by Paul Alan Levy
A hundred fifty dollars.
That is all it would take for the American Postal Workers Union to hire an outside mail service through which every one of the candidates in its internal union election, slated to begin one month from today, could email multiple campaign messages to every member for whom it has an email address. The APWU also collects email addresses on its membership application form, so it would seem to be a simple operation to create a list of all member email addresses by a simply database operation. Instead of seizing this opportunity to enable all candidates to campaign cheaply, the incumbents have decided to take advantage of their control over the union’s piggy-bank — the members’ money—to pay its lawyers to argue that it is unreasonable for rank-and-file candidates to ask to be allowed to send campaign literature to the union members by email, even though the members themselves are willing to pay the costs.
It is, on a human level, understandable why union leaders would not want to facilitate inexpensive campaigning by their adversaries. Every two months, they get to mail the union’s full-color magazine, comprised mostly of articles that they write about their conduct of union affairs and featuring their photographs, to entire union membership. (Sample magazines are here). And although it is a postal workers union that is at issue here, the union has no objection in principle to communicating about the union using email – every week it emails an update to a mailing list of 21,000, mostly members. So the union would not even have to hire a new emailing service, because it has already created that capability. And like the magazine, the email updates promote the incumbent officers and their agenda.
But for opposing candidates to communicate with the full union membership, they must send a hard copy postal mailing, at the cost of at least $100,000 per mailing. Average rank-and-file candidates can’t afford to do that more than once, if they can afford it at all. The result is that, by hoarding control of the union’s collection of member email addresses, the leaders make it much harder for rank-and-file candidates to level the playing field in a union election.
Consequently, on Friday we filed suit on behalf of three members on a rank-and-file slate within the Postal Workers union, relying on section 401(c) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, a federal statute that requires unions to comply with any “reasonable request” to deliver campaign literature to the union membership “by mail or otherwise.” We argue that email is just as much mail as postal mail, that in any event plaintiff’s request is covered by the words “or otherwise,” and that construing the statute to extend to requests for delivery of literature by the exceptionally low-cost method of email is consistent with the Congressional purpose of using the enforceable right to have campaign literature distributed to counter union leaders’ otherwise one-sided control of the channels of communications within unions.
Although the candidate plaintiffs obviously hope to benefit from the chance to campaign inexpensively if they prevail in the litigation, they consider their suit to be a principled stance in favor of union democracy. They feel so strongly about the principle that they are ready to spend their $150 to pay for an outside emailing service to send emails, and then allow campaign mailings through that service by other candidates in the election—including the incumbents who are shamelessly spending from the union treasury to block efforts to make email campaigning available to all union candidates.
Will the APWU incumbents accept this invitation to avoid the need for litigation at the members’ expense? Don’t bet on it.