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How Democratic Are American Unions?

Unions are absolutely essential for building working-class power. But they’re also often undemocratic. Building a strongly democratic labor movement is a key task for the Left and the labor movement as a whole.

Automobile Mechanics Local 701 on strike against Napleton Cadillac in Libertyville, Illinois, 2018. (Charles Edward Miller / Flickr)

September 14 marked the sixty-first anniversary of the Landrum–Griffin Act’s signing into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Erik Loomis detailed on Twitter, the act (also known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act [LMRDA]) was the immediate follow-up to the McClellan Committee, which was, in name, a body convened for hearings on corruption in labor and management, but unsurprisingly turned a much sharper focus on union corruption than its much, much deeper counterpart in business.

The LMRDA essentially mandated certain reporting and internal behavior from unions — things like filing annual reports of dues, finances, leadership, and payments; making union documents like constitutions and bylaws accessible to rank-and-file members by law; mandating certain minimums for union leadership elections on national and local levels; and giving recourse to rank-and-file members who feel their democratic rights as a union member were violated. It also said Communist Party members couldn’t run for office (though this was struck down by the Supreme Court). Obviously, it didn’t do anything to democratize management or the workplace.

But these provisions around union democracy, while intended to water down union power and widely protested by the unions themselves, opened important doors to rank-and-filers who really were trying to build more democratic unions. And these fights were extremely real — passionate working-class would-be leaders struggled against their union structures in almost every union. Autocracy and Insurgency in Organized Labor, edited by Burton Hall, is a great volume on some of these fights, but there are plenty of others.

So the push for LMRDA, or at least Title One, did have its roots in pro-labor, democratic struggle. Longtime union democracy advocate Herman Benson (who recently passed away, after a long, courageous, effective campaign against old age) and Clyde Summers were instrumental in crafting and winning passage of Title One of the act, the “Bill of Rights of Members of Labor Organizations.” Benson was a lifelong socialist; Summers, as far as I can tell, was not. But they both believed in the principle of union democracy as key to industrial democracy, and founded the Association for Union Democracy to that end.

Benson writes beautifully on this in plenty of places, like his must-read Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers:

By bringing a measure of democracy into the workplace, the labor movement strengthens democracy in society. In that ongoing conflict in America, the eternal contest between democracy and aristocracy, between people and privilege, the labor movement has been a powerful force for democracy precisely because unions represent the organized power of people against the concentrated power of wealth. The labor movement and individual unions are sometimes right, sometimes wrong, on the political and social issues that face the nation; but, on the whole, the labor movement has been one of the principal countervailing forces to offset the big corporative powers and, by that fact, a principal pillar of American democracy.

Benson’s crusade for union democracy is just a short jump from the idea that unions are key for industrial democracy, and strikes me as a much more pluralist, social-democratic argument than the idea that unions are instrumental vehicles of the class struggle, the “schools of war” in preparation for some “great struggle” Engels wrote about.

Somewhere between Benson and Engels is the “democracy is power” idea, the idea that union power can’t be decoupled from democratic ownership of the union by the rank and file. This take is best laid out in the aptly-named Democracy Is Power by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle, published by Labor Notes.

The question the actually existing labor movement faces in 2020 is: Are unions democratic? The LMRDA, for all its mandates on conventions and elections, and the right to circulate petitions, defines some benchmark of minimum democracy in unions. It’s not just that its enforcement mechanisms are weak or burdensome (though they are), it’s that democracy, as Parker and Gruelle put it, is not “a list of rules . . . [D]emocracy is member power, participation, and a certain relationship between leaders and the ranks. Democracy is about power over the things that matter.”

In trying to answer whether unions are democratic, not just by law but in something approaching lived reality, there are obviously a few metrics one could check. I think the Democracy Is Power definition above is best, and that book goes into great detail about what meaningful democracy looks like in unions.

But one really simple one would be to look at union leadership: Do incumbents ever lose their positions to a challenger? Are there (meaningful) challengers? Obviously, leadership challenges aren’t the source of “democracy,” but the lack of such challenges, and the success rates of those challenges, could very well be morbid symptoms of democracy’s opposite.

