Making the Most of Local Union Meetings

March 15, 2013: Many members think that union meetings are just a place you go to hear long 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.

Local unions can and should make meetings informative and a forum for ideas and questions. Expert speakers and workshops can be alternated with union business and contract issues.

But even when union meetings seem to be almost designed to keep members away, rank and filers can turn them in something positive. 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 have some positive proposals.

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.

Publicize and Mobilize

Getting members to union meetings can be a challenge.

But members are more likely to attend a particular meeting if you help them see why their attendance at that meeting would make a difference. For example, a few years ago TDUers mobilized members to attend in a number of locals in the Midwest and South about unfair pension reemployment rules. As a result, a number of local officers started to take a stand. And, we won a rules change.

So you need a way to tell members why attending a specific meeting is important. Leaflets can help. So will volunteers to spread leaflets and talk it up.  Phone lists, texts, 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 all over the map.

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.

Members in Local 251 have proposed three bylaws changes, including one to require elected rank and filers on all contract negotiating committees. That's an example of a positive proposal which can unite members to build a stronger union.

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 or a small group.

Ideally 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 your people can take on:

  • Who will work on the flyer about the issue?
  • Who will distribute the flyer?
  • Who will speak on the issue or line members up to speak?
  • Who will call or text members to get them to attend?
  • Who will make the motion or proposal?
  • Who will second or support it?

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

Maybe. The chair of a meeting can do many things to use the rules against you.

For example, once when members of New York Local 854 organized a group to read proposed changes to the local bylaws, the local officers went to their supporters at the meeting and asked them to leave—so that there would no longer be a quorum. They hastily adjourned the meeting.

The chair may try 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).

The best way to overcome tricks by the chair is to have several members ready to speak up ("let her speak") and vote to overrule the chair.

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Don't have the same people always speak. Ask others to help out.
  • Have people prepared to speak. You may want to practice in advance. Talk it over.
  • Don't make it personal. Stick to the issues.
  • Don't speak too much. It's not how much you say, but how you say it and how you organize to back it 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 get 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."

That 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. Click here to send us a message.

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