Unions Must Inform Members of Their Democratic Rights

In a landmark decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that labor unions have an ongoing responsibility to inform their members of their rights under the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, reversed a lower court's decision.

The LMRDA, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, guaranties democratic rights, fair elections, due process, and financial integrity in unions, and gives union members whose rights have been violated recourse to the courts and to the Labor Department.

The case centered on section 105 of the law, which reads in full: "Every labor organization shall inform its members concerning the provisions of this Act."

Although this notification requirement has been on the books for over 40 years, this is the first time a court has actually ruled on the legal substance of section 105.

The lawsuit was brought by three members of Local 834 of the International Association of Machinists in Wichita, Kansas. The Association for Union Democracy filed a brief in support of their appeal.

The IAM argued that its one-time publication of the text of the LMRDA in its newspaper in 1959 was all that the Act required. But the appeals court ruled that "the IAM's insistence that section 105 is satisfied by a single decades-old notification makes little sense." "The LMRDA's protections are meaningless...if members do not know of their existence," it added.

BOOST TO DEMOCRACY

The decision will go way beyond the Machinists. For the first time, union members have a clear-cut ruling that they are entitled to be informed by their unions of their full range of democratic rights. As more members learn of their legally-protected rights, such as the equal right to be nominated and run for office, to distribute literature, and speak out at union meetings, it will give a boost to the general trend towards democratic activity that we are seeing in many unions.

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"This is a fantastic win for the rank and file throughout the labor movement," said Keith Thomas, the lead plaintiff. Thomas, a machinist at Boeing, is an active member of Lodge 835.

In 1991, Thomas and three other members founded Unionists for Democratic Change, a rank and file group which advocates democratization and greater membership participation in the IAM. In 1994, the group, along with a counterpart in the Seattle-area Boeing lodge, led a successful movement to force union officials to distribute copies of proposed contracts to members at least three days before any ratification vote.

Thomas says he wanted the IAM to comply with section 105 because many union members, including officers, were unaware of their legal rights. He noted, for example, that just before a local union election in 1993, the lodge circulated a set of election rules that had been adopted in 1955, before the passage the passage of the LMRDA. The obsolete rules contained repressive provisions which became illegal under the LMRDA, declaring, for example, that members were subject to expulsion if they "impugn the motives and honesty of other candidates."

HOW TO COMPLY?

The appeals court has left it to the lower court to decide how unions can comply with the law. One possibility is that unions print the entire act or a thorough summary in their publications once a year.

Since the IAM suit began receiving publicity, a few unions (including the Masters, Mates, and Pilots, Letter Carriers Local 294, and a division of the Inland Boatman's Union) have printed Department of Labor or AUD's summaries in their newsletters, though not always with the important enforcement provisions. The appeals court was emphatic that summaries lacking enforcement provisions are inadequate.

In 1989, the AUD submitted a petition to the Department of Labor signed by 232 members of 35 unions throughout the country asking the department to issue a regulation informing unions of the requirements of Section 105 and advising them how they might comply. The department rejected the petition on the ground that it had no authority under the law to enforce section 105, which, it held,could be enforced only by private suit. It was that decision which made the suit by the three machinists necessary.

The full text of the court's decision is available at www.law.emory.edu/4circuit. Union members interested in getting their unions to comply with the court decision should contact the Association for Union Democracy at 718/855-6650 or aud [at] igc [dot] org.