How union meetings are supposed to be run

A Primer

A union meeting is where the workers meet and make decisions. Those decisions are recorded by the recording secretary in the minutes, and thereafter they are executed by the appropriate members. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In order for this participatory democratic process to work, the organizers of the meeting must follow certain procedures, which have been hallmarks of union meetings for well over 100 years. Those procedings are laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order.

1. Only members may participate

The reason participation is restricted to dues-paying members is because members have rights under the law and under the union’s constitution. The most fundamental right is the right to bring motions, discuss motions and vote on motions. To repeat: The most fundamental right of membership is the right to bring motions, discuss motions and vote on motions. It is the responsibility of union leaders to train workers so that they can participate meaningfully in union meetings. If they are not doing this, it is because they love power and don’t want the workers to have any.

2. The Agenda

Agendas are supposed to be published ahead of the meeting so that participants can discuss the items ahead of time and submit their own items. Note the word, participants, not attendees–this is not a lecture workers attend to listen to bureaucrats babble on about what they are doing “for the members.” But workers are not precluded from bringing new business or other items up at any time during the meeting itself. To make sure that all business is dealt with and the meeting finishes on time, approval of the agenda is part of the agenda.

3. The Chair

The chair of the meeting is a neutral party who knows Robert’s Rules and who conducts the meeting fairly so that members’ rights of participation are respected. If a member thinks that there is a breach of the rules, he or she can rise to raise a point of order. Members can even interrupt other speakers to do this. The chair then rules on the point of order as “well taken” or “not well taken.” But the chair may be wrong. The member may then stand and “appeal from the ruling of the chair.” The chair asks for a second. If the appeal is seconded, it is put to a vote. What this means is that everyone attending a union meeting has to be familiar with the rules so that they may decide whether the chair is running the meeting correctly.

4. Reports

As stated above, a union meeting is not a lecture by self-appointed union bosses. Reports are just that—they give the members information about what is going on. Back in the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s if an officer had stood up and told the members that something had been decided for them, he would have been summarily ejected from the union hall and replaced with a sensible fellow who knew his place. Reports should also not be followed by a comment period, although members may ask questions. If the officers are not usurping their authority and deciding things they have no right to decide, then the reports should go quickly.

5. New Business

If you are at a “union meeting” and there is not an item called New Business, that meeting is a farce and a waste of your time. This is the time that the chair asks the members if there is any new business. At this point members stand, the chair recognizes them, and they make motions. The chair asks if there is a second, and if there is one, the chair restates the motion and opens the floor for debate. The first member recognized is the person who had made the motion, and he or she has ten minutes to tell fellow workers why they should vote for it. After the debate, the chair calls for a vote, and then the chair announces the result and states what will happen as a result of the vote. Members have the right to stand and make motions at almost any time there is no other business pending. But main motions are made during New Business.

Running and participating in a union meeting takes training and practice, but the reward is that the members have all of the power and know that it is their union. If you have been in a union for, say, twelve years, and you have never seen real democracy in action, you need a new union leadership.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

Filmed at the 2014 Labor Notes Convention

Why I wrote Solidarity Forever, by Ralph Chaplin

When a hostile “town clown” would confront the union harvest stiffs at the freight yards, demanding, “Who are the leaders here?” the unanimous response was “We are all leaders – what are you going to do about it?”


It was from the lips of Eugene Victor Debs that I first heard the world “solidarity” uttered, and from Debs also that I first learned of the Western Federation of Miners, and of Bill Haywood, who, like Debs, brought down on his battle-scarred head the wrath of the employers and the invective of the capitalist press. Naturally, I could not remain neutral. It wasn’t in the cards, however, for me to meet Haywood until eight years later and through him to contact that One Big Union of the Industrial Workers of the World that was to become a lifetime dedication. [Read more…]

International Day of Action against TPP today

Executive Committee decides not to take a stand against “NAFTA on steroids”

At the Jan. 25 meeting of the PMWG Executive Committee, a resolution was introduced to support today’s International Day of Action Against the Trans Pacific Partnership (January 31). In spite of the fact that CWA President Larry Cohen and just about everyone else on the planet opposes the TPP, Executive Officer Carl Hall and Vice President for California Rick Knee were joined by three other officers in defeating the resolution.

