Unions and Democracy

A Reply to Steve Fraser

Stanley Aronowitz

There may be no more contentious issue in today s labor movement than union democracy. Almost everybody agrees that members should have the right to elect officers, hold regular meetings, and approve contracts negotiated by their leaders. But not everyone agrees that a vital labor movement needs an active rank and file that participates in running its own unions -- by making policy decisions and by taking the lead in organizing, bargaining, and other activities such as education and political action. Indeed, the distinction between those who favor a leadership-controlled labor movement and those who advocate rank-and-file power may be the great divide of the 1990s.

Steve Fraser has done a service to the debate by publishing a cautionary, even critical article about union democracy ("Is Democracy Good for Unions?,"Dissent, Summer 1998). Although Fraser vaguely favors a "democratic" labor movement, he remains unconvinced that union democracy is vital to labor s revival; indeed, the burden of his article is to place reliance on visionary leaders. His argument boils down to two points:
(1) Some of the most effective union leaders, "utterly devoted to organizing, tactically creative and militant, and who ve achieved remarkable successdon t care a rat s ass for union democracy; indeed consider it an actual hindrance where a state of undeclared war against employers demands discipline, secrecy and decisive action by small groups of outsiders less subject to daily intimidation."
(2) Advocates of union democracy have misconstrued the nature of trade unions. Unions are not political parties of the social democratic or labor type but instead are "natual monopolists" in the labor market, "prone to defend the interests and express the democratic will of their existing members by excluding others; in America that has meant (and . . . continues to mean) immigrants, blacks, and women." Often, union leaders who attempt to break with these exclusionary practices are "democratically repudiated" by the rank and file. And, he insists, the bureaucracy that emerged with the broad industrial union upsurge of the 1930s was the product of pressure from below: "The rank and file is complicit in the creation of the bureaucracy; the bureaucracy is the legitimate offspring, at least in the case of strong CIO-like upheavals."

Fraser repeats the most celebrated argument against union democracy, offered at the time of the 1955 AFL and CIO merger by href="http://www.dol.gov/dol/asp/public/programs/history/goldberg.htm">Arthur J. Goldberg, the general counsel of the Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO. Although unions are technically voluntary organizations, in reality, according to Goldberg, they are best characterized by the metaphor of an army, with its chain of command and iron discipline. Consequently, genuine rank-and-file union democracy might be destructive to unions and to labor s more progressive social platforms.

Whatever Fraser s democratic sympathies, we are entitled to read his argument as a defense of the existing leadership. He may be right to argue that labor bureaucracy is an organic outgrowth of rank-and-file upheaval. However, the issue, is not whether a bureaucracy has formed, but whether an isolated caste of union officials has developed, with its own interests and outlook -- officials who operate as enlightened despots and view union members as mere clients. Often the upheavals of the 1930s were not only expressions of discontent with the way employers trampled on workers rights; they were also directed against craft unions and their leaders, who scorned the project of organizing semi-skilled workers or forced them to conform to craft rules in order to gain entry into the House of Labor. Democracy meant, in the first place, that workers could form unions of their own choosing. Twenty years later, union members were deprived of this choice by the famous Article 20 of the new AFL-CIO constitution, which prohibited competition among affiliates. Since 1955, dissatisfied unionists have effectively lost the option of dumping their existing collective bargaining representative, unless they choose to form independent unions outside the AFL-CIO. Their best chance for deliverance from arbitrary union practices is to throw the rascals out, and they have never ceased to exercise this option. Unlike European workers, who can choose between competing federations, American workers are condemned to seek union democracy of a different and perhaps more radical type. Union democracy is not a leftist pipe dream; in the face of autocracy, it is the only recourse for dissenting unionists.

Which explains why, from the href="http://www.voicenet.com/~enos/uswa.html">Steelworkers insurgencies of the late 1950s to the Miners for Democracy movement in the 1970s to the long march to elect a democratic, militant Teamsters leadership in 1991, union democracy has become a program of the militant rank and file and of a section of secondary leaders as well. Honest, militant unionism is today intimately intertwined with the demand for democracy. In locals of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Transport Workers, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Construction Trades, caucus movements seek to recapture control of their own unions. Although it is true that radicals are often found in the ranks of the opposition (a fact that Fraser seizes on to belittle union democracy), these movements could not have gotten to first base without broad membership support.

