Socialists and Union Democracy

Against the Current No. 225, July/August 2023

Steve Downs

A VERSION OF this article was the author’s opening presentation to a May 2, 2023 Zoom call for members and friends of Solidarity. His pamphlets Hell on Wheels and the newly published Socialist Strategies in Unions, both discussing the experience in Transport Workers Union Local 100, are available for purchase.

HOW DOES THE fight for democratic unions connect to the fight for socialism? My key point is that building democratic unions is not separate from what we call “our socialist tasks.” It is a socialist task.

It does not exhaust those tasks, but we should not consider the push for democracy as something less than or distinct from what we need to do to advance socialism within the working class. And we should not apologize for the emphasis we, as socialists, place on union democracy.

What do I mean when I say that fighting for democracy in unions is a socialist task, especially when you don’t have to be a socialist to push for greater democracy in unions? In fact, most union members who engage in these fights are not socialists, at least not yet.

As we’ve seen recently in the UAW and Teamsters, members generally take up this fight because they believe that their union has failed to represent them or to take on the boss, not because they want to overthrow capitalism. This failure is often explained by a sense that the union’s officers are out of touch with the members, and that they are out of touch because the members do not have any real say over what the union does or how it does it.

So at a fundamental level, the fight for union democracy is a fight for more militant unions. Things like by-laws campaigns, calls for transparent ballot counts, and other manifestations of the demand for more democracy are means to the end of building a union that will fight for its members.

Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle emphasize this in their book published by Labor Notes, Democracy is Power. They point out, for example, that “few members will work to change by-laws or elect new leaders unless they’re convinced it will improve the way the union addresses their problems at work.”

As union members and activists, we want unions to be more militant because we want to win better wages, better benefits, better working conditions, and to build deeper connections with the community. We want to limit the power of capital on and off the job.

The Great Struggle Ahead

As socialists, we want unions to be more militant because we want them to limit the power of capital on and off the job. In this, we are in sync with Frederich Engels’ observation in The Condition of the English Working-class in 1844, that unions are “the military school of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided…And as schools of war the Unions are unexcelled.”

(Please note that Engels wrote that through unions, workers “prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided,” not that they “are prepared for” or led to.)

And we are convinced that democracy — voting, but also discussing, arguing and deciding over strategy and tactics and lessons to learn — is a necessary, an indispensable, part of how people will prepare themselves for the great struggle that cannot be avoided.

Again, as Parker and Gruelle remark, “If there were a non-democratic way to run unions that gave workers more power in society and against the boss, then members would have to consider it.”

I mentioned that fighting for union democracy doesn’t exhaust our “socialist tasks.” In fact, it’s critically important to keep in mind that this fight is insufficient to carry out “the great struggle which cannot be avoided,” because we are also aware that, as Karl Marx wrote for the delegates of the Provisional General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1866:

“(T)he working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.”

In this context, Marx points to the need for a political party of the working-class to carry that struggle through.

There are two things I hope we can talk about, either now or in future discussions.

First, everyone active in unions is for union democracy — or at least say they are. No one builds a caucus or runs for union office calling for less democracy.

This makes it important that we be as clear as possible about what we mean when we talk about union democracy. And we need to accept that there will be disagreements among socialists, and among union activists more generally, about what union democracy looks like.

This will often require that we figure out the relationship (or tension) between direct (or participatory) and representative democracy. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from my union, TWU 100.

I’ve written elsewhere about the union reform movement in the Local in the 1990s. During that time, a demand that Local VPs be directly elected by the members they were to represent, rather than by the members of the entire local, was a key part of the reformers’ platform.

We were crystal clear that Local 100 members should choose the people who represent them. But we didn’t think through what the implications of that change would be. How would this change alter the VPs’ role? How would it alter the relationship to other officers in the divisions? In the resulting structure of the Local, are VPs even necessary? Can that layer of bureaucracy be eliminated?

We also didn’t extend the reasoning that led us to want VPs to be directly elected to considerations of how the Local contract is negotiated and ratified.

In Local 100, as in many other unions, many parts of the contract – such as wages, sick leave, vacations, disciplinary procedure – apply to all members. But parts of the contract apply to specific groups of workers, such as Bus Operators or Conductors or Car Maintainers.

Local 100 presidents have (too) often agreed to takeaways that hit some of those subgroups in order to pay for wage increases or other gains for the whole membership. But those subgroups aren’t the only people who vote on their section of the contract, the whole membership does.

We never discussed whether we should demand that the members of each division be the only ones to vote on the section of the contract that directly affects them and only them. That certainly would have been consistent with the understanding of union democracy that led us to call for VPs to be directly elected by the members they represent.

But what should happen if one division out of 12 or so votes to reject their section of the contract? Should the whole contract be held up? Is that a democratic outcome? You can imagine that people genuinely committed to union democracy will have different opinions on this.

Or consider an example that is less about union structures and more about culture.

I strongly opposed the candidate the reform group in TWU 100 chose to run for president as we were on the verge of winning control of the local in 2000. Once the decision was made, I campaigned for him and the entire slate.

I also continued to express my concerns about the candidate and, especially, his commitment to creating a democratic union. In the corner of the left that I came from, this was consistent with being part of a democratic organization.

However, other members of the caucus felt that I was not respecting the democratic decision they had made. This disagreement was one of the things that made it impossible for us to sort out our differences and maintain our caucus.

Democracy and Disagreement

Second, deepening union democracy won’t necessarily mean that union members will take positions that we agree with. In a theoretical match-up between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the members of some democratic unions would choose to support Trump.

In a democratic vote, transit workers may vote for their union to push for lots more police on subways and buses. Likewise, coal miners, refinery workers and others in fossil fuel industries, as well as other workers skeptical of promises of a Just Transition, may vote for their unions to oppose steps toward a Green New Deal.

Union democracy won’t assure the outcomes that we support, but it will give us a better opportunity to argue for them.

So, broadly speaking, it’s important that we recognize that the work we do fighting for union democracy is one of our socialist tasks, while at the same time keeping mind that it is just one of the tasks that socialists have to carry out if we are to fight the causes, and not just the effects of exploitation and oppression.

July-August 2023, ATC 225

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