Making the Most of Local Union Meetings

Many members think that union meetings are just a place you go to hear long, drawn out reports or to listen to beefs that you don’t understand by members who work at other companies. And sadly, many union meetings are not much more than that.

You can use union meetings to do something positive for the members. But it takes some planning and organization. Here are some tips.

Keep It Positive

There’s nothing wrong with getting angry when members are getting the short end of the stick. But if you are trying to build unity and support in your local, you need to propose positive solutions or actions that can be taken to make things better.

For example, members in some locals, fed up with the lack of organizing, have proposed that their locals dedicate a percentage of the budget to organizing the unorganized (see related article)

Publicize and Mobilize

Getting members to union meetings can be a challenge. They may feel that there is no point, based on past experience. And most members have many other things going on in their lives.

But members are more likely to attend a particular meeting if you are able to make them see why their attendance at that meeting would make a difference. For example, over 200 people attended a Minneapolis Local 120 union meeting because they thought it would convince the local officials to take a stand on the much-hated pension reemployment rules. As a result, the officials did take a stand. So you need a way to tell many members why attending a specific meeting is important. To do this you will need flyers that clearly explain the issue and how members can make a difference. You will also need volunteers who can help get the flyers into the hands of other members.

Phone lists and e-mail lists are also effective ways to turn people out to meetings.

Pick and Choose Your Battles

We can all think of dozens of changes that are needed to improve our locals or our working conditions. But there is a danger in taking on every issue that comes along. First, you can’t win them all. Second, you run the risk of being seen by your fellow members as a chronic complainer who is never satisfied.

So, when possible, pick a single issue that is widely understood and an issue that directly affects a lot of people and/or can attract wide support.

An example from Local 728 bears this out. The issue was the right to elect stewards. Members could understand this issue easily (democracy and representation). It affected not just the workers immediately involved, but attracted wide support exactly because everyone could picture being in the same boat at some point.

Of course, sometimes we have to take on issues that are more difficult or ones that affect fewer people but are still important. Just make sure you balance these sort of issues with ones that can win broad support more easily.

Work as a Group

While one person working alone can often make a difference, the best way to be successful at union meetings is to work with a team, even if the team is small.

This way, you can assign each person a job at the meeting. One person can be lined up to make a motion. Another can hand out flyers explaining the motion. A third person can be ready to appeal a ruling by the meeting chair, if they try to shut you down.

The more people you get to do something, the more support you are likely to get. This is because you are showing people right off the bat that a number of people care about the issue or proposal.

Here are some jobs that you people can take on:

  • Who will work on the flyer about the issue?
  • Who will distribute the flyer?
  • Who will speak on the issue?
  • Who will line up other people to speak?
  • Who will call members to get them to attend the meeting?
  • Who will make the motion or proposal?
  • Who will second or support it?
  • Who will watch the rules for violations?

Won’t They Just Shut us Down or Use the Rules Against Us?


True, the deck is stacked. The chair of a meeting can do many things to use the rules against you.

For example, members of New York Local 854 organized a group to attend a recent meeting to read proposed changes to the local bylaws. When the officials saw who was at the meeting, the local officers went to their supporters at the meeting and asked them to leave – so that there would no longer be a quorum and the meeting could be called off.

The most common trick, however, is for the meeting chair to just rule you out of order when you want to speak or make a motion. There are a few ways to counter this:

Raise the issue under “new business.” This is the point in the agenda where other issues can be raised.

If the chair says the issue can’t be brought up at this time, ask, “When exactly can this issue be brought up on the agenda?”

Prepare supporters in advance to demand that you be given the chance to speak. Sometimes that pressure will work. If not, members can even formally appeal the decision of the chair by saying, “I appeal the decision of the chair.” Such an appeal is not debatable, does not need a second and is passed or defeated by a simple majority vote. (This is part of Robert’s Rules of Order and is contained in most local union bylaws).

Of course, to successfully appeal getting ruled out of order, you will need to have turned out a good number of supporters to the meeting. They can help by shouting or speaking in favor of the appeal.

Mistakes to Avoid

Having the same people always speak. Don’t be the only one to speak at every meeting. Ask others to help out.

Not having people prepared to speak. Run through it in advance. Practice.

Making it personal. Stick to the issues, otherwise you will turn people off.

Speaking too much. It’s not how much you say, but how you say it and how you organize to back it up. Know when to shut up. Keep it short and to the point.

Use Meetings to Find Allies

Speaking up at union meetings is important. So is listening. Make a point of talking to other members who raise issues at a meeting. And be sure to exchange names and phone numbers. Many TDU members have found important allies by listening to other members and following up with them.

Follow Up by Informing Others

What do you say when a member asks, “What happened at the union meeting?” The most common response is, “If you wanted to know, you should have been there.”

This may a good way for members frustrated at low meeting attendance to blow off steam. But it won’t help get other members involved in building a stronger union.

You’re better off answering the question. Don’t miss the opportunity to talk about issues that are important to you and draw other members into participating in the fight for a stronger union.

Interested in using union meetings to advance members’ rights? Contact TDU to discuss your specific situation.
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