With the summer union convention season just getting underway, it is time to touch on the two-sided issue of convention control.  Every convention needs some control mechanisms if it is going to do any business, but control can also be excessive and get in the way of necessary changes timely responsive to the shifting future rather than the past. It is up to the delegates and members to decide where to draw that line. We are just going to point out some of the more common control mechanisms.

Agenda Control– Almost every convention has to vote on proposed constitutional and bylaw amendments and almost every union requires that the proposed changes be submitted to the national leadership in advance of the convention. But that is where the similarity stops and the opportunity for national office control begins.  How much advance notice the delegates and members have of all the proposed changes is a critical control tool. NATCA’s Constitution requires that the various proposed amendments be distributed to the delegates, if not the entire membership, at least 60 days before the convention. (See Article VIII and IX) The NLRBU Constitution (Article VI) requires that all members receive at least 45 days advance notice of any proposals their convention is going to consider. That permits delegates time to consider the issues, check with members, and even build coalitions for or against passage.  The less advance notice delegates have of the issues the more difficult it is for anyone other than the national leadership to pass proposed changes. Some Constitutions require that proposed amendments be submitted to the national leadership early, but give the leadership discretion as to when it lets the delegates and members know the issue will be considered.

A more subtle variation of the advance notice control mechanism is how much time the national leadership has with the proposed changes before it must disclose them to the delegates. If the national leadership does not like a proposal, it can use the lag time to draft and submit an alternate proposal that could undermine or redirect the original proposal—or it could improve on it. Often, national leaders can use the advice and assistance of professional convention parliamentarians before and during the convention to steer discussions or control amendments. Lag time also gives the national leadership a chance to approach the person who proposed the amendment to seek a withdrawal or other resolution. And it goes without saying that the national leadership can also use the time to outright lobby for or against an idea, especially if it has an opportunity shortly before a convention to mingle with delegates.

Delegate Access– Another measure of the openness of a union convention is how easy it is for the person proposing a change to access the delegates beforehand.  Waiting until the delegates convene to start asking for support, sharing evidence, and answering questions is far, far too late. If the delegates or even members have the email address of every local president or an email bcc group code they can use to communicate early, that may be as good as early access is going to get.  The proposer can send out his/her suggestions, solicit questions and better ideas, and even build a coalition.  If, at least, every local president does not have easy email access to every other local president, then the chances of pushing changes through a convention are very, very small.

Change Recommendations- Almost every union has some group that reviews the proposed amendments to provide the delegates a recommendation and/or analysis before the delegates actually vote on the ideas.  AFGE calls them workshops and holds them on the first day of the convention, allowing any delegate to attend.  NTEU calls it the Resolutions Committee, schedules it to meet the week before the other delegates arrive at the convention, and bars anyone other than committee appointees and staff from attending. We are unaware of any federal sector union that appoints these committees objectively, e.g., via a lottery or formula designed to include a cross-section of its locals.  The most common practice is that the National President is allowed to pick who shall be on the committee, which obviously gives him/her an enormous advantage over just what recommendation the delegates will get.

A variation on this control tool is whether the committee develops its recommendations from scratch, works from a draft recommendation prepared by national staff, or conducts its work under the guidance of staff or national officers.

Proposal Publicity- Closely related to controlling the recommendations delegates receive and the access to the delegates is the opportunity those proposing changes have to lay out their reasons for change. NATCA allows any member to address the convention on behalf of an issue the member has proposed.  However, most unions only allow certified delegates to speak, thereby limiting the influence of a non-delegate. NLRBU also permits some non-delegates to address the convention.

Several unions impose limits on how many words the proposer is entitled to have published for all the delegates to review before or even at the convention.  NATCA limits the supporting statements from those proposing a change to 200 words; NTEU has a 275 word limit.  Ironically, we cannot find one that limits the “recommendations” that the national leadership can publish directly or through recommending committees.

When you also consider that the proposer’s statements must be submitted to the national leadership in advance, giving the leadership a chance to targets its arguments without any chance of rebuttal by the proposer, you can see what a control tool this can be.

A subtle variation on limiting publicity would be an additional limit on flyers attendees can circulate at the convention or in the halls.  Hotels often will gladly enforce any distribution rules the convention planners want.

Business Schedules– Another control mechanism is packing the schedule with so much to do that delegates have little time to reasonably address issues.  You might call this “agenda packing.” One union, for example, delays the consideration of proposed constitutional changes until near the end of the convention, when delegates are often tired, eager to tour the city, or trying to get home before the weekend.  The NLRBU, however, limits its two or three day convention to just proposed amendments and other policy issues.  The election of officers is done separately from the convention by mail ballot.

