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The Case for Direct Elections
BMWED and Direct Elections
July 2022

The case for direct elections within the BMWED has grown into such controversy as to turn brother against brother and lodge against lodge.  Arguments spill out of the Convention Halls and into hallways only to reappear at a later date at a different venue.  Acrimonious at best, our debates on the subject have perpetuated feuds and brought irreparable harm to the collective.  Which is why it’s surprising when the topic comes up and someone asks “What’s Direct Elections?”

Direct elections - is a principle in union democracy that would institute election procedures to ensure National Division officers most accurately represent the interests of the members.  Direct Elections guarantees that every member gets to vote.  Every member receives a ballot and can cast a vote for the candidate of their choosing.  Some will refer to direct elections as rank-and-file voting, or membership voting. Other times, the term “one man - one vote” will be used, or the phrase “every man’s voice is heard”. No matter what name is used, the concept of direct elections remains the same, that our individual members are granted equal representation in voting.

Indirect Elections - is when only people who have been elected to vote can actually vote.  Every member doesn’t get a ballot or a chance to cast a vote. Only the people elected to vote can vote.  Indirect elections are also called by other names, such as Delegate Voting or hierarchical voting.  Indirect elections take away our individual right to vote and give it to the people elected to vote for us.

The newly formed United Passenger Rail Federation already has Direct Elections and has adopted bylaws that specifically require Direct Elections. See Article 3, Section 2(a).  The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has Direct Elections.  The United Auto Workers recently voted to switch to Direct Elections after a decades-old delegate system of elections.  Even the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution restated the first paragraph of Article I, Section 3, and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase “chosen by the Legislature thereof” with “elected by the people thereof.”  Direct Elections.

Guess who doesn’t have Direct Elections? Our own BMWE National Division, that’s who.  Instead, the BMWE National Division uses a decades-old delegate system like the one recently abandoned by the UAW.  Our Local Lodges elect Convention Delegates who, at the convention, vote on candidates for National Division offices, like President, Secretary Treasurer, Executive Board, and so on. Convention delegates are the people that have been elected to vote for the rest of us.

The Code of Federal Regulations of the United States of America
29 CFR § 452.119 Indirect elections.
National or international labor organizations subject to the Act have the option of electing officers either directly by secret ballot among the members in good standing or at a convention of delegates or other representatives who have been elected by secret ballot among the members. Intermediate labor organizations subject to the Act have the option of electing officers either directly by secret ballot among the members in good standing or by labor organization officers or delegates elected by secret ballot vote of the members they represent. Local unions, in contrast, do not have the option of conducting their periodic elections of officers indirectly through representatives.

 Are Direct Elections good? It all comes down to one simple question. Jump ahead for the reveal.

Let’s consider some facts.

Progressive union leadership has for decades proposed amendments to the BMWED National Division Bylaws that would create and allow for Direct Elections.  At the BMWE Convention in 1998, it was proposed to amend the bylaws to provide direct elections.  That amendment failed.  It was proposed again in 2002, in 2006, in 2010 and 2014, failing each time. In 2018, a different course was taken.  Instead of proposing an amendment to change the bylaws, a resolution was offered to consider Direct Elections for the future.  The resolution failed.  Most recently, at the 2022 convention in Las Vegas, it was once again proposed to amend the bylaws and once again it failed.  You see, the Direct Elections debate has been going on for decades and for generations. Direct Elections for BMWED officers is one of the most contentious of subjects, so impassioned as to be spoken on by those who wouldn't speak otherwise.

Let’s consider this too.  Our National Division Bylaws require Lodge Delegates to be elected at Lodge meetings by those members in attendance at that meeting.  Let’s say the lodge has 200 members. If 40 members show up at the meeting, then 40 members will elect the Lodge Delegate. 40 members will decide which 1 person will vote on behalf of all 200.  National Division Bylaws require us to elect people to vote for us.

At the 5th Regular BMWE National Division convention in June 2022 there were 335 delegates representing 369 local lodges, representing 22,595 members. The math shows an average of 1 delegate representing 67.44 members. Except there were about 6,700 members who didn’t have a delegate. Either their lodge didn’t have an election meeting or didn’t have the money to send a delegate.  Whatever the reason for lodges not fielding a delegate, 6,700 member voices went unheard. 22,595 + 6,700 = 29,296.  Using centuries-old math, we understand that 22.87% of our members went unrepresented at this convention.  Almost a quarter of our membership were denied a vote in the June 2022 elections.

View the results of the 2022 Roll Call vote that decided whether to amend the bylaws to allow for Direct Elections for National Division elections.  With this list we are able to see how our delegates voted for us. View here

At this same convention there were 22,260 votes cast on the motion to amend the bylaws to include Direct Elections. 8,190 in favor; 14,050 against and 120 abstained. The motion failed. The Credential Committee reported that 22,595 members were represented at this convention but that only 22,260 votes were cast for the motion to adopt Direct Elections.  335 votes didn't enter into the tally, so did delegate(s) forget to vote for those 335? This is in addition to the 6,700 unrepresented members previously mentioned.

Some delegates are elected by more than 1 lodge. For instance, at the last BMWE National Division convention there were 24 delegates who carried the votes of more than 1 lodge. Some lodges may decide to rely on a delegate from another lodge.  

Some lodges have more than 300 members and only 1 delegate to vote for all of them. What are the odds of all 300 members voting the same way?

Arguments Against Direct Elections

Throughout the decades there have been a multitude of reasons argued against Direct Elections.  From this author’s perspective, all of those reasons defy logic while some of the reasons are just plain offensive.

There have been several conventions where delegates have spoken from the floor and on the record announcing that our members generally aren’t smart enough to know who to vote for.  Other delegates have claimed that they are so in tune with their members' interests and beliefs that they know exactly how the members would vote if they could.  Really? Who believes that rationale?  I can't get 3 other guys in the truck to agree on where to stop and get coffee.

