Association for Union Democracy

Thrown out of the meeting and brought up on charges

A: If this is an attack on dissidents because of their internal political activities, you should definitely defend them. In doing so you are also standing up for the free speech rights of all your fellow members.

The first line of defense to an attack on free speech is… more free speech. If the president wants people to sit down and shut up at union meetings, the logical answer is to organize people to stand up and speak out — albeit in an orderly manner. Put the president in a position where he has to file bogus charges against everyone, or no one. You can also put on pressure outside the meetings, for example by holding an “informational picket” of the union’s offices. If concerted activity can pressure your employer to improve working conditions, it may also persuade your union officials to improve the political climate in your local.

You can also publicize the president’s actions in a flyer, newsletter, or on a website. Make your case to members. Look for ways to connect this issue to concerns that members have about job-related problems: “if we can’t speak freely at union meetings, how can we get what we want in contract negotiations?”

Use the occasion to: a) educate people about their democratic rights and about the value of democracy and serious debate over legitimate differences, b) show the president that filing charges will only add to his problems, and c) get members involved in activism.

How to organize your coworkers to take action, how to be effective in union meetings, and how to put out newsletters or websites are all topics that are better dealt with in a longer discussion or an AUD workshop. The keys are to make your action collective, be prepared, know your rights and the union procedures, and, most important, have clear goals and objectives that are meaningful and important to your fellow members and coworkers.

The law

Legally speaking, you are in a gray area. Title I of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) says, in part:

“Every member of any labor organization shall have the right… to express any views, arguments, or opinions… at meetings of the labor organization… upon any business properly before the meeting, subject to the organization’s established and reasonable rules pertaining to the conduct of meetings.”

So, to the extent the two dissidents may have been violating rules for the orderly conduct of meetings, they may have exposed themselves to discipline even if the real, motivating reason is their dissident activities. (This is why experienced union activists will tell you to be a ‘model member’ — why give you opponents a weapon to use against you?)

If the members who were brought up on charges did not swear, refuse to stop talking, yell at the president, and disrupt the meeting, you would have a clear-cut free speech case.

In that case, by filing charges against the members, the president would be violating their free speech rights under the LMRDA. He might even be attempting to prevent these members from challenging him in the next election — another violation of the LMRDA. (Many unions require members to be in “continuous good standing” for the prior two or three years to be eligible to run for office. Even a one-day suspension could deprive these two members of eligibility to run for office.)

You would still need to decide if the case is worth a major fight. Are the two accused members serious about organizing for change in the union? Or are they just interested in grandstanding and provoking the officers for the hell of it? How does this issue fit into the bigger picture? You need to choose your battles.

Assuming you decided to fight, you should call AUD for more in-depth advice, and a possible lawyer referral, and take these steps:

* Take the internal hearing seriously. Whether you plan to go to court or not, you need to prepare and present a good case. Attend the hearing, cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, state your objections, and get your evidence into the record. (This is important not only for the hearing, but to lay a good foundation for any legal action.)

* Collect evidence. You will have to prove that the two members are “known dissidents” and that the president knew of their stated intention to run for office. You will want to line up witnesses, collect statements, gather copies of newsletters, website pages, flyers, and anything else that will enable you to make your case. And you will also want to show that this was not the first time that there was swearing or animated discussion at a union meetings and that these two members are being singled out for retaliation.

* Find out who is on the trial board. The LMRDA provides that they must be fair and impartial. If they have something to gain or lose, depending on the outcome, you should challenge their impartiality “on the record.” Do it in writing and keep a copy.

* Insist that the union make a “record” of the hearing. Either a tape recording or an authentic transcript.

* Make your case. Remember that the charging parties have the initial burden of putting in evidence to prove their case. Through cross-examination, you may even be able to get prosecution witnesses to help you build your own case, i.e., to admit that foul language has often been employed but no one has previously been charged. When the prosecution has concluded, you must then be given the opportunity to present your own witnesses and exhibits, and finally to present whatever “argument” or “summation” you think is appropriate.

* Look beyond the hearing. If you lose, file an appeal with the International, and consider filing a lawsuit in federal court seeking reversal of the discipline, lawyer’s fees, and possibly damages. (But remember: most activists do not seek damages because they would serve only to weaken the union financially.)

Reality check. Even if you can prove the president’s desire to suppress dissident speech and hobble political opponents, you may still lose the legal battle. The president may lie at the hearing and produce witnesses to ‘corroborate’ his claim that the accused members disrupted the meeting and violated the bylaws. Of course, if the trial board is politically tight with the president, it will likely find against you no matter what the facts show.

And if the union president and his attorneys can convince a judge that yours is a “mixed” case, involving not just a question of free speech but also application of a reasonable rule governing the conduct of meetings, the judge may insist that you exhaust internal union appeals, before hearing the case. Thereafter, the judge may choose not to rehash the facts and may instead accept the trial board’s “findings of fact.”

Finally, going to court costs money and can take a lot of time. Only you can decide if it is worth it, based on the stakes involved.

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