Association for Union Democracy

500 State Street
Brooklyn NY 11217 718

phone: 855-6650
fax: 855-6679

Press Release

US Appeals Court: Unions Must Inform Members Of Their Rights

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

From the decision:

"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.

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).

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

The Association for Union Democracy is a national pro-union non-profit that promotes the principles and practices of internal union democracy in the North American labor movement.

Union Democracy for a Strong Labor Movement

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