Association for Union Democracy

Court to IAM: Inform members of their rights

On September 21, Federal District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Maryland issued a final order prescribing precisely how the International Association of Machinists must comply with section 105 of the LMRDA, the federal law which is intended to protect the democratic rights of members in their unions. The full text of section 105 reads: “Every labor organization shall inform its members concerning the provisions of this Act.”

The union is required to do the following:

  • Provide every new member with a summary of the act in a form mandated by the court. [Available from AUD]
  • Publish the summary in three issues of the IAM Journal, beginning in March, 2001 and then once each in 2004 and 2008.
  • Post the summary permanently and prominently on its web site under the title “Union Member Rights and Officer Responsibilities Under the LMRDA.”

The full text of the law provides free speech in unions, assurances of fair elections, due process in trials, limits on trusteeships, and spells out the fiscal responsibilities of officers. Enforcement procedures for the various provisions differ. Section 105, the provision involved in this lawsuit, is enforceable only by private suit of union members themselves.

In this case, suit was brought in 1997 by three IAM members: Keith Thomas, David Smith, and Kelly Vandegrift. They were represented, pro bono, in the three years of burdensome litigation by attorney Andrew Rotstein. The LMRDA was adopted in 1959 at which point many unions, including the IAM, did comply with section 105 in a one-shot notification to their members. But that was 40 years ago. Since that time, however, the provision remained a dead letter, ignored almost universally in all that time. The high costs of litigation explains why this issue never went to court before. But this time, the unionists were skillfully represented by an able attorney without fee.

In court, the IAM claimed that its one-time notification to members back in 1960 fully complied with the law and that it was not required to take further action. The Fourth Circuit Appeals Court found that argument ludicrous, ruling that the union has a continuing responsibility to inform its membership.

For the Association for Union Democracy, this result is the successful culmination of a campaign which began eleven years ago in 1989 when AUD submitted a petition signed by 232 members of 35 different international unions calling upon the U.S. Labor Department to adopt a regulation requiring unions to comply with Section 105. At that time, the department rejected the petition on the ground that enforcement could be effected only by private suit.

Despite the clearcut decision of the federal court in Maryland, if unions do not voluntarily begin to comply with Section 105, it will require action by members, union by union, to enforce the law. [For further information contact AUD. Case No. Civil No. PJM 97-2001 in Maryland District court. Click here for a press release with the full text of the order.]

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