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From the March-April 2006 issue of Union Democracy Review #161

Danger of democracy on the internet? Kill it!

When the internet irritates even the dictators in China, you know it must be a device packed with democratic power. And so it is within our labor movement. Web sites run by unionists independent of any established officialdom are mushrooming all over the country, sponsored by individuals, organized groups, and political caucuses, ranging from left, through center, to right. Pull up the AUD website at www.uniondemocracy.org and see a partial listing for your information. Too many union leaders are nervous, those who are accustomed to a monopoly of access to their membership. Seeing a threat, their instinctive reaction is to look for ways to curb the new weapon.

But as these Luddites seek to sabotage the new machinery of democracy, they may be renewing their attack in some of the older, more established arenas. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but there seems to be a revival of threats of libel suits, charges of unauthorized circulation of information, copyright infringement, and an assortment of similar threats.

When retired IBEW member Glenn Sand listed the full text of the international constitution on his web site, he was told by International President Ed Hill that it was forbidden. ("Whose IBEW is it? An electrician online") But more, he was warned that the initials "IBEW" and the words "International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers" are "protected under copyright and trademark laws." Imagine trying to run a website addressed to IBEW members without being able to mention the union!

Sounds like a crazy aberration? The issue is already in federal district court. Three members of the International Longshoremen's Association are challenging the ILA constitutional provision which forbid them from using the ILA name, logo, or initials in their literature.

In the 7,000-member Ironworkers Local 66 in Pittsburgh, Joe Beasley and Jay Hay were found guilty of publishing some local executive board minutes on their website for the information of local members. Their appeals were rejected by the international; Hay was fined $5,000. Last year, Beasley ran unsuccessfully for local business manager and Hay for president at the head of an insurgent slate.

In December, last year, at a meeting of his 1,900-member Operating Engineers Local 37 in Baltimore, Jim Archey tried to ask some questions about local finances, but was ruled out of order. He reports that he was physically assaulted at the meeting; he filed a complaint with the police. On his personal website, Archey had noted that certain criticisms had been directed against the local's controller, who, he says, happens to be the business manager's wife. On March 1, he got a lawyer's letter threatening him with a libel suit unless he did all of the following within five days:

1. "Identify all web-sites you have created over the past three years."
2. "Identify all persons involved in setting up each such web-site."
3. "Identify all subscribers...and all persons who have provided information..."
4. Prevent all possible links to any other location.
5. Post notices ("subject to our approval") admitting that all you said about the comptroller was false.
6. "Post apology letter and notices we approve on each web-site as we direct."
7. Pay the controller $5,000 plus "all costs and legal fees incurred."

This issue of Union Democracy Review (#161, see page 3) reports on Ferd Wulkan's criticism of SEIU Local 888 in Connecticut. When we asked the local's president for comment she responded in the spirit of our times: "I am particularly interested in anything that is printed that might be libelous or defamatory in nature."

Janet Easterday was campaigning against a dues-restructuring proposal in her 416-member IBEW Local 1306 in Illinois. In August she sent an e-mail to other local members urging a no vote. She posted a link to a Labor Department site so that members could inspect the local's LM2 financial report filed with the department. She and a colleague were found guilty of violating a section of the IBEW constitution which forbids: "Making known the business of a L.U. directly or indirectly to any employers, employer-supported organization, or other union..." In her appeal to the international, she notes that she has been a political opponent of the local business manager and that she intends to seek office in the local. Her one-year suspension, upheld by an international vice president, would have made it impossible for her to run for office in the next union election. In this case, an unusual action upset the expected course of events.

When she appealed to Ed Hill, IBEW international president, he reversed the decision of both the local and the international vice president. In upholding her appeal, he ruled that she had the right to campaign on the internet and that there was no evidence that information had been leaked to employers. Now a member in good standing, she will therefore be eligible to run in the next union election. All in all, a good sign that the spirit of democracy is making headway in the IBEW.

Articles on the internet and union democracy:
Appeals court backs union curbs on the internet
Free Speech in the SEIU and MEBA?
Union officers uncomfortable with online free speech
Surrendering to the internet: Democrats in spite of themselves?

IBEW president Hill upholds Canadian member's rights
Union officials "condone and endorse" attack on member's internet free speech rights
Round 2 in the internet battle in AFSCME DC37
In AFSCME DC37 - A round in the internet battle
Danger of democracy on the Internet? Kill it!
Whose "IBEW" is it? An Electrician on the Internet.
Results of the 2005 AUD Best Rank-and-File Website Contest
Union democracy online survives two lawsuits
Online Guide: build an effective rank-and-file website
SEIU Pulls plug on "Labor's Future" discussion
52 Playing cards = fearsome "Local 52"
Using the Internet for Union Democracy

AUD's Best Rank-and-File Websites of 2004
Matt Noyes on AUD and the Internet
2KB of free speech? ACLU & Public Citizen sue in IBEW Local 46 election
Making a splash: SEIU's Unite to Win and the "free and open debate" on Labor's future

SAG officers unnerved by actors' internet free speech

Free speech irritates UFCW

Free speech in NWU
IATSE 600: Internet democracy triumphs over super centralization
Cyber-democracy: your legal rights online.(handout)

See also:
AUD's 50 Guidelines for building an effective rank-and-file website, and the sample homepage.
The labortech tag on del.icio.us.

 

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