The Bill of Rights for Union Members

Most people in the United States have heard of the Bill of Rights. Turn on any TV show with a legal theme and you’re likely to hear terms like “freedom of speech” and “due process” thrown around.

What many Teamsters don’t know is that there’s a federal law, the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), that guarantees some of those basic democratic rights within our union.

The LMRDA (sometimes called the Landrum-Griffin Act) provides a series of tools that can come in handy for union activists interested in Teamster reform and holding their union officials accountable.

This article will outline your basic rights under the LMRDA, how to enforce them, and where to go for more information. Please note that the LMRDA only applies to private sector workers. However, if you are a public sector worker in a local with private sector workers, most of the same rules still apply.

Also, keep in mind that this is only a partial explanation of your LMRDA rights. See below for ways to get help and find out more.

Title I: Member’s Bill of Rights


The heart of the LMRDA is Title I, which is fittingly called the “Bill of Rights of Members of Labor Organizations.” These rights include:

freedom of speech and assembly, including the right to criticize union officials, speak up at local union meetings, distribute literature outside (and sometimes inside) the union hall, and hold independent meetings; protection from retribution, including due process in matters of internal union discipline; the right to a copy of your collective bargaining agreement, including all riders, addendums, and supplements; the right to nominate candidates, to vote in elections or referendums, and to attend and participate in union meetings; the right to secret ballot votes on rates of dues, initiation fees, and assessments, except when raised by delegate vote at an International convention; the right to sue if you don’t get satisfactory results through internal appeals.

Under Section 105 of the LMRDA, your union is required to inform you of your rights under the Act. The Association for Union Democracy has won an important appellate case reinforcing this right. As would be expected, our Teamster administration has not taken this duty to inform very seriously.

Title II: Show Me the Money

Ever wonder how your dues dollars are being put to work? How much is being spent on organizing and how much is being spent on officer and staff salaries? Title II is your ticket to finding the answer.

Under Title II, every labor organization is required to file detailed annual financial reports with the Office of Labor-Management Standards, a branch of the Department of Labor. These reports, known as LM-2, -3 or -4 forms, are available to the public. Every year, TDU uses hundreds of these forms to research our “$100,000 Club”. You can order LM-2 reports from the DOL office for the cost of copying and postage. Some LM forms are also available online at the DOL’s website, http://union-reports.dol.gov.

TDU has LM-2 forms for most Teamster locals, which we make available to Teamster members (free to TDU members, others please enclose a donation to cover copying and shipping costs).

Unfortunately, the DOL is slow in processing the forms and it often takes months for current ones to become available.

Like many financial statements, these forms can be confusing to figure out. If you need help deciphering your union’s financial report, contact TDU for help.

Title III: Trusteeships

Sometimes our International Union takes over a local union in response to legitimate concerns about local union officials’ abuse of power or, more likely, the local union treasury. At other times the International imposes a trusteeship to prevent the “wrong” people (often reform activists) from taking office.

Title III lays out some basic ground rules for determining what constitutes a valid trusteeship, and sets up mechanisms for members to take action if they feel a trusteeship is invalid.

Under Title III, a trusteeship is presumed valid for 18 months, absent “clear and convincing evidence to the contrary,” a very high standard to meet. After 18 months, the standard flips, and the trusteeship is then presumed invalid.

Title IV: Union Elections

If you are a thinking of running for local union office, you should contact TDU to get the tools and strategies you need to win. But you also need to know your rights under Title IV, which governs the way unions run officer elections.

Title IV requires that local union elections be held at least once every three years. It gives every member the right to vote, nominate candidates, run for office, and campaign without “improper interference or reprisal of any kind”. It also limits many of the rules that unions use to restrict members’ eligibility to run for office, including so-called “meeting attendance” rules, and prohibits officials from using union resources to campaign.

Under Title IV, every candidate for local union office has the right to mail campaign literature to the membership at their own expense, and to inspect the entire membership list at least once during the campaign. Candidates also have the right to have observers present at each stage of the election process.

Title V: Fiduciary Duty

Title V states that union officials must use union resources solely for the benefit of the membership, and provides penalties for when officers don’t do that. Misusing union resources can include criminal acts, such as embezzlement or outright theft, but also includes other acts, such as using union resources to campaign, or an officer taking out a loan from the union in excess of $2,000.

If you feel an officer has violated their fiduciary duty, and your union fails to take action to recover the lost funds, Title V gives you the right to sue individually.

Title V also prohibits employers from bribing members or union officers to act against the union’s interests, and prohibits certain people, such as convicted felons, from holding union office.

Enforcement Tied to Organizing

Some of your rights under the LMRDA can be fairly easily exercised, like looking up your local’s LM-2 form on the web. Exercising other rights can be more difficult, and may even require hiring a lawyer in some cases.

Whatever your specific situation, enforcing your rights under the LMRDA is a lot easier if you can get organized with your fellow union members. As any good steward knows, there’s nothing like collective action to get the people in charge to sit up and notice. TDU can help.

Where To Go For Help

For help with organizing to exercise your LMRDA rights, contact TDU. We can be reached by calling 313-842-2600 or by e-mail at tdu [at] tdu.org.

The Association for Union Democracy (AUD) also has decades of experience with advising union members on their rights under the LMRDA. AUD’s website (www.uniondemocracy.org) has the complete text of the LMRDA, along with a handy summary and other valuable tools. You can reach them by e-mail at aud@igc.org, or by calling 718-855-6650.

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