Normally, we oppose term limits for elected union officers.  If the leader is doing a good job in the eyes of the membership, let them decide via elections whether to return him/her to office—no matter how long the leader has held the job.  But, there is one big exception.

What if the union leader has failed to build membership in his/her local union?  Whether that leader continues to serve cannot be left to the membership because it could mean that the very few employees who actually pay dues could keep the leader in office indefinitely if those few are getting something out of his/her tenure.

For example, suppose that the unit is composed of 1,000 employees, but it only has 200 union members. Given that only half the members vote in an internal union election, the leader of this local could be decided by the votes of 51 people—or fewer.  That kind of micro-minority control of any organization is a perfect setting for leader abuse.

If your reaction is to blame the non-members for not joining and voting for a leadership change, you may be a little too idealistic.  First, there are very few people wandering around any workplace today obsessed with union democracy to the point of paying dues to an organization that is doing nothing for them at the present time.  Second, if the leader realizes that he/she can stay in power so long as no new members join (or only hand-picked members), it is not hard to deliberately hold down membership.  Never run a new member recruiting drive, never e-mail newsletters, never develop stewards’ skills, never post material about the union around the work place, never attend formal meetings, never button-hole newly hired employees, etc.

Here is where term limits written into the national union’s constitution can be invaluable because normally the union’s national president cannot remove a locally elected leader just because of poor membership.  A constitutional provision, however, that links eligibility to run for reelection to certain performance measures would automatically force the union leader out of office.  We do not believe that there should be many such measures.  In fact, we see only a few and top among them would be membership development.  If a local union leader is unable to build membership sufficiently over a three year period, then a good case exists for barring him/her for reelection.

What is sufficient membership growth?  Here is how we see it.  If the leader is unable to bring the membership up to 25% of the unit in three years, someone else should step in under normal circumstances. Yes, there can be exceptions, such as if the growth in the third year exceeded 13%, thereby showing some hint of future success.  In those multi-local units where the average local has very high membership, e.g., above 65%, then perhaps the bar should be set higher than 25%.  We favor one half of the national average membership figure.  In situations where the local is within 50% of the average, then perhaps an annual or two-year goal of a set precentage growth in membership shold be the trigger.  However, the best answer is that the union should set membership growth goals for all locals.

Some may be wondering why a national union should care.  After all, if a particular local has miserable membership isn’t just those employees who are losing out on the benefit of a strong local?  No, everyone loses.  First, that local is not paying its fair share into the national effort.  To put more bluntly, the very successful locals are carrying the failing local financially.  All too often that means fewer lobbyists, attorneys, and other experts to help the entire union.

Beyond that, the weak local is ripe for being exploited by management to the detriment of everyone.  Weak locals are where management will try to install a past practice first, or run a pilot program, or set up a precedent-setting arbitration case.

One of the bigger mistakes unions have made over the last half century is to ignore the many lessons that corporations have learned the hard way.  If a local leader fails, you replace him or her.  Period; end of debate—absent some very good reason not to.  Union national presidents do not have that power, but that does not bar them and the more successful locals from  amending the Constitution to restricts the damage an ineffective local leader can do by imposing term limits.

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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