Win New Rights by Reforming Your Local Bylaws

Members at Sysco Foods in Los Angeles Local 630 are gearing up for contract negotiations in 2004. In the past, the rank-and-file has always been kept in the dark about negotiations. This year, they’re doing something about it.

In January, workers will submit an amendment to the Local 630 bylaws to give members the right to elect rank-and-file representatives to serve on their contract bargaining committee.

“We’re the ones who have to live under the terms of the contract. We should have a say in the bargaining process. It’s as simple as that,” said Local 630 member Frank Villa, one of the proponents of the reform.

The Local 630 reform campaign is just one example of how members can strengthen their rights by amending their local union bylaws.

January: the time to act

Are there changes you would like to see in your local union? Now is the time to act. January is the only month in most local unions where the members can initiate the process of reforming local union bylaws.

Bylaws are the constitution of your local union and they define your rights and responsibilities as a local member.

Every year, TDU helps Teamster members organize campaigns to reform their local bylaws. As a result of these campaigns, Teamster members in different locals have won many new rights, like:

  • the right to elect shop stewards by secret ballot vote
  • the right to elect rank-and-file representatives to contract negotiating committees
  • the right to a mail ballot and independent supervision of local officer elections
  • the right to vote on any proposed increases in officers’ salaries
  • the right to have contracts and bylaws translated into Spanish and other languages

The process of amending local bylaws to include such rights can vary from local to local. The exact procedure is laid out in your bylaws. Under the IBT Constitution and federal law, you have the right to a copy of the bylaws where you’ll find that information..

Usually, the procedure to amend bylaws requires that at least seven members submit a proposed amendment at the January union meeting. The proposal is read at three consecutive meetings, beginning in January, and then voted on at the third meeting.

Most local bylaws require a two-thirds vote to amend.

Keys to success

A bylaws campaign can be an effective tool for winning positive reforms and educating and mobilizing members. But, like any organizing campaign, a bylaws reform campaign requires good planning. Here are some keys to success:

· Pick an issue that matters to members: Many members do not know what bylaws are, let alone have a strong opinion about what the language should be on matters like the division of powers between the principal officer and the executive board. If you want to get members interested, pick an issue that hits home and doesn’t require a lot of explanation.

· Keep it simple: It is sometimes tempting to submit a number of changes all at once. But this can make it more difficult to communicate your message and easier for your opponents to confuse the issues. Pick your top issue and keep it simple.

· Spread the word: Short flyers with graphics and few words are the best way to get out your message and inform members about what’s at stake.

· Consider a support petition: A petition is a good tool for reaching out to members one-on-one and talking to them about the issue. It can also give you a way to get the names and numbers of supporters that you can call to turn out to the union meeting on the day of the vote.

· Involve supporters: There are lots of different ways that members can support a bylaws reform effort – from passing out flyers, to circulating petitions, to turning out members to vote, to speaking in favor of amendments at union meetings. Identifying and using supporters will strengthen your campaign and build union involvement.

Getting the language right

Since bylaws are legally binding documents, it’s important to get the language in your proposal right.

TDU can help you get through the hoops. We have copies of bylaws language that has been approved by the IBT and lawyers who can review your bylaws proposals before you run into a legal challenge.

For legal and organizing advice on bylaws reform campaigns, contact TDU today, at webmaster [at] tdu.org

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