Source: Rosemary Feurer, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published February 28, 2022
From the abstract:
This essay historicizes some of Stephen Ashby’s findings, and elaborates on a thesis that union democracy is weak in the United States because capitalist opposition was so strong in a formative stage of union development. It introduces a brief survey of the first major U.S. industrial union, the United Mine Workers of America, to show that leadership cordoned off more radical alternatives in service to capital and to middle class and political operatives influence. It introduces a brief survey of the first major industrial union, the United Mine Workers to show that leadership cordoned off more radical alternatives in service to capital and to middle class and political operatives influence. Union leadership responded to that challenge with highly centralized control that blocked more democratic and struggle-based unionism. This had long term consequences through the next insurgency the Congress of Industrial Organizations. These historic influences are operative in the present, when workers seek power to build a counter to the growing inequality of wealth.
Stephen Ashby’s survey and interviews sharpen our understanding of the relationship between democracy and leadership in labor unions. Labor historians are trained to discernagency of workers, but in this survey, we see the tensions between workers’ agency, democracy, and leadership. Can workers make their unions more fully their own? Why should they? As I read many of the interviewee comments in the essay, I was struck with how much they connected to past struggles for democracy. While our workplaces have changed, the same questions of the relationship between union leaders and workers resonate.
Union Democracy in Today’s Labor Movement
Source: Steven K. Ashby, Labor Studies Journal, OnlineFirst, Published November 17, 2021
From the introduction:
Any discussion of union democracy should begin with the obvious: labor unions are the most important vehicle to defend workers’ rights in the world. The world would be a far better place if every worker who wanted to could, without fear, join a labor union. Unions negotiate better wages and benefits than comparable non-union workers receive. Unions bring some element of democracy into an otherwise undemocratic workplace where the boss has unlimited power. A union grievance procedure brings a version of the Bill of Rights’ sixth amendment into the workplace—a worker accused of doing something wrong has due process rights.
Unions advocate values in the workplace such as justice, fairness, safety, and respect. Polls show that around half of American workers would join a union if they were free to do so—four and a half times the number who are currently members.1 Over the past century, unions have fought for every U.S. law benefitting workers. As well, unions are one of the most democratic institutions in the U. S., and unions are among the most interracial organizations in the U.S.2
Yet American unions are not perfect models of democracy. While all unions have constitutions and by-laws that outline democratic procedures, there is a tremendous range of democracy within the labor movement. The bulk of labor unions are somewhere on a spectrum between completely democratic, member-driven, transparent unions, and bureaucratic, top-down, secretive unions with no member involvement. Democracy is a goal. Democracy is not something a union achieves, congratulates itself, and then forgets about. Democracy, in a country or in a labor union, is not achieved by just passing good laws or rules. No set of rules, no constitution, no by-laws, and no elections guarantee union democracy. Democracy is achieved by the continual struggle to maintain it and to expand it. Democracy is maintained by the people holding elected leaders accountable for their actions.