One doesn’t usually associate the cause of worker freedom with organizations headed by Ralph Nader. But then, unions have a long track record of avoiding transparency. And promoting transparency is Nader’s specialty. On March 29, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, Public Citizen, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of dissenting members of the International Union of Operating Engineers. The complaint alleges that the union, through a new rule, is infringing upon its members’ right to communicate with each other via the Web. The hidden purpose, argues Public Citizen, is to suppress debate over union elections.
Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, all union members have a right to speak to each other as well as to the general public about all union-related issues, including elections. If members believe their bosses are impeding this right, they have the standing to sue. The new rule established by the IUOE likely falls into this category. The union’s executive board recently announced that it would force members to use password-protected personal Web sites containing information about elections so that only other members can view them. Moreover, Article XVII, Section 4 of the union constitution states that members must exhaust internal remedies before filing a lawsuit; members who break this rule “shall be subject to a fine equal to the full amount of the costs incurred in the defense of such action by the union.” But LMRDA forbids a union from limiting member access to litigation.
The issue, then, is whether the union rules are in conflict with the intent of LMRDA. Public Citizen says they are, especially given that previous courts have struck down similar union constitutional provisions. Moreover, the rule puts dissenting members in potential harm’s way. The group notes that since the only opportunity to appeal a decision of the executive board would be at next year’s international union convention – well after the Web site rule goes into effect – pursuing remedies according to IUOE procedure would expose members to retaliation without court protection. “Punishing members who lack the technical know-how or financial ability to comply with this rule, or who want the public at large to know about their campaign, is a direct violation of their right to free speech,” said Paul Levy, a Public Citizen attorney who filed the complaint. “The new rule is an attempt to keep ‘sensitive’ information secret when in fact that ‘sensitive’ data is actually the fact that members disagree with incumbent leaders’ policies and want to change union policy.” (Public Citizen, 3/29/07).