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From the March-April 2007 issue of Union Democracy Review #167

Operating engineers defend their internet rights

by Herman Benson and Matt Noyes

Surely and steadily the internet has been mitigating the uneven balance of power and resources in union elections, giving insurgents a better ability to reach member-voters with their message and compete with incumbents. Incumbents possess formidable advantages; nevertheless, many are still so worried that they seek to erect all kinds of roadblocks to limit the rights of challengers on the internet. Union Democracy Review has reported on how this issue has already arisen in the IBEW, in AFSCME DC 37, and in the union of stage employees (IATSE). There are others. The most recent attack on internet rights comes in the International Union of Operating Engineers, where the members of three locals are in federal court to block restrictive rules that would undercut the operation of their independent web sites. Events in IUOE Local 150 triggered the lawsuit.

Officer elections in the 20,000-member Local 150, which covers substantial parts of the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, are scheduled for August this year. After a split in the leadership, two slates will be competing: 1. The United Engineers Party, headed by President/Business Manager Bill Dugan; 2. Team 150, headed by Treasurer Joe Ward. Both have web sites. The Team 150 site is operated by Mike Quigley.

In February, Quigley and the Team 150 slate were informed by International President Vincent Giblin that a new policy adopted by the General Executive Board requires "all candidates and their supporters who have set up or wish to set up campaign web sites" to make their web sites password-protected and so accessible only to identifiable IUOE members. Toward this end, the international union would "establish... mechanisms using members' register numbers or another appropriate mechanism to identify membership status."

Although the union attorney insists, "The rule addresses one medium only: web sites," it poses a potentially far more sweeping danger to democracy in unions. The justifying rationale that "employers have misused information obtained from candidates' web sites" could apply equally to almost any communication among members or with the public: all web sites, printed brochures and handbills, interviews with the press, speeches at public meetings, letters to the editor, etc. Any inquiring employer could tap into any of these sources and "misuse" information.

Alert to the danger, fearing that the new rule would make it difficult to run an effective web site and would discourage members from logging on, Quigley came to the Association for Union Democracy for assistance and through AUD succeeded in reaching members of other IUOE locals who would also be damaged. The five members, of three locals, challenging the new policy are Quigley and Ward of Local 150; Paul Gonter and Patricia Kohl, who will be operating web sites in campaigns for office in the 15,000-member Local 18 in Ohio and Kentucky; and Paul Mueller, who hopes to start a web site when he runs for office in California Local 39. The size of their locals and the dispersal of their memberships over many states make the internet the only practical means of reaching voters. All other means are prohibitively costly.

In court, they are represented by Paul Alan Levy and Gregory Beck of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. Levy, an AUD Director, is an expert in union democracy law. In filing suit, the complainants come up against a clause in the IUOE constitution that would penalize them for the very act of going to court. It requires members to exhaust their internal union procedures before initiating a suit "subject to a fine equal to the full amount of the costs incurred in the defense of such action by the union." The complaint asks the court to declare this provision void, noting that IUOE representatives know or should know that it violates the LMRDA, which forbids unions from punishing members for suing without first exhausting union remedies. Several federal courts have struck down similar provisions in other union constitutions.

In a letter justifying the new restrictive web site policy, IUOE General Counsel Robert Griffin argues that it is intended to prevent employers from gaining "insight into...[the] union's sensitive and/or confidential internal workings." Quigley, a union member for 38 years and formerly a business rep and president of the area building trades council, replies that over 2,000 contractors hold membership cards in the local "so everything that goes on is known to them." In their federal court complaint, Levy and Beck reply that the "sensitive data" the union claims to protect is really "the fact that members disagree with incumbent leaders' policies and want to change union policy." Moreover, they explain, the LMRDA, the federal law that protects membersf rights in their unions, "guarantees the right of all members to speak both to each other and to the general public about union affairs generally and about elections in particular, both in and out of the union hall..." Reaching the public outside the union is important to democracy inside the union, they argue, because, "Generally speaking, the more public attention is paid to a campaign to change the union's decisions... the more credibility the campaign may have, even in the eyes of ... fellow members."

The intricate technical requirements for maintaining a confidential password available only to a register of union members would discourage members who lack the know-how or financial ability to comply from establishing their own web sites. Even more deadly is the requirement that, before logging on to an insurgent web site, rank and file members would have to put their personal register numbers on record and thereby reveal their identity. This is a union in an industry where workers depend on the good will of incumbents for fair treatment in their hiring halls. Prudent members, not part of the administration clique, will hesitate before revealing that they are interested in the plans of those who stand up against the administration or even hope to replace it.

"These web sites," says Quigley, "show that you can challenge authority. It is a way to overcome fear of the business agent in all trades, fear of their control over the dispatch office, and fear of officers who belong to the administration. They show you can speak out and survive."

The outcome of this suit is crucial to the future of democracy in this union. "Because of [the] dispersal of membership," write the two attorneys, "members who want to communicate their views about union affairs to their fellow members, whether of their own local unions or of other local unions, cannot do so on their own work site... The use of the internet is vital."

Internet: Too good to remain uncurbed?

In a letter justifying union restraints on members' web sites, Operating Engineers general counsel, Richard Griffin, writes that their "unique characteristics make web sites wonderful ways to campaign..." They are, he says, "extremely inexpensive to set up, can hostc almost endlessly detailed comment, and are available 24 hours a day/seven days a week... Web sites are extremely easy to find... [They] have the potential to change the way union election campaigns are conducted by providing members with substantially more detail concerning the candidates' positions..."

Precisely! The internet can be a potent new tool for democracy, in unions and in public life generally. But the question is: welcome it and nurture it, or fear it and try to emasculate it?

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.

Other articles on the IUOE:
More on labor’s lasting quest for ethical practices: from the Operating Engineers (9/08-10/08)
Action and inaction in the Operating Engineers (7/08-8/08)
Confronting corruption charges in Operating Engineers Local 3 (11/06-12/06
In the Operating Engineers (IUOE)(11/05-12/05)
Reform breakthrough in Ohio Operating Engineers Local 18(9/05-10/05)
Action in Operating Engineers locals 18 and 66(7/05-8/05)
New voices at AUD construction trades conference (1/03-2/03)
"Women's Project launches Operation Punch List" (10/00-11/00)

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