Referee for democracy


Larry Taylor can be on stage for three days in front of 300 people, but they never hear him, and almost no one will remember he was there. Taylor doesn’t mind. He’s a parliamentarian.

Parliamentarians are experts on the rules for running meetings. Sitting off-microphone next to the person leading the meeting, a parliamentarian provides advice when things get complicated. Organizations hire parliamentarians to prevent their proceedings from getting tangled, and to make sure the chair doesn’t make mistakes that could later lead to challenges.

In the United States, the most widely used set of meeting rules is known as Robert’s Rules of Order. Taylor, 70, is a true believer, calling Robert’s Rules “the purest translation of democracy into civic life.” Robert’s Rules was developed in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert, a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Robert wanted to create a manual of parliamentary procedure that civic organizations of all sizes could use. Today Robert’s Rules is used in countless organizations, from unions to nonprofits to political parties.

“If you adhere to it, you end up getting well-mannered meetings,” Taylor said. “It’s when people’s rights start being taken away that you end up getting contentious meetings and fights.”

Democracy in action

On May 18, 2022, an hour into an Oregon Nurses Association convention in Portland, things started getting confusing. Attendees were considering a resolution when a delegate rose to propose an amendment, and another delegate proposed an amendment to that amendment.

As the union’s president, hospital charge nurse Lynda Pond was running the meeting. The procedural pileup was starting to get hard to track. She looked over at Taylor. “The motion needs a second,” he whispered.

Pond spoke into the mic: “Do we have a second to the amendment?”

Under Robert’s Rules, the focus is on motion — forward movement toward a collective decision. In the jargon of parliamentary procedure, a motion means a proposal. The way it works, a meeting participant stands up or raises their hand and waits until the person chairing the meeting “recognizes” them. That recognition is important because it makes it so that only one person speaks at a time, and it keeps people from interrupting or shouting over each other. Once recognized, the person can speak for or against a motion, or make a motion of their own. But as Taylor reminded Pond, you don’t start debating a proposal just because someone makes it. A proposal has to have a “second” — at least one other person has to say they support the proposal.

Taylor has a degree in computer science and spent his career as a project manager at Intel. He appreciates the logic and even the beauty of well-balanced rule systems. Using Robert’s Rules, giant groups of people can make decisions in a democratic and orderly way.

Taylor first got familiar with Robert’s Rules when he got active in the local Democratic Party in the late 1990s. He was eventually elected chair of the Multnomah County Democratic Party and later Clatsop County party chair after a move to Astoria. In 2015 he was elected by the state party to be a superdelegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. That experience changed him. In party meetings, he saw Democratic leaders suppress Bernie Sanders delegates in ways that could have been stopped if Sanders supporters had been better-versed in the meeting rules. That’s when, newly retired from Intel, Taylor resolved to become an expert in Robert’s Rules and spread the knowledge to others.

“I realized that the rules were where the game was played, and unless you understood the rules, the rules could be weaponized and used against you. And so I joined the National Association of Parliamentarians and took all of their exams and became a professional registered parliamentarian,” Taylor said.

In his retiree side gig as a paid parliamentarian, Taylor helps unions and other groups run meetings. He also teaches workshops on how to use Robert’s Rules and on understanding your organization’s bylaws.

Next week, he’ll be parliamentarian for the leading labor organization in Oregon, the union of unions known as the Oregon AFL-CIO. When the Oregon AFL-CIO holds its biennial convention in Bend Sept. 21-23, Taylor will give an overview of Robert’s Rules at the new delegate orientation, then sit on stage next to President Graham Trainor, ready to give expert advice whenever convention proceedings get complicated. He was on that stage last year too, when the Oregon AFL-CIO held the convention that it postponed in the pandemic. He said he came away impressed with delegates’ familiarity with the process. That may be because the Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of unions, so many of its delegates have experience using Robert’s Rules in their own unions’ meetings and conventions.

“It really takes experience in using the motions to be able to be comfortable to stand up at a meeting and do that sort of thing,” Taylor said. “You know, the hardest thing for people to do is utter these words: ‘I move to do such and such,’ because it’s not something people ordinarily do.”

Unions are some of the last remaining large democratic organizations in which any member can attend and participate in governance. But it helps if members know how to use the process. Taylor sees that as his most important mission: training people on how to use the tools of democracy.

“We’re in a place now where everyone treats meetings like watching a movie. You know, everyone has the four basic rights: to attend, to vote, to speak in debate, and to make motions. And they’re all good at attending. And they’re all good at voting. But they’re not so good at making motions and debating. That’s active participation in democracy.”

“The more I work with it, the more astonished I am that people are uncomfortable with the concept of ‘power to the people.’”



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