From the May-June 2005 issue of Union Democracy Review #156
2KB of free speech?
ACLU & Public Citizen sue in IBEW Local 46 election
The Seattle chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union has joined the Public Citizen Litigation Group in
backing the protest of electrician James Hughes against restrictive election
campaigning rules adopted by IBEW Local 46, rules that limit access to
the internet and forbid campaigning in the union hall. In the first stages
of this case, Hughes won a partial victory: the local backed off and modified
one rule; but a federal district court upheld the local on another.
The local had just issued its rules for local elections.
In one respect, it's old stuff. If you want to mail your literature, you
pay for everything: printing, postage, address labels, mailing service.
Now, however, there's the internet, which can be a great tool for democracy
- especially union democracy. Candidates for union office have a legal
right to mail campaign literature to union voters, but in the large sprawling
locals that are becoming the fashion, mailings are prohibitively expensive
for insurgents. Now that unions load their membership lists on to a database,
it could be possible, at low cost, for any candidate to reach the whole
constituency. Could be! But will it? It may take years of litigation to
get this under control. Here's what's happening in IBEW Local 46 in Seattle:
The original rules provided that candidates who wish
to use the IBEW Local 46 e-mail database to reach the membership may produce
a text document, but no longer than 2KB and not more than once a week.
A 2KB text? Try it out for yourself! You can't say much. Under the threat
of a lawsuit, the local compromised. It now permits longer and more frequent
But when it came to the rule which weighs most heavily
against any insurgent, the local would not budge. Candidates are not allowed
to campaign in the union hall, not in the hiring hall, not in the parking
lots, nowhere on union property. For Jim Hughes, the ACLU and Public Citizen
sued in federal district court for a preliminary injunction to stop application
of this campaigning rule. In court, union officials tried to justify the
ban on campaigning in the hall on the ground that it was designed to protect
challengers because it would prevent incumbents from misusing their control
over the hall.
Affidavits from Ken Paff and Herman Benson, submitted
in reply, noted that incumbents had direct access to the membership all
year round through shop stewards and business agents and that these administration
reps were even permitted to campaign while being paid by the union so
long as their campaigning was "incidental" to union business.
The rule harms only insurgents; the only time insurgents can reach members
in large groups is when they meet together at union meetings or when signing
up for work in the hiring hall. That single possibility is now eliminated.
District Federal Judge Ricardo Martinez bought the
union argument. He was eased into this view by the Labor Department which,
according to Hughes's attorney, Paul Levy, advised the union that its
rules were perfectly reasonable. Before reaching its conclusion, the department
afforded Levy no opportunity to comment.
The slipshod quality of the court's opinion is suggested
by one careless error. Three times in a very short text, it refers to
the "Sandowski" case, which it finds very relevant. The correct
reference, of course, is to Sadlowski.
Union Democracy Review was alerted to these
events after Thomas Smith, a spokesman for Hughes, sought advice from
the Association for Union Democracy, which helped recruit legal representation.
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