One thing the LMRDA did not mandate is any disclosure over the results of union elections, just that national unions had to elect officers at least once every five years, and local unions at least once every three years. This means there isn’t one place to go to see if incumbents had challengers and how those challengers fared.

But it’s also not hard to figure out that, at least at the national level, labor movement leadership is at least as stagnant as congressional leadership. Meaningful challenges on the national level are often the exceptions that prove the rules, like when Reuters reported on the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ 2014 “rare leadership challenge . . . the first vote of its kind since 1961.” In other unions, with either a history of internal democratic struggle and/or direct balloting of the membership, leadership challenges are less rare.

The Teamsters, despite a twenty-two-year, five-term incumbent in James Hoffa Jr, have real-deal contested elections, largely driven by (but certainly not limited to) a strong opposition current in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the long-term rank-and-file caucus whose coalition slate came within a few hundred votes of the presidency in the last election (in which, full disclosure, I worked for the Fred Zuckerman slate). The American Postal Workers Union has directly elected officers, and slates don’t tend to sweep the whole thing, which is a sign of something other than one-party rule, though incumbents pretty consistently win reelection.

In 2018, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had its first contested leadership election since 2000 for an open seat. The National Education Association (which helpfully posts election results online) sees challenges to most seats, but in the top slots the results are usually landslides — but that can be equally tough to assess, especially in delegated elections, which obviously favor those who can elect and whip delegates.

One useful project for any labor left that wants to challenge the status quo at a serious scale would be to identify those leaders of national or key local unions who haven’t faced a serious challenger in a long, long time. As we’ve learned in congressional politics, these incumbents’ positions are often softer than their extensive tenures might imply.

And it’s not the case that challengers never win, just rarely on the national level. The Chicago Teachers Union challengers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) more or less changed the course of US labor history with their 2010 victory in that union. Just last year, the American Federation of Teachers’ Baltimore members successfully unseated their incumbents, as did members of the North Carolina Association of Educators. Philadelphia teachers as well as West Virginia teachers launched credible challenges that fell short. The Teamsters have seen a big wave of opposition winners, in the wake of the 2016 Teamsters United movement, in Philadelphia, Dallas, Charlotte, and elsewhere.

In some national unions, certain locals are so large or influential that any national opposition would have to win them over to some degree. The United Federation of Teachers is one of these, with about 15 percent of the national delegate allocation, but that’s not the only example. Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, New York City’s transit union, sent nearly a third of all the delegates to TWU’s 2017 convention. ILWU’s Local 142 in Hawaii is 45 percent of that union’s membership; Local 13 in Los Angeles is another 25 percent. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s Locals 338 and 1102 together make up 40 percent of that union’s membership. Service Employees International Union’s mega-Local 1199 is nearly 20 percent of the national union, and Culinary Union’s Local 226 in Las Vegas is about one-sixth of UNITE HERE.

A full assessment of union election history — a Ballotpedia for the unions — would be a big undertaking, but vital for anyone who wants to figure out how to further democratize the union movement. I think one who undertook such an assessment would find that there is more space than one might think for a cross-union electoral challenge current (think the Tea Party in the GOP, or the Justice Democrats). I began to hint at such a thing in an article a couple weeks ago at Organizing Upgrade.

Of course, as I mentioned above, all this union electoral talk is more like checking for vital signs rather than diagnosing the disease that’s weakened our unions. As the Parker and Gruelle quote above notes, it’s not just about who has control, but about who has control over things that matter. As union density approaches its vanishing point, and our unions shrink and decay into dust bunnies, it feels a bit like running for captain of the Titanic as it strikes the iceberg.

But it’s also the case that reports of the labor movement’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan’s characterization of the labor movement as a “dumb, stupid mastodon of a thing [has been] crawling off to Bal Harbour to die” since before I was born. As Dan DiMaggio put it, “the labor movement was built because people took risks. The rank and file may have a better plan than headquarters does. And the leader your union needs might not be the heir apparent.”