By clawing back a degree of worker autonomy from the rule of corporations, labor unions offer a glimpse, and a promise, of working-class emancipation and self-determination. In an economic system characterized by private ownership and immense concentrations of private capital, unions stand out as an example of a participatory institution. In contrast to corporations, which are, as I noted last month, despotic, labor unions must, by law, be organized democratically. Title VI of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act mandates that all union officials who exercise executive or policymaking authority be elected by the union membership, and every union member in good standing is entitled to vote, nominate candidates, and run for office.

Historically, labor unions have had an enormously democratizing effect on society, but research has found that major unions themselves, though “firmly democratic,” can simultaneously exhibit tendencies of oligarchies or even autocracies. In the words of the late Herman Benson, lifelong advocate of democratic unionism, the union movement “is one of the great forces for democracy and social justice in America.” But, Benson warned, “this great pillar of democracy is itself nibbled away by the mice of bureaucracy.” Notwithstanding their laudable efforts in recent years to become even more participatory and inclusive, many leftists have long pointed out that unions are imperfectly democratic organizations. Further democratizing organized labor has the potential not only to strengthen existing unions, but to revitalize the entire labor movement.

The heyday of the American labor movement had its roots in the early 20th century, when labor activists, many of them socialists and communists, employed aggressive, disruptive tactics to defeat powerful employers and organize millions of workers. In the subsequent decades, unions became larger and more powerful, yet also more institutionalized and bureaucratized, and some shifted their focus towards bargaining and away from workplace disruption. Over the last few decades, as the ferociously destructive neoliberal regime battered organized labor, national unions increasingly began to merge and absorb local ones. Today, union power has become highly centralized, dominated by a handful of national organizations.

The mere fact that a union is large does not render it undemocratic, and powerful unions are necessary to counter the enormous concentrations of private capital. But challenging an elected leader in a national union can be virtually impossible. Only four of the country’s largest 20 unions have implemented a direct voting system, and it is not uncommon for elections in many of these major unions to be barely contested or even entirely uncontested. In fact, an incumbent president has not been unseated in any of the largest unions in decades. Overall election turnout tends to skew low. To be sure, there is huge organizational variation among unions, and locals are often more democratic than the national organizations. But under these conditions, a disconnect can develop between union members and union officers. In 2016, to illustrate, though many union members favored Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party presidential primary, the executive boards of major unions endorsed Hillary Clinton. The president of AFSCME later admitted that union leaders had “underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people.” The vast majority of workers report satisfaction with their union’s overall performance, but, at least according to some older studies, fewer are satisfied with their union’s internal operations. 

The struggle for labor unions has historically been a struggle for the working class to control their work and their lives — a struggle, in other words, for democracy. Some academics and progressives have suggested that reforms to further democratize unions, and return to organized labor’s radical roots, could serve as a desperately needed breath of revitalization for the gasping labor movement.

Union democracy, according to one labor scholar, “is the very foundation of union power.” One empirical study found that “the contracts won by…highly democratic unions…were systematically more likely to be pro-labor,” and in his influential paper on the topic, George Strauss concluded that “union democracy increases union effectiveness in representing members’ interests and in mobilizing these members to support its collective bargaining agreements.” Elected leaders of thoroughly democratic unions are more connected to the preferences of the members, and the members themselves are more committed to the union and eager to engage in disruptive workplace tactics, which not only intensifies the pressure that the union imposes on an employer, but unleashes the immense peoplepower of the union membership, thereby dramatically expanding its ability to bring in new workers.

The Association for Union Democracy (AUD), a national non-profit organization, has compiled a brief list of union democracy benchmarks. Though a checklist, not an “ultimate wish list,” AUD’s factors effectively lay out the basic principles of union democracy. AUD, first and foremost, suggests that unions should hold frequent — and contested — direct elections, where members challenge incumbents and there is routine turnover in the union’s officers. Union leaders should encourage members to run and secure them time off to campaign, and all union representatives and shop stewards should be directly elected and subject to recall. Next, AUD recommends publication of a newsletter explaining the union’s policies and printing members’ views and regular meetings where members are encouraged to speak out and discuss important issues. Finally, the membership, according to AUD’s list, should vote on all decisions about when to strike. More broadly, some labor activists envision democratic unionism as a shift from a “servicing model” — trying to solve members’ problems for them — to an “organizing model” — mobilizing and empowering members to tackle their own problems. Other progressive voices have suggested that unions implement a system of participatory budgeting.

The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) was founded in 1936 by a small group of workers who, according to UE’s account of its own history, were “determined to avoid bureaucratic, top-down control.” UE expanded rapidly until, labeled “communist,” it was expelled from the CIO. To this day, UE remains independent and a prominent example of a democratic union, controlled by the rank and file and committed to militant tactics. Under UE’s constitution, the salary of elected officers may not exceed “the highest weekly wage paid in the industry,” and the union relies on a system of shop stewards — trained union members — instead of professional staff. Its locals are entirely autonomous — local members elect their officers and stewards, send delegates to the national convention, and decide whether to strike. UE stives to solve problems organizationally, by mobilizing the membership instead of relying on legal procedures, and high levels of member participation are encouraged through regular monthly meetings. UE’s commitment to militancy and democracy has resulted in notable victories.

Historically, the labor movement has been an impressive force for democracy and social justice, and to advocate for more democracy in unions is not to suggest that unions are presently undemocratic, only that they are imperfectly democratic. More thoroughly democratic unions will push the labor movement closer to achieving its ultimate goal of building the future of worker emancipation that has inspired generations of labor activists to organize, agitate, and even sacrifice their lives. In the final analysis, the ability of labor unions to democratize society will increase to the extent that workers enjoy greater democracy in unions themselves.