Need Better Leadership? Run for Office

Reformers in Teamsters Local 728 in the Atlanta area reaped the benefits of a hard-fought, member-driven election campaign.

In the first round of voting, the Members First slate barely won many of its seats, after incumbent and other slates split the vote. The new officers were then quickly faced with a re-vote, imposed by Teamsters Joint Council 75. Slate members called it a case of “voting till you get it right”.

The new officers went back to the members. Drawing on support built up in their first grassroots campaign, they swept the late April revote, to the surprise of many.

The slate also looked to the previous election experience of fellow rank-and-file reformers in Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).


Building enough support to win an election and succeed in leading your local can sometimes take years, and it might take running and losing more than once. Most important: get started. A year ahead is not too soon.

But long before any election, your campaigning begins by taking leadership at the workplace. If you just turn up asking for votes at election time, you are unlikely to get them, even if you are well-liked.

Build support and a network by leading on issues. Your campaign really begins with talking to members one-on-one, organizing workplace actions, distributing flyers and doing petition drives, and taking stands at union meetings. Make contacts at every shop, if your local includes several workplaces, and build a list. Always carry a notepad.

Build a slate. Running alone is one of the commonest mistakes. The incumbents will likely have a slate. And even if you win, you will have a tough time functioning alone. No one ever turned a local union around by her or himself.

A slate should reflect your membership through diversity and by representing various departments, crafts, or shops. And the slate should share a vision.

Develop a platform. Why are you running? Survey members to know what issues are important to them and focus on positive solutions to problems, not just what’s bad. Your platform might be five or so top issues that you would work to achieve if you win. Build your campaign on issues, not personalities.


Election rules and protections. The rules for elections are set by your local bylaws, union constitution, and a federal law called the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Under LMRDA, all candidates must be treated equally.

For example, if the incumbents use the union’s membership list to do phonebanking, then challengers must be given the list also. If an employer lets one slate campaign at its facility, other slates must be allowed to also; otherwise you can protest. No slate can use union resources to campaign. For example, candidates can’t use the union newsletter to promote themselves unless all candidates are given equal access.

Who’s eligible? Many good candidates are disqualified because they didn’t know the rules. There may be requirements in the bylaws or constitution for a certain number of years of good standing in the union, for example. There may be a requirement of continuous payment of dues in a timely fashion, even if you are on layoff.



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The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down overly restrictive rules, like requiring 50 percent attendance at union meetings for two years, since 95 percent of union members would not qualify.

Election timeline. Start the campaign well in advance of nominations, which really mark the final push time for your campaign. The time between nominations and voting may be short, like 30 days, so the bulk of your campaigning to all worksites would probably happen before nominations.

The nominations meeting itself will have specific rules for nominating and accepting. You will want to have people selected in advance to properly nominate and second your candidates in person at the meeting. You may want to have back-up written nomination and acceptance letters, too, at the meeting.


Plan ahead to use vacation time. Consider which workplaces you will need to visit where you may not be known. You will need to reach members there one-on-one, even more than once, not just through the mail. Slate members can rotate time off during the campaign period.

Raise money. Get seed money from slate members. Plan raffles and fundraiser parties. Do a support petition and ask for $1 from each signer. This valuable contact information will build your list and help to get the votes in later when you contact these supporters. Remember: No employer can contribute anything of value, even your brother-in-law who runs a bar or a copy shop—not money, food, copies, nothing.

Campaign literature costs a fair amount—flyers, petitions, stickers, and brochures about your slate. If you have mail ballot elections, you will need to do at least one mailing to the whole membership. The incumbents will likely do more.

Get visible. You can do mailings before you are nominated. Listing endorsements from key members on your campaign materials will make them stronger. Distributing flyers member-to-member at workplaces is important—don’t just stick them on windshields or leave them in the break room. Stickers are inexpensive and a good way for members to show their support and help build name recognition of your slate. You can judge your support partly by how many members are willing to wear your stickers or to be openly identified with you in some way, such as signing an endorsement flyer.

Do your homework. Gather information on worksites, previous elections (which worksites had big turnouts), and key issues (such as examples of bad contracts). Gain experience: take labor education classes, attend trainings at your local, become a steward and committee person.

Observe the election. Notify the local that you intend to have observers present at all stages of ballot preparation—all handling, mailing, and counting—and at walk-in voting, and that you want advance notice before any of these occur.

Review the ballot and election materials before they are printed and mailed to make sure they are correct. Get a written record of how many ballots are printed and how many mailed. Make sure all ballots, including damaged and returned ones, are accounted for. Get confirmation of the mailing date for ballots, as this will determine when you will mail your final campaign materials: to arrive about the same time as the ballots.

If your rights have been violated, a procedure exists in all unions to file election protests, either before the election or after. In some cases union constitutions require protests to be filed on a very short timeline. Serious violations need to be protested.

You have a right to ask the Department of Labor to investigate election violations, but only if you have followed your internal procedures first. A letter to the DOL must wait till 90 days after the election was completed.

The comprehensive manual Running for Local Union Office is available from TDU for $10 postpaid, or call 313/842-2600. It includes What’s Next? for after you win. See also chapter 18 of A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.