Cyber-Democracy for Unionists: Your Legal Rights Online

Democracy makes unions stronger. The key to union democracy is an educated, informed, and active membership. Fortunately, you have legal rights that protect internal union activity, including activity that takes place online. This summary describes your rights under a Federal Law: the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) as they apply to online activism.

1. The Right to Participate in Your Union

You have the right as a union member to participate in union affairs, including meetings and elections. This means you have the right to:

    • participate in official union chat groups or discussion lists,
    • participate in elections: run for office, vote, and observe the vote count (there are other important election rights),
    • equal access to union publications — including union e-mail lists, web sites, listserves, and e-mail publications — in election campaigns,
    • due process if you are disciplined by the union.

NOTE: It is illegal for the union or the employer to retaliate against you, or threaten you, for exercising your rights under the LMRDA. Participation in union activities is subject to reasonable rules and procedures.

2. The Right to Essential Information

As a union member, you have the right to certain types of information, much of which is available online:

    • Copies of annual financial reports, including the LM-2 forms, available from the Office of Labor Management Standards–OLMS,
    • Copies of union contracts and side agreements that affect your job,
    • Copies of the union constitution and bylaws.

NOTE: You are free to publish and distribute, in print and electronic form, the information in the reports and documents described above.

3. The Right to Free Speech

Your right to free speech about union affairs (in the union and in public) is very broad and includes e-mail and web speech. You are free to:

    • criticize (or praise) union policies, officers, staff, or candidates,
    • discuss union policies and issues,
    • write about, draw cartoons about, sing about, etc. union representatives,
    • complain, protest, demand and advocate.

NOTE: You can be disciplined if you advocate “decertifying” — leaving the union, or changing unions — or for violations of the union constitution that are not otherwise protected by the law.

4. The Right to Free Assembly

Like your rights to free speech, your rights to organize with your coworkers are very broad. Among other things, you can:

    • form a committee or a caucus,
    • meet on or offline without official union permission or participation,
    • set up a website, blog, discussion list, newsletter, chat room, or other online publication or forum,
    • limit access to all or parts of your site to members of your committee,
    • link to other websites, organizations, and unions (including your own),
    • take collective action to influence the union (online pickets, PDF flyers, e-mail petitions, web sites, etc.).

NOTE: Be careful not to represent yourselves, your group, or your website as official union representatives if you are not. Do not use computers or other resources that belong to your employer, or to the union. In union elections, an employer–anyone who employs at least one other person–is prohibited from contributing to a candidate or campaign.

Enforcing your Rights

The LMRDA applies to private sector union members and some federal employees, and includes union bodies that represent a mix of public and private sector workers. Public sector workers often have the same protections in other forms, through state laws or regulations, or through case law.

Some parts of the LMRDA are enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor (elections, financial reporting, right to information). Other rights you enforce through a lawsuit in Federal Court and/or State Court (free speech, free assembly, union discipline cases).

You may be required to “exhaust internal union procedures” before taking your case to the Department of Labor or Federal Court. This means you must first file an internal union protest or complaint, according to the procedures in your union bylaws/constitution—even if you believe that this is a waste of time. If, after four months (three months for election complaints), the internal charges have not been resolved, or you want to challenge the result, you may take your complaint outside of the union. If you do not exhaust the internal procedures, the union can not discipline you, but the Court or Department of Labor may dismiss your complaint.

The web is a new area for activism and law. This summary is only a rough guide. Because the legal procedures are complex and have strict time limits, it is important to get advice. You may need a lawyer. Contact AUD:

Association for Union Democracy
104 Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11225; USA
718-564-1114, info@uniondemocracy.org

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