Democracy in the Union Movement

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a staff attorney at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2023. His writing on this blog reflects his personal views and should not be attributed to the IBT.

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 order characterized by private ownership and immense concentrations of capital and wealth, unions remain a notable example of a participatory institution. In contrast to corporations, which are, as I noted last month, despotic, labor unions must, by law, be structured democratically. Indeed, Title VI of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act requires that all union officials who exercise executive or policymaking authority be elected by the membership. Moreover, the law mandates that 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, he cautioned, “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 progressives have long identified the reality that unions remain imperfectly democratic institutions. Further democratizing organized labor has the potential not only to strengthen existing unions, but to revitalize the entire labor movement.

The zenith of the U.S. labor movement is rooted in the early 20th century, when labor activists, many of them socialists and communists, deployed aggressive and disruptive tactics to subordinate powerful employers and organize millions of working people. In the subsequent decades, unions became larger and more powerful, yet also more institutionalized and bureaucratized. Some shifted their focus toward 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, the labor movement 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 labor organizations are necessary to counter the enormous concentrations of private capital. But successfully challenging the elected leader of a national union presents an all but impossible task. Only four of the country’s largest unions have implemented a direct voting system, and it is not uncommon for elections in many of these major unions to go barely contested or even entirely uncontested. In fact, an incumbent president has not been unseated in any of the largest unions in decades. To be sure, huge organizational variation exists among unions, and locals are often more democratic than the national organizations. But under such conditions, a disconnect is liable to develop between union members and union officers. In 2016, for example, though many members favored Bernie Sanders in the Democratic 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 several dated papers, fewer find themselves 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 aimed at further democratizing unions, and restoring organized labor’s radical roots, could inject a desperately needed breath of revitalization in the lungs of the gasping labor movement.

Union democracy, according to one labor scholar, “is the very foundation of union power.” For instance, empirical study found that “the contracts won by … highly democratic unions … were systematically more likely to be pro-labor.” Similarly, 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.” This makes sense. It is only logical to suppose that elected leaders of highly democratic unions are more connected with the preferences of the membership, and that the members themselves are more committed to the union and eager to engage in disruptive workplace tactics. This intensifies the pressure that the union is capable of imposing on an employer and dramatically augments its capacity to bring in new employees.

The Association for Union Democracy (AUD), a national non-profit organization, has compiled a brief list of union democracy benchmarks. Although a checklist, not an “ultimate wish list,” AUD’s factors effectively set forth 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 propel the labor movement closer to building the future of working class 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.

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