There are two models of union democracy: democracy by consent, where the rank and file has formal, but little substantive, power over union affairs; and what I call strong or participatory democracy. The inadequacy of democracy by consent is particularly apparent in many large city unions. In locals consisting of a large number of relatively small units, the business agents and the business manager usually enjoy near-absolute power. any big-city locals of construction, small manufacturing, and public and private service employees are run as self-perpetuating fiefdoms; some are open father-son affairs. In some cases, such as New York City s District Council 37, financial corruption is rife, even among unions that might be considered socially liberal. In others, notably the construction trades and the Teamsters, only the determined intervention of "outsiders" like the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) and the government has succeeded in restoring a measure of rank-and-file control. In New York City s garment center, union misfeasance takes a different form: the leadership concedes substandard wages and working conditions to the employer -- in effect, sanctions sweatshops -- in return for employer payments to the benefits fund. Lacking the power, but also the will, to combat flagrant violations of labor standards, the union settles for less than half a loaf. Money may not find its way into a business agent s pockets, but the union has, in recent years, averted its eyes and collected handsome sums for its inattention.

Sometimes the abrogation of union democracy is more subtle. The union leaders might observe the requirement to procure membership consent for a proposed contract settlement but refuse to grant the opposition access to mailing lists, the union newspaper, and other forums in order to present their views.

Fraser effectively demolishes the illusion of the dichotomy of a "virginal rank and file and a venal bureaucracy," but with his neat, stereotypical identification of union democracy with the mythic "New England town meeting," he has dismissed the alternative of strong union democracy. The recently collapsed merger between the AFT and the National Educational Association (NEA) illustrates the difference between the two kinds of union democracy. Although there was agreement at the national level and the href="http://www.aft.org//index.htm">AFT could be counted upon to routinely approve the merger, many at the NEA convention spoke against it on grounds of democratic difference. The AFT may not be formally autocratic, but it is fair to characterize its modus vivendi as anti-Stalinist democratic centralism. The AFT is a highly centralized, professionally run organization. The full-timers run the union. In most locals, elected officials can serve in perpetuity and the union maintains a large staff of appointed officials at both the local and the national levels to administer its day-to-day affairs. The membership is rarely, if ever, directly invited to participate in policy debates, but is presumed to have consented to policy decisions made at conventions and other meetings by representatives.

In contrast, the NEA has a highly decentralized style of governance. The national leaders and many local officers are subject to term limits; contract settlements are hotly debated among the members; major decisions are taken only after wide consultation with the rank and file. And most elected NEA officials return to the classroom after their term is completed, so they consider themselves on temporary leave when they serve in full-time office. In short, one of the crucial reasons for the merger s failure was the different conceptions of democratic participation between the two organizations.

The problem of participation should not be framed entirely in moral or in procedural terms. Despite some signs of life, American unions remain deeply troubled: they represent a smaller proportion of the private-sector workforce than they did in 1934, three years before the Labor Relations Act took effect. In many industries collective bargaining has given way to collective begging; and even with a revived organizing agenda union density continues to slip. Since most unions can no longer claim that they are capable of protecting the jobs of union supporters in organizing campaigns, let alone the jobs of their own members, and since the task of organizing is awesome in the current political environment, some unions have found that calling on their own members to take a leading role in organizing is the most effective way to overcome fear among nonunion workers. Recent union victories against USAir and href="http://www.iamnow.org/election/election_update.htm">United Airlines were spearheaded by rank-and-file organizers the most important advances in white-collar and professional organizing, labor s best kept secret, were rank-and-file successes.

Many workers will not join unions unless they have a genuine sense of ownership of their organizations. If mighty unions could once promise -- and maybe even deliver -- the moon, those days are gone, perhaps forever. Today s unions can make only one sound promise: that if workers in union and nonunion shops take the initiative, the organization s resources, full-time organizers, and rank-and-file union members will support them. In short, the revival of solidaristic unionism entails a new and perhaps unprecedented level of rank-and-file participation. The widespread disaffection of many workers from unions may be the result of their perception that unions have become client-based institutions and exclusionary institutions in which members are to be "serviced."

My own observation confirms one of Fraser s insights. Some excellent organizers in the South and in Las Vegas "don t care a rat s ass about union democracy" and have made gains anyway. But these victories are mainly among the working poor, many of whom are recent immigrants. In other sectors, not caring a rat s ass will surely turn off potential members. And after the union achieves bargaining rights in hotels, garment factories, strawberry fields, and other low-wage sites, unless members are vitally engaged in the bargaining and grievance process, unless they take hold of the life of the union, it will quickly disintegrate into an insurance company or, worse, a social service agency. What is at stake in the fight for participatory democracy is the future of the labor movement. When unions deprive the rank and file of choice, when leaders favor mobilization but not participation, they succeed only in driving a deeper nail in labor s coffin.


Stanley Aronowitz's latest book is From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future.

Copyright 1999 by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, Inc. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all HTML codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact dissent@igc.apc.org, or write to Dissent, 521 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1700, New York, NY 10017.

Return to Laborers.org

(c) All original work Copyright Laborers.org 1998. All rights reserved..