ACLU, Public Citizen File Lawsuit Backing Free Speech Rights of Candidate for Union Office

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Seeking to uphold union democracy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Public Citizen today filed a lawsuit backing the free speech rights of a union member running for office.  The suit was filed on behalf of Joseph Hughes to secure his right to speak with fellow members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Hughes is running for Business Manager in the June election of IBEW Local 46, which represents 4,000 workers in the greater Seattle area and several nearby counties.  Hughes is challenging a Local 46 rule that forbids candidates from discussing the union election or having political paraphernalia – including buttons or bumper stickers – anywhere on the union’s premises, including the hallways of the union hall or even in the union parking lot.  Because the union runs a hiring hall to which members come daily from surrounding counties in order to secure work, the rule limits a candidate’s ability to campaign effectively.

“Democratic elections are the American way.  A meaningful election is possible only if the candidates and their supporters are free to talk to each other about the issues and express their views about the candidates,” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan.

The lawsuit asserts that Local 46’s rule violates the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, which guarantees the right of all union members to speak to each other about elections, both in and out of union meetings.  The lawsuit seeks an injunction barring union officials from interfering with Hughes’s free speech rights and seeks to overturn the rule barring campaigning and political paraphernalia on union premises.

“Because unions do not have a free press and the other checks on officials that are so familiar to citizens in America, the advantages of incumbency are even greater in unions than when citizens run for public office,” said staff attorney Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen.  “When unions actively interfere with internal candidates’ efforts to reach out to their fellow members for support, prompt judicial relief is needed.”

Local 46 officials previously resisted Hughes’s requests to communicate with union members via e-mail at his own expense, but this week they agreed to permit his campaign e-mails.  The ACLU and Public Citizen will be watching closely to ensure that this agreement is carried out.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for Western Washington in Seattle.  Staff attorney Aaron Caplan is handling the case for the ACLU of Washington, and attorneys Paul Alan Levy and Michael Kirkpatrick are handling the case for Public Citizen.

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