In an landmark decision issued
January 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in
Richmond, Virginia held that labor unions have an ongoing responsibility
to inform their members of their rights under the federal Labor
Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. The unanimous
decision of the three-judge panel reversed a decision by a lower
federal district court in Maryland.
The LMRDA, also known as the
Landrum-Griffin Act, guaranties civil liberties, fair elections,
due process and financial integrity in unions, and gives union
members whose rights have been violated recourse in the courts
and to the U. S. Labor Department. Section 105 reads, in full:
"Every labor organization shall inform its members concerning
the provisions of this Act." Although this notification
requirement has been on the books for over forty years, the case
in which the Fourth Circuit ruled Thursday is the first in which
a court has actually ruled on the legal substance of Section 105.
The suit was brought by three
members of Local 834 of the International Association of Machinists
in Wichita, Kansas. They are represented, pro bono, by Attorney
Andrew Rotstein (212 351-4052). The Association for Union Democracy,
a pro union, nonprofit group, filed an amicus brief in support
of their appeal.
The IAM argued that its one-time
publication of the text of the LMRDA in its newspaper in 1959
was all that the Act required. The appeals court ruled that "the
IAM's insistence that section 105 is satisfied by a single decades-old
notification makes little sense."
"This is a great victory for union democracy. This decision will go way beyond the IAM. For the first time, union members have a clear cut ruling that they are entitled to be informed by their unions of their full range of democratic rights under the law," said Carl Biers, executive director of the AUD. "As more members learn of their legally protected rights in the union, such as the equal right to be nominated and run for office, to distribute literature, and speak out at union meetings, I think you will see an increase in the internal democratic life of the labor movement that will ultimately make it stronger and more effective in representing working people," said Biers.
"This is a fantastic win
for the rank and file throughout the labor movement. It will
affect not just the IAM, but all unions," said Keith Thomas
(316)-838-7655, one of the plaintiffs.
Mr. Rotstein, attorney for
the union members, praised the strong language invoked by the
court. "The Fourth Circuit is emphatic: union members are
unlikely to exercise the rights the LMRDA gives them if they don't
know those rights exist. Now, for the first time, Congress's mechanism
for assuring that union members are informed of their rights,
Section 105, has been brought to life."
In 1989, the AUD submitted
a petition to the U.S. Department of Labor signed by 232 members
of 35 unions throughout the country asking the department to
issue a regulation informing unions of the requirements of Section
105 and advising them how they might comply. The department
rejected the petition on the ground that it had no authority under
the law to enforce section 105, which, it held, could be enforced
only by private suit. It was that decision which made the suit
by the three machinists necessary.
(Full text of the decision
is available on the web at www.law.emory.edu/4circuit)
From the decision:
Moreover, section 105 mandates notification not only of the provisions of Title I, but of all the rights found in the LMRDA. Section 105, in addition to informing union members of their substantive rights under the LMRDA, also notifies them of provisions authorizing causes of action against unions for infringements of these substantive rights Senator McClellan, a principal architect of the LMRDA, noted: "I believe that if you would give to the individual members of the unions the tools with which to do it, they would pretty well clean house themselves." 105 Cong. Rec. S6476 (daily ed. April 22, 1959).
"The LMRDA's protections are meaningless, however, if members do not know of their existence. Simply put, if a member does not know of his rights, he cannot exercise them. This is where section 105 kicks in. Section 105 is the statute's informational lynchpin, requiring labor organizations to inform members what rights Congress has granted them.
But in order for union members
to be able to do that job, they must first be made aware of the
Act's enforceability provisions. Ensuring that members know of
these judicial remedies is important given that the Secretary
of Labor's enforcement power is limited with respect to some of
LMRDA's protections. In fact, the Secretary of Labor is explicitly
precluded from investigating violations of the rights contained
in Title I of the Act -the "Bill of Rights of Members of
Labor Organizations. "See id.§ 521. Union members are
thus not only the beneficiaries of the LMRDA but in many instances
its sole guardians.
Second, virtually none of the
rights listed by these documents are presented as requirements
of federal law. This not only lessens the stature given to the
substantive protections, but it also means that union members
are not informed that many of the protections listed are enforceable
in federal court."
Association for Union Democracy
500 State Street
Brooklyn NY 11217
phone: 718 855-6650
fax: 718 855-6799