Phil Lillies is an internal auditor with a deep interest in workplace democracy. Based in Canada, he has spent ten years applying his training in philosophy and organizational development to the study of internal workings of labour and community organizations. In this article he focuses on bylaws — the rules and regulations that do so much to reflect and condition union culture at local level. He offers some reflections on how to write bylaws that will help create a democratic, inclusive organization… one that will inspire and empower its members to support good causes during times of quiet as well as times of struggle. This will prepare the union to better face the future, no matter what it may bring.

“What I have observed is that bylaws are really not that important when there is a clearly defined cause that people can rally around. In these cases, a sense of empowerment can arise spontaneously. Leaders and volunteers who step forward are ushered into meaningful roles. …but when the contract has been signed and the strike fund topped up, it takes some effort to find such causes. It is during these quieter times that bylaws become important. At such times, the natural form of organization is a club. The Executive is formed from a harmonious group of mutual acquaintances, and accountability is often forgotten about. (Who cares? There are no issues.) Unfortunately, a club engenders a sense of powerlessness in those who can’t or won’t join in…”

The way your union works at the local level can make the difference between whether you become engaged or just pay your dues. Is there a genuine sense of democracy and accountability? Or is there a belief that some self-perpetuating clique has taken charge? Are representatives accountable, or do they just take whatever mantle they are given never to be heard from until the next AGM? Are conflicts dealt with honestly and openly?

Good bylaws are essential to any union Local. Typically, they are the only guidelines that will actually be read by members and the Local Executive. They set the tone for the governance of the Local, and can ultimately determine its success or failure as a viable organization.Obviously, bylaws must be written with the situation of the Local in mind. Unless the union is very small, the Local will be situated at the base of an interlocking superstructure of councils, committees, and other organizational elements. These organizational elements will provide guidelines that must be conformed to in crafting Local bylaws. Hopefully, this superstructure will also describe organizational values, define accountability requirements, list the duties of officers, and generally set expectations for performance of the Local.

However, perhaps the most important consideration in the development of bylaws is the situation of the workers themselves. In industrialized countries many workplaces have in place an automatic “dues check-off” mechanism, whereby the employer deducts union dues from each worker’s pay-check regardless of the worker’s union status. (In Canada, where the author lives, this kind of automatic check-off is known as the Rand Formula, after the Supreme Court justice Stephen Rand who introduced this formula in 1946 in an arbitration decision.) This automatic check-off is designed to ensure that no employee will opt out of the union simply to avoid dues yet reap the benefits of the union’s accomplishments (such as ensuring higher wages, better job security, or other benefits). Given this automatic checkoff, individual workers do not really have a choice about whether or not they belong to the union and pay dues. Hence, if the Local is to be effective, workers of many different backgrounds and worldviews must find a way to work together, resolve conflicts, and build consensus.

Unfortunately, conflicts can easily arise between parties with disparate worldviews. They are guided by differing moral compasses. For example, a religious person may see things quite differently than an atheist, and they may feel compelled to react differently to a range of issues. James Davison Hunter, in his book “Death of Character”, outlines some basic research into the five types of moral compass used by young people (results for adults are likely to be similar as the moral compass is set early in life):

  • 16% (theists) endeavour to do “what God tells them is right”
  •  20% (conventionalists) look first to authority figures, such as parents, teachers, or leaders for moral guidance
  •  25% (civic humanists) consider first what is in the best interests of their community or social group
  • 10% (utilitarians) do a careful calculation of their own self-interest
  •  18% (expressivists) act like utilitarians but depend more on “what feels good” rather than on calculation.

Human beings are illogical creatures, and none of us are consistently any of these types. However, it is pretty easy to imagine that in some circumstances any or all of these types could be in conflict. there will be no easy resolution. For example, doing what felt good or what was in one’s own interests might appeal to expressivists and utilitarians, but might appear morally reprehensible to civic humanists, theists, and even conventionalists.

One way in which Locals, and unions in general, have in the past avoided most moral conflict is to restrict the scope of activities. Some exist solely to provide services to members. Thus, the Local Executive handles most of the dealings with management. In effect, the Local forms a kind of club. This may seem like a very natural and logical way to organize the Local; not only does it minimize conflict between members, but it also mirrors the kinds of organizations that workers are familiar with in the community. Soccer clubs, glee clubs, Seniors’ clubs, toastmaster clubs — much of civil society is organized by means of clubs. Hence, by organizing in this way, the Local matches workers’ expectations for governance. However, let’s reflect for a moment on some of the characteristics of a club. These can create serious problems for union Locals, such as:

A mission state of restricted scope
In practice, a club equates to restricting the scope of activities solely to the provision of services to members. This is often referred to as the “service model.” The failure of the service model is fairly widely recognized and relates to the fact that it provides no guidance for interaction with the broader community outside the workplace. Failure to take a stance on important community issues isolates workers, so that in times of crisis (such as a strike that impacts public services) they can easily be depicted as greedy and indifferent to the interests of the common good.

Motivation for becoming active is personal fulfillment
(e.g., to increase your skills, to help your children, or even just to avoid boredom).
In the Local, this may mean that the Executive is filled by careerists who see interaction with management as a way to advance their career, by those who enjoy the chance to get away from the office for union activities and a bit of travel, by those who enjoy the small amount of power that being on the Executive provides, etc. Building the labour movement does not come up as a priority.

A hierarchical structure controlled by the President of the club
The ability of the Local to spontaneously form groups and committees will be severely restricted. Hierarchical control, combined with a weak mission statement, means that decisions will often be based on the authority of the President, with no reason given. Of course this discourages the general membership from engaging in the affairs of the Local.

