While national union leaders are constantly asking agency managers to involve employees in workplace decisions, some leaders operate under constitutions that deliberately exclude the best local union leaders from also setting internal union policy.  We can’t point you to a court case that states unequivocally that it is illegal to do so, but we are going to lay out the arguments about why it could be illegal.  We will also spend a few words on the far more important point, i.e., why would it ever benefit a union to exclude its top talent from leadership positions. Suppose your union has a rule that prohibits anyone from holding more than one elected office, e.g., local union presidents may not simultaneously serve on the national executive board. If they want one, they must give up the other.

The Department of Labor enforces the Standards of Conduct which permit unions to set reasonable rules for those voting in and running for election to a union office.  Given the facts we have asked you to imagine, the question becomes “Is it reasonable to exclude from elected office an individual who already holds another elected office in the union?” Reasonable is a broad and forgiving term, but  here are the reason why we believe it might be unreasonable for a union to prohibit those holding local office from also holding a national or regional office, e.g., a seat on the national executive board.

  1. How does it benefit the union to exclude from its national board those who hold its most important local leadership positions?  Local officers, especially presidents, are the folks most involved with and knowledgeable about the union and the problems it faces.  Moreover, they more than anyone else have an interest in a well-run national union given the impact national success or failure can have on their reelection.
  2. Is there any legitimate reason to exclude every local officer?  In a union with 100 locals that could exclude the 500 most experienced and tested leadership candidates from participating in the union’s governance between conventions.   Why? The only result from such a policy is to ensure that the National President and other officers like the Secretary-Treasurer do not have to confront the most experience and tested people when they have board meetings.  We agree that weak board can be a blessing when a union is riddled with internal bickering, but at any other time the union should benefit from having its best minds assessing, adjusting, and approving policy.
  3. Prohibiting locally elected officers from also holding a seat on the national executive board penalizes them for exercising a statutory right to run for office.  If there was an unquestionable benefit for the union or just a solid legitimate reason to penalize them, we might understand.  But there is not. For example, there is no demonstration that a local president would be overwhelmed also carrying the workload of national board seat if the board only meets a few days each year. Nor is there are conflict of interest.
  4. Some unions pass information down through a rigid chain of command process, e.g., from the national president to the local presidents.  It is then up to the local president to share what information s/he chooses with local members.  Consequently, electing someone other than local presidents to the board comes with the risk that s/he may not know as much about the union as the elected leaders of the locals s/he was elected to represent. Similarly, in unions with nationwide bargaining units, the presidents of the local chapters often talk and work with one another on common grievances, national bargaining teams, etc.  That network moves invaluable information around and it is where alliances are built.  Prohibiting the key players in those networks from being on the board once again ensures those sent to the national board have less than the best information.
  5. National executive boards are governance bodies, not advisory committees nor social clubs.  They are there to give the local electorate a role in union policy matters between conventions—not just once every few years at a convention when Robert’s Rules often force them to muster 75% of the votes to change a constitutional policy.   However, when a union excludes locally elected leaders from also holding seats on the intermediate intervening  governing body of the union, in favor of those who do not even have a vote at national conventions, has it not just disenfranchised the convention electorate?  If the union vests the local presidents and other officers with the power to cast votes at the convention and then excludes them from being involved with governance between conventions, has it not just broken the representational chain? From where we sit, it has excluded convention voters from being board voters and handed over those seats to members with no vote at conventions when elected.
  6. If unions value developing local leaders to be the top national leaders of the union someday they have to give them a chance to be involved in some national affairs.  They need direct exposure to what it is like to lead the national executive board, build national budgets, oversee multi-million dollar investments, drive changes to national constitutions and bylaws, set organizing directions, integrate the interests of multiple bargaining units rather than just their own, etc. If a union denies this is effectively limits the source of future leaders to full-time union staff.
  7. Under exclusionary rules such as this one a local’s appointed Chief Steward or Bargaining Chair could be on the national executive board while playing a major role in steering the local, but not the elected local President oR Secretary.  Some might call that ridiculous.

Back in the 60s and 70s when federal sector unions were just getting used to being exclusive representatives, filing grievances, and bargaining contracts, there was a better case to give the national presidents great leeway to create a national organization for the future.  Those were the days when unions were still “forming and storming” to borrow an organizational development characterization. But unions today need to be “performing” at their highest level of effectiveness because the challenges and threats are so much greater.  If they can guarantee only truly gifted leaders will ever run the national union, there might be a case for surrounding them with less than the best union members as board members.  If not, however, then they needs their best minds in the board seats.  (If an exclusionary rule makes sense at the national board level, then why not permit local stewards from also being local officers?  Absurd, right?)

Many unions allow locally elected officer to hold national board seats. Just take a look, for example, at the resumes of Adam Urbanski of AFT’s board or Kathy Garrison of AFSCME’s national board. Both of those unions operates in the federal sector and are more complex organizations than anything in the federal sector.

One way to change any existing rules barring locally elected leaders from simultaneously serving on national executive boards is to change the constitution at a convention.  Another is to ask the Dept. of Labor to examine your union’s rules to determine whether they are legally reasonable.

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. Unionlvr says:

    Well done and timely. National Unions are all TOP DOWN structures all the while claiming they are BOTTOM UP and the folks at the bottom are the foundation and bedrock. They use the local leaders to further their objectives while allowing them to believe they were instrumental in the developing of those goals/objectives. Thanks for this article that just confirms a lot of peoples opinions.

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