Anti-direct election delegates will argue that counting votes on such a grand scale increases the possibility of election tampering or even honest mistakes.  Counting 350 votes is easier than counting 29,000 votes.  Making these arguments are the same delegates who’ve never been close enough to the process to understand the controls  implemented by an organization like the American Arbitration Association.  Contentious union elections are not new.  I'm sure we would all agree that the requirement for accurate and certified election results is absolute.  In today's world, organizations like the American Arbitration Association make that absolute a reality.

Some delegates argue that Direct Elections would create conditions where candidates for National Division office would be subjected to significant geographic challenges when campaigning.  We've heard assertions that candidates whose campaigns would target areas heavily populated with BMWED members would be advantaged, as compared to those who campaign in more rural or sparsely populated areas. This argument might hold some relevance…if it were made in 1960.  But today the distance between New York and Los Angeles is measured in milliseconds, not miles. This last round of election campaigning witnessed the use of technology in the place of barnstorming.  Prevalent were the emails and the website postings, including on Facebook.  Zoom video conferencing effectively joined candidates with constituents, which all but rendered the geographic argument moot.

In every discussion we'll hear an opponent of Direct Elections say that ALL of our members won't vote.  They just won't vote.  For sure they won't vote if they don't get the chance.  Advocates for Direct Elections will counter by saying that at least ALL of our members would be given the chance to vote if we had Direct Elections.

Here's a breakdown of how our Executive Committee voted on the Direct Elections proposal.

Convention Delegates have often tried to articulate the reasoning and purpose behind America’s electoral college and equate that reasoning to apply to our National Division elections.  Fail.  Our Electoral College is where a group of people are elected to vote for all of us. There have been five US Presidents who won the electoral vote, but not the popular vote. These five candidates won the votes of the people elected to vote for them even though losing the Direct Election vote. They are John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.  In these five elections, the one man - one vote count failed to elect the candidate, but the delegate election succeeded. How does that even work?  How does someone lose an election when everyone’s vote was counted but then wins the election when only counting the votes of those elected to vote?  It's reported that today’s society recognizes flaws inherent to this electoral college system and how the majority of people now favor direct elections for the selection of the President of the United States.

There have been long-winded exchanges debating what some delegates characterize as overly complicated instructions that were included on past ballots. Reference is made to contract ratification voting, how there were two or three envelopes included in the ballot package, some with the member’s name and address on a label and even something as suspicious as a Secret Envelope.  Delegates argue that it’s a confusing exercise to vote, and our members grow frustrated with such complicated instructions, sticking one envelope inside another. Discussion will reference labels used in the mail-in balloting process, eluding to what some believe is a lack of privacy or anonymity, that the label will somehow expose the voter's selection.  Advocates for direct elections mention how recent voting in the Single Carrier System initiative was groundbreaking in that voting was conducted across a multitude of platforms. No more envelopes and no more labels.  Our smart phones have been transformed into voting booths, protecting the secrecy and anonymity of our votes and certifying the results.

At each convention it has been argued that conducting direct elections is cost prohibitive. Grandiose figures are thrown around in an effort to dissuade delegates from voting in favor of direct elections when the reality is that Direct Elections might cost as much or as little as $50,000.  Every 4 years.  When broken down into per-capita allocations, we’re looking at about $0.09 per month per member. When we consider that we pay over $100 per month in dues, 9¢ doesn’t seem prohibitive. Democracy demands to know; at what cost does rank and file voting become cost prohibitive?

At the 2014 convention, it was mentioned from the dais that the BMWED had just sent out surveys asking questions relative to National Bargaining. The return response rate from the survey was poor, something like 20% or below.  The Chair drew the conclusion that ballots delivered in a Direct Election format would also have a poor return rate and only a portion of the members would decide the election outcome. At the 5th Regular BMWE National Division convention in June 2022, elections were decided by 1.14% of the members. The difference between the survey return referenced by the chair and the 2022 elections is that the survey had 100% participation.  Every member was sent a survey and had the chance to return the survey whereas the National Division elections of 2022 only allowed 335 to vote on behalf of some of our members.  

335 delegates ÷ 29296 members = 0.011435 = 1.1435%

100% received the 2014 survey but purportedly 80% didn’t return them. This shows a disconnect, a disenfranchisement or dissatisfaction. We've all heard our members say how our voices aren’t heard and “the union will do what they want no matter how I feel”.  Knowing that only 1.14% voted for all 100% of our members in the latest National Division elections just widens the disconnect and demonstrates that “Membership First” is just a feel-good slogan, trotted out during campaign seasons and forgotten about immediately after the elections.  If the membership was truly first, then the membership would have a voice in determining the representation of our union. one that most accurately represents the interests of the members.


It all comes down to the ANSWER to one fundamental QUESTION.

Let’s put it into simple context. Let's first imagine a scenario where “something” could happen that might change your job, or change the way you work, or change the way you earn or advance. That “something” might affect your quality of life, and ultimately might affect your family’s well-being.  But that “something” just doesn’t happen. That “something” requires a vote. Something is either voted in or voted out, voted to accept, or reject. All in favor of something vote yea and opposed vote no.

Here’s the question:  Would you like the opportunity to vote on something, or would you prefer to have someone vote for you?

Every time I ask the question, the response I get is a great big emphatic “I want to vote for myself”.  Every single time.

The only people I have ever heard say that they would rather have someone vote for them are delegates to our BMWED National Division conventions. The same delegates who profess to have the members' interest at heart but will stand to deny the voice of the worker and oppose the right to vote.

Voting in a Union Election is a Right

Page Last Updated: Dec 23, 2022 (01:21:30)
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