Association for Union Democracy

Legalize and Organize

By Bill Barry

Bill Barry is an AUD volunteer, retired labor professor, and author of a number of publications on unions and labor history. His most recent book is The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore.

When union members, frustrated and angry, contact AUD, they are looking for a full—and fast—solution to their problems. Sometimes they feel they have been cheated in a local union election or, more urgently, have been denied work out of a union hiring hall, an economic loss usually compounded by the loss of health care benefits as well. In every case, they want justice against a union officer, a fast restoration of their employment and a sense of having regained full membership in the union.

As they describe their situations, it is clear that some expect that an immediate, satisfactory—and free—legal solution be available. When I begin to explain the complexities of the various laws, they often get angrier but I stress that I am The Doctor: I evaluate a situation honestly, even if the consequences are not happy ones.

The gaps in the law are significant, starting with public workers who are specifically excluded from coverage in both the National Labor Relations Act and the Landrum-Griffin Act, along with various gaps in the law or in previous decisions. If you are covered, and if you think you have a good case, the problem of enforcement becomes a point of concern. AUD participants have found that agents of the NLRB and OLMS range from the helpful and energetic to the lazy and dismissive. Most importantly, these federal workers, especially at OLMS, seem to have no sense of urgency and take months to carry out an investigation. Over and over I have to deal with the frustration of union members who have filed, or tried to file, a complaint with OLMS and are told that the field officer is “really backed up” and “I’ll get to you when I can.” Letters can go unanswered for months and it is discouraging for union members, desperate for help and often suffering from discrimination, not to get at least respect, if not results. The head of OLMS, Michael Hayes, is energetic and determined [and a friend of mine from Baltimore] but his commitment has often not penetrated the ranks of the bureaucracy.

More importantly, these laws are subject to change, both through legislation and through interpretations, like NLRB decisions. In today’s political climate, it is more difficult to get remedies that will strengthen union democracy, which strengthens unionism in general.

While I help with the various legal angles, I also urge the members to ORGANIZE–to storm their local union meetings, gathering their co-workers to demand fair treatment from the union officers. While it may sound simple to urge the members and go to a meeting and raise hell, there are several obstacles.

Many of our cases come from craft unions which operate hiring halls. If the local does not have a strict hiring list, the threat—suspected or witnessed—of a union officer to deny work to dissidents is powerful. Union protesters are often denounced as “anti-union,” as if raising objections to a union officer is an attack on the union as a whole.

Not only do individual union officials try to stifle any opposition, but changing union structures also create problems. Unions like the Carpenters and SEIU have created megalocals which have a wide geographic area and a huge membership, making it difficult—intentionally, many would charge—for members to attend local meetings or to run for office.

At the same time, some AUD participants have been successful in getting local bylaws or procedures changed. One powerful argument in the craft locals is that almost every member has, at one time or another, been dumped on by a Business Manager, so they recognize both the reality of the situation, as well as the hazards of protesting against it. In the long term, local union procedures that treat every member fairly are worth the risk, and reduce the need for the very precarious legal protections. Even better, run for office with union procedures as a major campaign issue, so you can eliminate the problem altogether.

I also urge union members who have filed charges against an officer, or a local, that involve a financial remedy to explain to co-workers on a job that they do not want to force members to pay a special assessment to cover the liability, emphasizing a goal of supporting fair treatment and a stronger union. Becoming an organizer within a union changes the whole dynamic in a positive way.

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