It is becoming fashionable, even among some activists and labor-oriented intellectuals, to derogate internal union democracy as an impediment to the great cause of reorienting and rebuilding the labor movement.
“…[T]he crusade for union democracy,” writes one eminent advocate of a labor-intellectual alliance, “seems interminable and interminably futile.” Andy Stern writes, “Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy.” And so the Change to Win Coalition, which he leads, proposes to reorganize the labor movement on a new basis, without concern for the rights of workers inside their unions. Stephen Lerner renders the thought deeper: “Considering union democracy as only a question of how a union is governed is too narrow….If only 10% of workers in an industry are unionized, it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90% are excluded.”
If there was no real interest in union democracy, why would you need so many niggling rules to suppress it? Why those meeting attendance rules which effectively exclude over 90% of union members from running for office? Why those tricky long, continuous good standing requirements which disqualify longtime union activists? Why impose burdensome and near-impossible petition gathering quotas on aspiring candidates? Why try to restrict independent access to the internet and websites? Why limit the right of observers to watch the ballot count? Why resist informing members of their democratic rights under federal law? Why eliminate the direct election of union officers? Why, if no one cares or listens, bother to use control over union hiring halls to starve out independent-minded workers who speak their minds. Why, in summary, if there is so little interest in union democracy, are so many union leaders afraid of it?
One radical, a relentless critic of the modern labor movement, dismisses the whole idea of “union democracy” as a delusion and ridicules reformers who would raise it as a demand in their unions. “[A]pathy,” he writes, "reigns too widely and a connected stratum of members simply delivers their votes in exchange for jobs and job security.” In support of that notion, he quotes C. Wright Mills, “Democracy within the unions, as within the nation as a whole, is usually a democracy of machine politics imposed upon a mass of apathetic members.”
Those who minimize the importance of democracy because members are apathetic have matters upside down. Democracy is especially important precisely where there is apathy.
In any social institution involving millions of people, and the labor movement is one such institution, the vast majority is preoccupied with the tough tasks of daily life: finding a way to earn a living, a good place to, live, getting and keeping a marriage, raising and educating children and keeping them off drugs, starting the car on a cold winter day, the rent and mortgage, those aching teeth and sprained ankles.
Overwhelmed by what deep-thinkers might consider these trivial pursuits, they‘re forced to neglect other important but less pressing matters, like union affairs. That is, they tend to become “apathetic.” Where there is a robust democracy, an activist, vociferous, gadfly minority can be available to shake up that majority and force them to face up to the critical issues of the moment. That is, democracy is an indispensable means to overcome apathy.
Those union officials, even those who are contemptuous of others who speak of “union democracy” are fully aware of all this. When they see fit to move an “apathetic” membership, they will utilize the standard tools of democracy. They orate at length to induce members to come out and vote on election day, to raise their dues, to vote to strike or not, to adopt a contract. They fill the pages of their captive union newspapers with exhortation on the selected subjects of the day. Come out on Labor Day, with me at the head of the parade! They are not exactly inveterate enemies of the idea of democracy. They simply feel more secure when they, themselves, enjoy a monopoly of those democratic rights. They get nervous when it is available independently to other union members not under their control.
In our labor movement, there are thousands of active, loyal unionists, and potentially many thousands more, independent-minded, conscious of their rights as Americans, insistent on dignified treatment in their union and on the job. Union democracy is one means of releasing that spirit as an energizing force to help overcome “apathy” in the labor movement.