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
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.
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