Free Speech Rights in a Labor Union

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) regulates the rights union members have against their unions. LMRDA actually has a bill of rights within it. One of the most litigated rights is the union members’ right to free speech. Here are some of the highlights.

Section 101(a)(2) of LMRDA provides for union members’ right to free speech and assembly. The free speech rights of union members under LMRDA are even more powerful than our free speech rights under the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For example, a union accountant publicly claimed that other union officers were embezzling union funds. The accountant was wrong and found guilty of libel by both a tribunal of union members and a federal district court. Libel is generally an exception to constitutional free speech rights. We do not have the right to libel one another.

However, the Second Circuit found that under Title 1 of LMRDA, the union member had a right to accuse another of financial wrongdoing even if the accusation is libelous. In another case, the Second Court approved a union member urging others to not pay union taxes on the good faith belief that the taxes were illegal.

However, this case is problematic. The same section that gives free speech rights also requires union members to refrain from interfering with the union’s obligations and gives the union the right to regulate member activity towards that purpose. Urging members to abstain from paying taxes seems to be a violation of that proviso. Secondly, the union has the right to discipline its members for failing to pay the union taxes so the result is that a member has a right to urge an act that would result in his followers being disciplined lawfully.

In a case before the Fifth Circuit, the federal court said that a union member’s rights to free speech should be balanced against his or her responsibility to refrain from interfering with the union’s obligations. In this case, a union member joined a second union and began to fight for his new union to be the bargaining representative at an employment location where the member did not work. His first union did not like the competition. They were already the bargaining representative at that location. They fined the union member. The Court did not remove the fine, but also did not decry the member’s actions, implying that the union could basically handle the challenge.

In a Supreme Court case, a union had passed a rule prohibiting candidates for union office from receiving campaign donations from non-members. The candidates argued that this violated their free speech rights under LMRDA but the Supreme Court said that the union’s right to conduct its business without outside interference trumped the candidate’s right to receive political donations. According to the Court, the rule was “rationally related to the union’s legitimate interest in reducing outsider interference with union affairs.”