The TPP will further subjugate the peoples and lands of of the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Canada, Mexico and Peru to the unrestrained plundering and exploitation by transnational corporations, with no higher authority than the God of Profit.

The only unit that considered this extremely important issue was the Guild Freelancers Unit, which may be the only unit that has regular worker-run meetings. The freelancers voted to recommend that the local endorse the day of protest, but that endorsement was killed by the EC.

Knee argued strongly against taking a position on TPP, citing “journalism-ethics concerns.” These concerns are nowhere to be found in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, and exist only in his imagination.

However, as if not wanting to look like a Thomas Friedman (the discredited journalist who made a career promoting global capitalist expansion) Knee belatedly sent out an email “encouraging relatives, friends and associates: Tell your senators and House representatives to vote against the fast-track legislation.”

Despite the conservatism of the five PMWG officers, workers are encouraged to join the broad international alliance of environmental, human rights, labor and pro-democracy groups fighting to defeat the TPP. Check out

Hey, CFI–Stop trying to take over the local

Democratize your own unit instead

For the majority of workers, the recent CFI election bid for control over the local came as a surprise. In the first place, most were unaware that they had been engaged in a fight with the executive committee over money for more staff. And it wasn’t a civil disagreement, but one in which the CFI gang were “angry and demanding,” always presumed bad intentions on the part of the local’s leadership, and focused on winning at the expense of maintaining a good working relationship, according to the report of an outside consultant.

In the second place, workers were never consulted about the slate that the CFI ran. The choice of Alex “The Brain” Abella for executive officer was especially surprising, since he hasn’t been visible for some time. As it turns out, he has been scurrying around the legislative committee (now called the political committee), where exposure to people in power apparently has caused his head and his ambitions to grow to an enormous size.

Would-be union boss Alex Abella

Would-be union boss Alex Abella

Second on the slate was Mike Ferreira, also on the legislative committee. One of Ferreira’s accomplishments was leading a pointless and divisive strike in Region 1 six years ago—pointless because the county’s last offer was a good contract with a 4% raise, and divisive because it pitted worker against worker. It also inflicted  hardship on thousands of immigrants who experienced delays in being able to talk to their lawyers or plead guilty and get out of jail. (For details of why they walked out see Court Interpreters Strike.)

Ferreira ended his presidency on a vindictive note, fighting for a “membership committee” in the local to keep agency-fee-paying workers he doesn’t like from becoming union members. This would be a violation of the CWA constitution, not to mention really messed up.

However, Abella topped Ferreira’s disenfranchising efforts, fighting to keep several hundred newly-organized American Sign Language interpreters from voting in the local’s election because they hadn’t yet won a contract.

Newly appointed CFI president, Ariel Torrone, and Mary Lou Aranguren, who ran for treasurer on the executive committee, are also members of the legislative committee. The CFI has been demanding to put Aranguren on the local’s payroll as a staff representative (see Memo from CFI on Job Description for New Hire). So, being on the legislative committee means you’re a big shot. As one interpreter wrote,

These CFI candidates are part a small but very vocal, militant group of former and current elected officers calling themselves “veterans” who effectively run CFI. This group, known by the CFI board as “ex officio” members, have created a de facto Council of Elders, a parallel government that makes important decisions and take significant actions on behalf of the organization, often without the knowledge and approval of the full joint governing board of CFI nor consulting the membership. The group runs CFI like a private fiefdom, imposing a top-down culture of secrecy where democratic participation is discouraged and dissent is not tolerated.

As if to substantiate that last charge, the CFI insiders tried twice to remove the above dissenter from his position as delegate.

If they really want to be labor leaders, they can start by showing some respect to the workers, union and nonunion, who pay the bills. That means giving decision-making power to the rank and file by training members to run their own meetings at the shop level. It means holding regular regional unit meetings, also run by the members, and respecting the decisions that come out of those meetings. Meeting and scheming in secret, closely guarding information, punishing dissent and rewarding loyalty are the hallmarks of a dictatorship. The workers deserve better.