How to Get an Honest Union Election (excerpt)

An excerpt from Herman Benson’s popular handbook.

“How can we get a fair and square election in our local?” We hear that question more and more at the Association for Union Democracy; and it is not easy to answer, which is why we have decided to print this little booklet. If your union’s constitution and bylaws already provide reasonably democratic election rules, and if your leadership is fair-minded enough to enforce them impartially, your troubles are mostly over. But, then you wouldn’t be asking the question.

If, however, your bylaws are defective, or if your leadership violates even the best bylaws, you surely do have a problem. If you suspect that an election has been illegal, or even stolen, you might, under certain limited conditions, complain to the U.S. Department of Labor, or even get into state or federal court; but that should be a last resort, often an expensive and difficult move, when all else fails. The suggestions in this booklet are intended to help you try to resolve some of the issues right within the union.

… Election fraud in unions debases the integrity of the labor movement as surely as counterfeiting debases the nation’s coinage. Stealing elections does more than cheat one individual candidate to the advantage of another. It destroys confidence in union government; it undermines the basis of free democratic trade unionism; it destroys the right of workers to control their own unions and imposes an officialdom upon them. By defending honest elections, we defend the labor movement and uphold the character of unions as genuine workers institutions. Honest elections bolster confidence in union leadership as the genuine choice of the members…

How they steal elections

How do they steal elections? Human ingenuity is boundless, and this is one of the less admirable products of that principle. We cite some examples here, not because you are likely to encounter exactly these situations, but only to alert you to the multifarious varieties of strange electoral practices. … A classic example from the IUE (electrical workers) One experience is amply documented. In 1964, while mail ballots were being counted in the election of IUE president, tellers discovered that their man, the incumbent, was falling behind badly. At that point, the count was taking place at two different locations; and the insurgent, who was running ahead, was adequately represented by observers at both of them. The tellers simply opened up three additional counting locations but refused to allow additional observers for the challenger. At the unguarded spots, the “count” was based oupon the unchecked imagination of the pro-incumbent tellers. The incumbent was declared elected, but a later recount by the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that the challenger, who had been swindled out of thousands of votes, had actually won by a large majority. …

A few words about the law

Certain rights in union elections are, presumably, protected by law, especially federal law; and it is true that the law can sometimes be of great help. But that fact sometimes deludes unionists into imagining that if they rush quickly to the nearest government enforcement agency, discover that rare, dedicated, able lawyer (especially one who works for nothing and can live on air), and file several fast-acting (and, of course, successful) lawsuits, all will be well and their union restored promptly to decency, democracy, militancy, and beauty.

But there are no legal quick fixes. The law can never substitute for hard work inside your union, only supplement it. If you are not ready for that, then forget it. If you bring genuine issues to the membership, publish handbills, newsletters and websites, sometimes run candidates for office, make realistic proposals for reform, and try to win membership support, then and then only, the law and the lawyers may give you that extra measure of support to make your efforts effective. But if you expect to avoid all that time-consuming activity by finding someone else to do the job for you–judges, religious leaders, lawyers, the mayor, administrative agencies, the D.A., congresspeople, reporters, professors, even AUD, or whoever–you will search eternally in vain.

Like this booklet, the law helps only those who help themselves. And you can hardly expect to do it alone like an avenging lone ranger. You’ll probably have to organize a caucus, prepare a slate of candidates, involve other members in the campaign, and collect money. Yes, you should be aware of all your legal rights, but as a guide to action, not as a substitute. …

(The booklet also examines the following topics:
*who can vote; * who can run for office: meeting attendance rules, continuous good standing, nominations, planning ahead; * campaigning: advantages of incumbency, candidates’ rights, equality, membership lists and mailings, union newspaper, home visits and phone banking, no employer contributions, sordid facts of life, the long view; * using outside election agencies: private agencies, government agencies; * election safeguards: secret ballot, observers, challenged ballots, secrecy, paper ballots, mail ballots, machine voting; * counting the ballots; * you may need to win by 60%; * a set of election rules approved by a federal judge, with commentary by Herman Benson.)

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