October 18, 2006. “Our last contract was terrible. Can we get the right to elect our bargaining committee?”
“Our local officers keep raising their salaries. Can we put limits on them?”
“Our local elections are a joke. Can we get some protections that will make them more fair?
Yes, there is a way to gain new rights and protections like these. Over the years Teamsters in many locals have organized to change the bylaws of their local unions, winning valuable new rights that help members protect contracts, benefits and working conditions.
Bylaws are the constitution of your local union and they define your rights and responsibilities as a local member. In many locals bylaw changes can only be proposed in January, so the fall is a good time of the year to start putting together a plan and a campaign.
Many members are probably not aware that the local even has bylaws. Even when they do understand, they may not feel that strongly about some legalistic document.
So you’ve got to focus on issues that matter.
“Seeing what other locals did was instrumental for us,” Local 82 member Joe Wright explained after they won a bylaw change vote in 2006. “We sat down and started going through the bylaws but just got bogged down. Then we found out from TDU what members in other locals had done and that made it easier to focus in.”
Local 82 members succeeded in reforming their local bylaws after a campaign for positive changes.
Voting on a Bylaws Amendment
Most local bylaws have a similar procedure for amendments: after a proposal is properly submitted (often this must be in January), it is read at three union meetings and then voted at the third one. So you will need an organized plan for turning out supporters at that third meeting. Some local bylaws state that changes have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of those voting.
Pick Your Issues
If members are fired up about an issue your chances of getting their support will be greater. So timing can help. Rather than focus on issues that members haven’t cared about for a while, zone in on the one that packs the most meaning for members at this time.
Promote Changes with Good Materials
“The way we presented the changes helped a lot,” Joe Wright pointed out. “There was a guy before in our local who proposed a bylaw change and handed out a mimeo sheet that just looked like a lot of chicken scratches. We made our flyers as professional as we could and put everything in layman’s terms, as well as technical, so it would be clear. Otherwise you would lose a lot of guys.”
Get the Language Right
Since bylaws are legally binding documents, it’s important to get the language in your proposal right. In some cases, Hoffa has vetoed reforms approved by local union members because of language technicalities.
TDU can help on this front. 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, info [at] tdu.org (contact TDU) today.