Association for Union Democracy

Defending free speech without going to court ?

A: Judging by the term “circulating letters of falsehood and misrepresentation,” we are talking here about the United Assocation of Plumbers and Pipefitters, (UA), and the language to which you refer is not only in the bylaws, but in Section 199 of the UA constitution. More than once, democratically-challenged union officers have tried to use this provision to punish members for exercising their free speech rights. Section 199 misrepresents UA members legal rights and AUD has helped UA members fight back in a number of ways, more on that below. (Note: the UA is not the only union that uses this kind of language to try to restrict free speech.)

“Circular Letters of Falsehood
Any member of the United Association found guilty of sending out circular letters of falsehood and misrepresentation shall be expelled, and the Local Union that permits such action shall also be expelled.”

You asked what you can do without going to court. This is a great question. Too often union members look to the law for some kind of savior who will come down from on high, smote their enemies, and restore a fair and just order on the union, only to be disappointed and disillusioned then the law turns out to be a mere tool, good for some things, not so good for others. Generally, we urge unionists not to depend upon lawsuits to win democracy in their unions. A lawsuit can be time consuming, expensive, and a distraction from the real task of organizing your fellow workers to change the way the union operates. Even if you win, it may not change the basic equation in the union. The leadership may continue to disregard the will and interests of the members.

However, there are cases where a lawsuit is the right tool for the job. When an act of the officials, or a provision of the bylaws or constitution is obviously in violation of the law, a lawsuit may be the right tool. Likewise, when the union uses such a provision to discipline a member, a lawsuit may be the way to go.

For example, three pipefitters were accused of violating Section 199 of the UA constitution when they put out a newsletter that was critical of local union leadership. The local sought to expel them from the union. The fitters called AUD and we put them in touch with an attorney in their area. In this case, all it took was a letter from an attorney and the union dropped the charges. They still publish the newsletter, where they publicized the charges and their victory over them. (We wrote up the case in Union Democracy Review #131)

One of the three pipefitters joined with a few other UA members in the U.S. and Canada to bring a lawsuit against the UA with two goals: to force the union to notify members of their rights under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), and to have Section 199 removed from the UA constitution and all local bylaws. AUD board member Arthur Fox represented UA members Chuck Callihan and Wilber Thomas and, in March 2002, a judge ruled Section 199 invalid and ordered the UA to remove it from the UA constitution. Click here for more info.

What else can you do, without going to court? To defend and maintain your free speech rights in the union, the first step is to use them, a lot. Speak up in union meetings, ask questions, provide information you think members need to know. Do not limit yourself to speaking up, print a newsletter or set up a website. Distribute useful and interesting information about members’ rights, about issues of concern, about officers’ salaries, about Section 199, about AUD and other resources. You can stage protests or make fun of the rule by having members write and distribute “circular letters” — maybe on circular pieces of paper? Remember, there is power and safety in numbers, always try to act collectively — set up a newsletter committee, organize meetings, bring a group to the union meeting. The Lone Ranger never reformed a union.

If you want to change the part of the union bylaws or constitution, you need to wage a campaign in the union. This is a big task — you will probably have to win a majority at the convention or in some kind of referendum — but it is not impossible. Then again, you will want to consider how big a priority this particular problem is, and whether you have other changes to make that are more pressing, such as elected business agents, or hiring hall reforms.

To sum up. Go forth and organize. If your union brings charges against you or retaliates against you in any way because of your free speech, call AUD, spread the word to your coworkers, and get ready to use some law. We will do what we can to help.

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