Union members have broad free speech rights in the union. You are free to criticize union officials and policies in any medium, including online. In addition, recent legislation on internet communications adds further protection to speech on web sites. Any attempt by the union to discipline members in retaliation for their free speech, or threats made to that effect, would be illegal. The law that protects your free speech rights in the union is the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), Title I.
If a provision of the union constitution openly restricts free speech, or is used to squelch free speech, that provision would be unenforceable in court.
The first thing you should do is call AUD. The best protection in this case is to let the members know what is happening: put it on the web site, get out a flyer. Free speech is unpopular with the officers? Time for more free speech! Remember, it is best if you act as an organized group of members: a committee or caucus in the union. AUD can help you learn how to do that, and offer advice. You may also need legal help.
What is a caucus? Most caucuses start out (and many remain) small informal groups of like-minded members of a union who wish to pursue some common goals. Most caucuses are independent of the union and they are certainly not subject to control by the union leadership. Nor do you have to register your caucus with the union.
There may be several caucuses in a union, including one or more organized by the union officers, themselves, for example, to promote their candidacies in an election or to advocate some point of view. (These are not to be confused with official union-sponsored caucuses, like a women’s caucus or people of color caucus. These official caucuses may be governed by the union bylaws and subject to control by the union leadership.)
Is a caucus different from a committee? No. Call it whatever you want. Some call their caucus a committee — for example: “The Committee for A Just Contract.” The name you pick may tell people what you are fighting for. You will probably want to make it clear in your literature that your caucus is independent of the union to avoid confusion about whether you are speaking as official union representatives. (Again, be careful not to confuse an independent committee with an official union-sponsored committee.)
Who can belong to a caucus or committee? That’s up to you and your fellow caucus organizers and members. Usually, a caucus will accept anyone who supports its goals and is willing to work to achieve them.
Do caucus members have to be members of the union? No. One of the larger union reform caucuses, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, accepts into the caucus not only union members, but also their spouses or significant others. Who is eligible to belong is up to the caucus members.
What kind of structure does a caucus have to have? Whatever works best for you. Some activists create a structure that resembles their union’s structure, with officers, bylaws, etc. Others are more informal, with an elected steering committee, or just a committee in which everyone participates equally. As time goes on, you may find that you need to formalize your structure and create bylaws. But at the beginning, don’t worry about structure. Focus on your goals and strategy — what it is you want to accomplish, and how you plan to get there — and get to work.
Do we need to incorporate into a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization or 501 (c) (5) labor organization? No. You can be an unincorporated membership association. Again, don’t waste your time and energy on the creation and administration of some elaborate legal structure. Do only what’s necessary to accomplish your objectives.
Of course, you will eventually need to raise funds, for example, to print leaflets, t-shirts, or send mailings, etc. You may want to charge yourselves dues or hold a raffle. You’ll want to be very careful with money. This is particularly important when it comes to union elections where there are often strict rules about use of funds. If you decide to open a bank account in the group’s name, your bank may require you to provide it with bylaws designating some officer who is authorized to handle money and sign checks. O.K. Now the time has come to adopt bylaws. But don’t write a book, just stick with the basics: what is the name of your organization, what are its goals, who is eligible for membership, how do you make decisions, who in your group has what authority, how can members change the bylaws.
Once your group has been around for a while, and you’ve decided to go for the long-haul, you may then find it helpful to set up a parallel, not-for-profit educational organization and perhaps seek funding from foundations. For example, Teamsters for a Democratic Union teams up with a related not-for-profit organization, the “Teamster Rank and File Research and Legal Defense Fund.” O.K. Now we’re talking about getting lawyers involved, incorporating, and filing for tax-exempt, Section 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. Generally speaking, however, less is more: less structure usually means more participation and greater flexibility.
To recap: the most important considerations when establishing a caucus in your union are going to be your mission and your strategy for implementing it. What do you want to change and how do you propose to make those changes. These are far more important than bylaws or tax considerations. Only after your caucus has gotten off the ground and started fighting big battles will you need to address such legal considerations.
Questions to consider: Where are you going and how will you get there? How are your goals related to the concerns of your coworkers? Do you just want new faces in the top positions? Or do you have a plan for changing the way the union works? Say you win office, what will make the new officers different from the people they replaced? What will you do differently? Do you want to change the union’s orientation toward management? Do you want to reorganize the union to make it more democratic? Will you make it easier for the members to vote you out than it was for you, when you were the opposition? Where do you plan to begin? Should you run for office or focus on organizing at the workplace? What role will members play? Will you educate your coworkers and get them involved in actions? How will you help members get hold of the information they need to be in control and hold their leaders accountable? All of this needs to be sorted out in your caucus if you want to be successful.
Remember, most caucuses start in someone’s kitchen, a restaurant, or a bar, just a convenient meeting place where you start sharing ideas with like-minded union brothers and sisters. The activists usually begin by tackling some manageable project, not reshaping the world overnight. As new members come on board and their talents are recognized and tapped, the caucus can then afford to become more ambitious. Successful caucuses usually start small and build through action and discussion.