This is the second in a series to spur a serious discussion about unions, the larger labor movement, and their impact on the American workforce. Please join in. All respectful commentary welcome.
Any reporter who uses the term “union boss” is a hack. It’s a hackneyed term used by hacks who either (1) don’t know what the hell they are writing/talking about or (2) have an animus toward unions and want to conjure images of some mobbed-up, pinky-ringed, gun-toting, loud-mouthed, knuckle-dragging, brain-damaged cretin. It’s wrong, it’s stupid, and they should be called on it.
But before taking that on, let’s acknowledge that unions, being comprised of human beings, will have all the attending troubles, triumphs and tendencies that signify our species. That doesn’t mean that the idea or purpose of a union is invalid anymore than screw ups in the medical profession mean you shouldn’t go to a doctor. So, don’t expect perfection; you won’t find it anywhere.
What you will find in unions is democracy—and the benefits and controversy that brings. Democracy is messy. Not everybody gets what they want. It’s a pushme/pullyou of competing interests. In the end, it works, BUT only if the people make it work. In short, in a union the real “boss” is the membership.
In 1959, union democracy and a whole lot of union responsibilities were codified in the Landrum-Griffin Act, formally known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Among them is the right of union members to run for office, nominate other union members for office, have secret ballot elections, and protest an election they believe was not properly conducted. Elections have to be held at least every three years. Officers can be recalled from office for misconduct. Further, officers and other “duly accredited representatives” of the union have a “fiduciary responsibility,” which means they hold a position of trust and can get in a whole lot of legal trouble for abusing or breaching that trust.
So, no, a union officer is not a “boss” in any way you’ve heard that term used by reporters or talking heads. In fact the only time a union officer is a “boss” is over the staff who report to him/her.
Union democracy under the LMRDA also guarantees union members freedom of speech and assembly. Typically this occurs at the local union’s general membership meeting, where union business is conducted. It’s not just a one-way communication from the officers. Members can ask questions, vote on issues put forth for their consideration, and even raise motions of their own. Union meetings tend to be casual affairs for the most part, but sometimes, especially when there is a large crowd, officers may use Roberts Rules of Order to keep things on track.
Each union will have its own rules (usually called a Constitution and Bylaws) detailing the rights and obligations of union membership. As long as they are consistent with governing labor laws, there is no problem with a union setting its own rules on how it should be run. These, too, come from the membership, whether through direct participation or through delegates member elect to attend conventions or other gatherings for that purpose. Members also have a voice in setting the rate of dues, fees and assessments.
Good unions encourage their members’ active participation. If you’ve ever belonged to a union, you may have likely seen announcements of meetings and other activities imploring members to join in. This is especially important as the union prepares to go into bargaining the labor contract (aka “collective bargaining agreement” or CBA) with the employer. What’s bugging you about your job? Wages? Benefits? Work rules? Come to a pre-bargaining meeting and talk about it. Based on what the members report, the officers and/or negotiating committee formulate proposals to raise with management in contract talks. That doesn’t mean they’ll get everything everybody wants, but it does mean the members have helped set the priorities. Special contract meetings may also be held to apprise members of developments as negotiations progress—or stall.
By far, the day-to-day operations of the union are largely devoted to contract administration. Once the deal is made with the employer, someone has to enforce it. Even though the contract belongs as much to the employer as the union, employers almost always try to get around provisions they don’t like. So, it’s pretty much up to the union to make sure the contract works as it’s supposed to.
When management violates a contract provision, the union may pursue a grievance, which usually starts at a verbal stage with a supervisor or manager and, if not settled, works its way up the company chain of authority. The end game for a grievance comes (1) when the company awards it or (2) when the union withdraws it or (3) it goes before an arbitrator (a neutral administrative judge of sorts) who decides its fate.
While members have broad rights in their union democracy, they can’t use a majority vote, for example, to take away another member’s rights to a grievance. The decision to pursue a grievance rests with union representatives who have a “duty of fair representation” (DFR). These reps can be officers or staff they hire to handle grievances. They just can’t blow off somebody’s beef on the job because the grievant is unpopular. When the reps decide not to pursue a case the decision is generally based on merit or rather the lack thereof. This isn’t just about what the contract says either. A certain bargaining history or prior arbitration ruling or even an ongoing practice might preclude a particular grievance. A union may even decide it can’t pursue a case to arbitration because it’s too expensive. That’s all legit. What isn’t is a union dumping a case for discriminatory or arbitrary reasons.
An aggrieved worker may file a “DFR” complaint against the union with either state or federal agencies that handle those things. Unions try very hard to avoid this because such complaints take up a lot of time and resources. Unions are especially and justifiably sensitive to cases where the worker is fired and almost always pursue a termination case, which is why unionized employers complain about the union protecting “dead wood.” But just because an employer says it doesn’t make it so. Termination cases can be extremely complex and, when there is a union contract in place, the burden is on the employer to show that the action was taken for just cause. Even the smallest doubt as to just cause may be sufficient grounds for the union to proceed.
Different unions have different views, in fact different “personalities” that have developed in many cases over decades. Some unions really are more top down than others, but the legal foundation of union democracy is something that is always there for members to use to their advantage. Some unions have long and proud traditions of rank-and-file activism enshrined in their Constitutions, their policies and their daily activities. Any union can be that, but it is always up to the members to make it happen.
Remember, different labor laws govern different workers. The LMRDA does not apply to state and local public workers. Nor does the NLRA. Be sure to do your homework to find out which labor laws apply to you.
For general information about unions, check here: Learn About Unions