Although we have not seen it anywhere, a rule requiring that the convention manager schedule at least 30 minutes of time for each proposed constitutional amendment to be debated would undermine the controlling influence of the schedule.

Union Staff–  This is a huge control tool and the reason why some unions strictly limit the role staff can play in the discussion of proposed amendments.  A union’s national leadership can send them out to locals before the convention to get an idea of the voting sentiment. That helps the leadership target delegates for lobbying.

But the bigger control potential comes from allowing staff on the floor of the convention to sit with delegates. They can chill, if not even discourage, open conversations among the delegates nearby by their mere presence, they can pass on signals from the leadership as to how the delegates should vote on specific motions (See below), and they can even observe how ballots are cast unless the delegates are careful when marking ballots.

However, it is naïve to think that a convention of any size can be held without the involvement of staff if only to deal with logistics.

Communication Systems– The national leadership of almost every convention establishes a system for quickly communicating with key staff or delegates throughout the convention.  Signaling supporters to resist or favor a motion can be as simple as where a national official stands and whether she has her arms folded–or as sophisticated as a series of text messages. However, it is not up to the national leadership or convention planners to establish a mechanism for any opposition groups to communicate with supporters. That is up to those seeking the change.

Performance Information– It is next to impossible for individual delegates to collect data about how the union is performing nationally.  Normally, all that information is known only to the national leadership, giving it’s a huge advantage in controlling how data is used to steer the union.  For example, delegates rarely know how quickly, inexpensively and effectively arbitrations are conducted; or what contracts the leadership has signed for services; or how well the budget surplus was invested; or which staff members received purely discretionary bonuses from the dues funds; or even whether the union leadership is under investigation by a government agency.

We are unaware of any union that requires its national leadership to annually report on key measures, such as every government agency now does.


With a tip of the hat to Jeff Foxworthy’s work, “You Might Be A Redneck If…” we have assembled a list of convention characteristics that could appear in a book entitled, “You Might Have an Overabundance of National Control Restricting Gradual and Early Adjustments to the Future If….”

  • Proposed Constitutional and Bylaw amendments are not given to all members at least 45 days before the convention;
  • Members are not informed at least 90 days before a convention they have the right to propose changes to the Constitution and Bylaws as well as shown how to do so;
  • Proposed amendments must go through the national office for distribution because there is no way for the member proposing the amendment to simultaneously serve it on all local presidents along with explanations and evidence supporting it;
  • National Presidents have generous discretion to appoint committees that develop recommendations for the delegates to follow on each proposed amendment via closed meetings and/or working from national officer recommendations;
  • Those proposing amendments are not given advance notice of what a committee is going to recommend the delegates do, or a reasonable chance to address the recommending committee, a reasonable chance to rebut the committee’s printed conclusions, or reasonably equal access to the delegates.
  • The convention agenda is packed with a variety of business obligations and ceremonial filler, potentially limiting the time delegates have to consider policy matters.
  • Union staff members are allowed to be involved in the discussion of proposed amendments and/or be on the floor of the convention.
  • Your union does not report on key performance metrics several months before the convention.

As we said at the outset, a certain amount of control is necessary to ensure order, prevent chaos, and stay within the requirements of law.  However, once the requirements of law are met, it is purely up to the delegates and members to decide what is too much control. Anything we have said or suggested is purely offered from the perspective of an academic, not a judgment.  Change is critical to the future of any organization. Just look at our own Congress for an example of how tight, top-down control can gridlock needed changes for our country.  We have had immigrants flooding into this country for years, but still do not have a modern immigration statute. The country continues to slip deeper into debt without any consideration of tax reform, and apparently we will all be moving around by canoe before Congress provides leadership on global warming.  If union convention rules unreasonably inhibit the open consideration of data and ideas, then unions hurt themselves.  As one wise person once said, “Protecting the status quo prepares a union for past; critiquing and changing the status quo enables it to control its future.”

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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1 Response to

  1. ningauble3020 says:

    If the top officers at the National level earn outsized salaries relative to their members, then that salary is inducement enough to promote a top-down tyranny. The more the National President lives like a king on the backs of his union membership, the more likely the pay and perks are going to drown out democracy.

    One man’s opinion…

    On the other hand, if you have stupid voters, you’ve got a stupid democracy. So some level of leadership by elite is warranted. I think Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson hashed this out with Hamilton arguing for rule by elite and Jefferson rule by the people. Andrew Jackson said, “to the victor go the spoils”. It seems obvious to me that some unions have a spoils system in play to the detriment of union rights.

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