Rudimentary communication, filtered by the club President
For most of the membership the real scope of the Local’s activities, and indeed the scope of the labour movement’s activities, will remain unknown. In addition, queries from the membership that are complicated or difficult to respond to will simply be ignored, thus further discouraging member participation.

Loose rules of meeting management
Imagine a club. People come; they chat. An idea for action pops up. Somebody volunteers to take minutes. The planning builds into a plan of action that might be followed up, but rarely will the minutes ever be read back, let alone approved. A union local that runs like this will soon fall apart. Did we form a committee at the last meeting or not? How did that member get to be a delegate to the Area Council? Was he appointed or elected? The dues are too low. Let’s adjust them at the next meeting. As an Executive we know that it’ll be easier if we just spring it on them, so let’s not even send out an agenda till the last minute. A few meetings like this and meeting attendance begins to drop off precipitously. Do we still have a quorum? Does it matter?

Strong selection pressure; if you don’t like the club, you leave it.
Diversity is eschewed; members who have different views (be they political, religious, organizational, etc) may find themselves subject to exclusion, harassment, and discrimination. The full range of talent of expertise and talent buried within the membership is unlikely to be recognized, let alone utilized. Clearly, the club as a model for Local organization cannot work. Under the pressures that normally appear in a workplace, it will lead to a Local that essentially serves the interests of management, or dissolves entirely from lack of interest.

The only reasonable alternative is to draw members into the Local by encouraging democratic participation and open deliberation on all matters of significance to them. Thus, expenditures must be debated and the Executive held accountable for them; minutes must be reviewed and followed up; general meetings need to be frequent enough that Local business gets attended to… and so on.

In addition, it must be clear what the rules of procedure are so that members can raise their concerns and feel that they are being dealt with. Firm control of agendas by a strong Executive is the bane of any democratic Local. Conflict must be allowed to arise, but rules of procedure need to be there to keep it respectful, so that members will be drawn in rather than repulsed.

Some features we would expect to see in bylaws that encourage democratic participation are:

  1.  A mission state of extended scope defining the values of the Local.
    This is so important! Values should be universal, like social justice, human rights, inclusiveness, and democracy. These values should not be allowed to languish but should inform all decision-making, including decisions on the development and application of bylaws. A mission state of extended scope helps ensure that the motivation for becoming active in the Local is extrinsic, to build a stronger union movement, to make a better world.
  2. A collegial governance structure based on defined roles that encourages deliberation and application of the mission statement in decision-making.
    When members of the Executive Committee have specific roles to play, it helps ensure that committees form, issues get raised, and things get done. To ensure that roles are clearly enough defined, it may be advisable to detail their responsibilities in a supplementary document. The employer, of course, would much prefer to deal with just the Local President, who then becomes overloaded, but democratic participation requires the intervention of many agents. Together they have the capacity to respond to the demands of the general membership in a timely fashion.
  3. Accountability.
    This means orderly reviews of Local business, frequent elections, and even a right of recall. Elections should occur at least annually, with frequent by-elections to fill open offices between elections. The argument that officers need time to learn before they can become effective is mostly bogus. Usually there are multiple venues where they can get the training they need before being elected. If the Local’s governance structure is collegial, help will never be far away. Details of all income and expenditures should be presented at every meeting and a system of trustees (who are not members of the Executive Committee) should ensure that no expenditures are made without justification to the full membership. The Treasurer has an especially important role to play in that he or she needs to review the decision-making process behind every expenditure before signing the cheque to make the payment.
  4. Provisions for communication that is frequent and extensive, covering both Local business and community issues.
    There may be an explicit reference to enhancing communication through the use of social media. Communications should not just be top-down, but rather the Local should aim to enhance democracy by embracing electronic tools that are specifically designed to encourage group discussion and the formation of action committees. To assist with this communication one of the roles assigned to the Executive should be the maintenance of an electronic forum with an up-to-date list of interested participants.
  5. Comprehensive rules of meeting management (e.g. Bourinot’s or Robert’s Rules of Order, or the more chaotic rules that have been developed by the Occupy movement).
    Without rules of procedure voices will be suppressed; diversity will be encumbered. Meeting management rules should make provision for the reading of an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination statement that will help enforce the principle of inclusiveness that appears in the Local’s mission statement and help ensure that diversity is embraced.
  6. Rules for discipline and respect.
    Everyone is entitled to a fair hearing before sanctions are applied. When an out-of-control conflict between members threatens to arise, it is the first duty of the Executive to attempt to resolve it by the simplest means possible. Usually this will involve bringing the two parties together so that suitable apologies can be made.


Model Local bylaws and guidelines are usually provided by the larger union superstructure of which the Local forms a part. However, be prepared for much work in re-working these to make the result work for your Local. There may be disagreements with upper union management regarding how freely information can be disseminated to the membership, about how stewards are appointed, about who committees are accountable to, etc. Locals that are committed to democratic participation will see these disagreements as opportunities to enhance the democratic functioning of the union as a whole. Where necessary, they will use the appeal and change mechanisms that are constitutionally available to them.

Of all the principles that encourage democratic participation, perhaps the most important are inclusiveness and the embracing of diversity. Cooperation in the face of diversity can always be achieved by emphasizing common goals and shared interests. Indeed, there is a whole school of thought that holds that one of the primary causes of organizational dysfunction is the tendency of people to engage in time-wasting personal conflicts rather than focusing on the common goals that are achievable through coordinated effort.

An effective labour movement requires that the values of human rights, social justice, inclusiveness, and democracy motivate the affairs of the Local. The union Local is where we can learn to work together — not only to improve the quality of working life but also to achieve the common good in civil society at large.