Can Unions Discipline Their Own Members?
By L. Spriggs / Question submitted anonymously
Member Question: "I've had to explain to a number of people that the union doesn't work to discipline 'bad' teachers. Maybe you could provide an explainer of why that is and what the options are?"
For one thing, unions are legally forbidden from violating the rights of their members, so taking on the role of punishment risks complicated and expensive court cases when they get it wrong, which often means dolling out punishments is not really worth the risk unless it’s to expel a member for something particularly egregious, such as embezzlement, assault, or abuse of power.
The only other real recourse unions have besides expulsion is fining, and fines have been challenged in the courts time and again, with unions often losing those cases. Again, pursuing fines is not really worth the risk of drawn-out court cases in most situations. Either way, fines are typically reserved for crossing picket lines or other union-related issues.
Regardless, unions exist to empower workers, protect their rights, and improve working conditions, not to add additional layers of management.
Furthermore, punishing employees is management’s responsibility, and when a union performs that role it lets management off the hook for actually managing the workplace. Instead of asking why unions don’t punish members, it might be better to ask why management isn’t using the many tools at its disposal to motivate, discipline, or fire employees who aren’t passing muster.
Finally, employers like to argue that they're afraid of dolling out punishments because the union is too powerful, but a well-managed workplace that follows legal precedent and doesn't violate the rights of its employees in the process really has nothing to fear from unions. The real problem is that many workplaces are simply poorly managed...
The Executive Board
By L. Spriggs
Unions are legally required to hold elections every few years. (The number of years varies depending on the type of union.) During these elections, the union's membership elects an executive board, also sometimes referred to as the executive council. This elected group of representatives who take care of the day-to-day responsibilities for the union mostly just approve budgets, run elections, and pay bills, but from time to time they will also discuss issues affecting the school and the membership, communicate information to the membership, and appoint committees to complete various tasks on the membership's behalf, among other things. Boards vary in size depending on the union, and some are as small as just two or three people.
The executive board of a union is legally bound to conduct business by following very specific procedures to ensure members are represented fairly and equally. Furthermore, no elected member of the board has more power than another. Even the president of a board gets only one vote and cannot override a decision of the board as a whole.
Each meeting of a board is supposed to follow an official order of business, or agenda, and there are specific rules and guidelines for how discussion takes place, how votes are cast, etc. You may think this is all rather stuffy and formal, but these rules serve to help prevent the board from being hijacked by members, or factions of members, with political agendas or more sinister machinations.
Ultimately, it's important to understand that our Local 434 Executive Board has a duty to act on behalf of the membership as a whole, and the power of our union—any union—always resides with the membership, not its executive board or any other elected member.
"[T]he power of our union—any union—always resides with the membership, not its executive board or any other elected member."
The Constitution and Bylaws
Every union, once formed, must create a constitution and bylaws. Nowadays, just referring to them as bylaws is fine. Having bylaws isn’t optional. It’s required by federal law, and once created, unions are legally bound by their bylaws. We can’t just decide to ignore them when it feels good or when following them becomes a little too inconvenient, at least not without risking lawsuits that will end up costing our members money. In fact, if you discover that your elected union officers are not adhering to their bylaws, you should call them out on it. If they don’t fix the issue within a reasonable amount of time, you have a right and obligation to file a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
We highly encourage everyone to read through their bylaws at least once. You can find them on our website. It’s surprisingly easy for unions, even large ones, to become complacent when it comes to performing their legal obligations and following their bylaws, so it’s important to have at least a few diligent, knowledgeable members involved in the union. It’s not safe to assume someone else is keeping the union accountable to the law or to their members, either. It might have to be you. In fact, a few years ago I drew attention to some election issues that needed to be fixed in order to align with the law, and the union worked hard to fix the issue before the next election. It was simply a matter of being ignorant of the law, not malicious non-compliance on the part of the union, but fixing the issue necessitated a knowledgeable member following proper channels.
Proud alumnus, union member, and educator in District #201 since 2006.
Dr. Hentze is the author of High Finance with Hentze, a monthly blog that provides news about District 201's current financial state.