The dictionary defines a submissive as someone ready to conform to the authority or will of others; one who is “meekly obedient or passive, almost sheeplike.” The answer to the opening question largely depends on the level (or lack) of democracy your union’s constitution and bylaws require you to accept. If we were not going for a headline designed to catch one’s interest, we would have titled this post, “How to Measure the Level of Democracy in Your Union.”  What follows are eight governing provisions found in union constitutions and bylaws. Count how many are in your union’s documents to see where it falls on the scale running between True Democracy and Solid Autocracy.

  1. How open are your union’s finances? Does only one person, e.g., the National President (NP), control them all or is there a separately elected Treasurer who sees every expense the NP authorizes? Does the NP make all investment decisions or is there a committee of independently selected union activists who participate and have knowledge of those decisions before they get sunk into Cryptocurrency, time-share developments, or NFT’s? For example, AFGErequires that finances be handled by the National Secretary/Treasurer (NST); they are not the sole domain of the NP.  The NP authorizes them, but the NST, who is not an employee of the NP, disburses them. A classic check and balance mechanism. Moreover, the NST is required to publish a quarterly report listing the following disbursements: salaries, maintenance of Headquarters, travel, and miscellaneous expenditures. Such information is to be itemized by Headquarters department and NVP district and program function expenditures. Additionally, the AFGE NST determines investments of any surplus funds, but only with the approval of the NP.  Finally, the AFGE NST, not the NP, appoints, directs, and supervises all employees in the office of the NST, such action to be subject to the approval of the NEC. IFPTE’s constitution gives its Executive Committee the power to hire the union’s financial staff, not the NP. The NLRB employees’ union also keeps control of the investment and disbursement of funds from the sole control of the NP.
  1. Union conventions usually have Resolution Committees to prepare recommendations for the delegates on proposed constitutional and bylaw changes. Does the NP have total control over who is appointed to those committees or are they selected, not just recommended, by an objective process or perhaps board members? For example, IFPTE grants its NP the power to determine the outcome of every committee by authorizing them as follows: “The President shall appoint all committees not otherwise provided.” In contrast, AFGE provides that any convention delegate can attend the pre-convention sessions held by its resolution review committees to develop delegate recommendations. “Any duly seated delegate at the Convention is allowed to attend the Resolution Review Session on Constitution and Internal Policy, regardless of any other procedures in place.”
  2. Closely related to who is on a committee is how closely the NP can steer the committee—particularly a convention resolution committee. Is the committee presented with a draft report written by the NP in advance to serve the NP’s interest or allowed to develop its own opinion free of leadership expectations? As just noted above, AFGE’s resolution recommendations are developed in an open process.
  3. A final issue about convention resolutions is how soon proposed constitutional amendments are made known to the local delegates who will vote on them. Obviously, last minute notice retards the ability of delegates to discuss the issue among themselves before the convention, rally support, and plan a strategy. IFPTE requires, “The Secretary/Treasurer shall provide to each local union copies of proposed resolutions, constitutional amendments and the rules adopted at the previous convention, no later than forty (40) days preceding the opening day of the Convention.”
  4. Are union leaders allowed to hold more than one office at a time? Local leaders are usually the most engaged members of the union. They know what stewards and members need and they are the type of people very comfortable dealing with opposing voices. If they are not allowed to simultaneously hold local office and run for seats on the executive board, then the union’s top steering group will be composed of folks outside the top tier of local leaders who have no power in the organization other than their single vote at a semi-annual board meeting. It is a lot easier for an NP to pressure a board member with no local power in comparison to someone from an important local whose local activism and convention voting support the NP needs.
  5. Speaking of national executive board members, what are they given to do, know about, and ratify?  Do they get anything out of the job other than an occasional trip to a board meeting? If it is a “do nothing” “smile for the nice picture” job, the occupants are not very likely to care. On the other hand, in systems like AFGE their board members receive a salary which very much motivates the board members to cater to those who elect them. Even a modest stipend and some actual authority or responsibility would likely boost the oversight and leadership board members provide.
  6. Does the union encourage local leaders to communicate  with one another or does it install barriers to inter-local communication? For example, do all the local presidents have the name, telephone number and e-mail address of all their counterparts—not just those in their region or unit? If unions are about solidarity, it is hypocritical to get in the way of local activists forming solid bonds. The ability to communicate is particularly critical for regional and national elections. Candidates are often limited to a single mailing to the delegates before a vote, which is archaic in the age of no-cost, instant messages.
  7. Who controls whether cases go to arbitration or contracts are renegotiated? If the NP alone decides, there is little to nothing a local’s leaders can do when they disagree with the NP’s decision. In fact, they had better stay on the NP’s good side or they might just be ignored when they ask to arbitrate a local case.  On the other hand, letting a single local leader take any case to arbitration if s/he is just one local in a multi-local consolidated unit risks setting bad, unit-wide precedent. Something in between is needed to ensure a proper set of checks and balances. For example, the union representing the National Labor Relations Board employees (NLRBU) turns those decisions over to a Grievance Committee. A compromise would be for the local union to have the ability to unilaterally decide to arbitrate cases that only impact their local or that are not precedential.

Some submissiveness is fine.  It can be the oil a union’s machine needs at critical or time-urgent moments. But, often disinterest in involving oneself turns one into nothing but a submissive. This is a topic we are going to return to often. Next up is an explanation of how a lack of democracy or too much autocracy hurts a union.

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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