. It promises to be an interesting year for Local 109 members. Free speech on the union forum is likely to be an election issue.

Articles on the internet and union democracy:
Appeals court backs union curbs on the internet
Free Speech in the SEIU and MEBA?
Union officers uncomfortable with online free speech
Surrendering to the internet: Democrats in spite of themselves?

IBEW president Hill upholds Canadian member's rights
Union officials "condone and endorse" attack on member's internet free speech rights
Round 2 in the internet battle in AFSCME DC37
In AFSCME DC37 - A round in the internet battle
Danger of democracy on the Internet? Kill it!
Whose "IBEW" is it? An Electrician on the Internet.
Results of the 2005 AUD Best Rank-and-File Website Contest
Union democracy online survives two lawsuits
Online Guide: build an effective rank-and-file website
SEIU Pulls plug on "Labor's Future" discussion
52 Playing cards = fearsome "Local 52"
Using the Internet for Union Democracy

AUD's Best Rank-and-File Websites of 2004
Matt Noyes on AUD and the Internet
2KB of free speech? ACLU & Public Citizen sue in IBEW Local 46 election
Making a splash: SEIU's Unite to Win and the "free and open debate" on Labor's future

SAG officers unnerved by actors' internet free speech

Free speech irritates UFCW

Free speech in NWU
IATSE 600: Internet democracy triumphs over super centralization
Cyber-democracy: your legal rights online.(handout)

See also:
AUD's 50 Guidelines for building an effective rank-and-file website, and the sample homepage.
The labortech tag on del.icio.us.

 

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