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labor No Union Democracy, No Union Revitalization

Union democracy shouldn’t be seen as an abstract good separate from more important strategic considerations about rebuilding labor. Without democratizing labor, we can’t rebuild labor.

Are labor unions democratic, and does it even matter? The recent transformation of the United Auto Workers (UAW), led by newly elected president Shawn Fain and the rank-and-file caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, has provoked new debates about the governance of American unions.

For over seventy years, the UAW was under the complete control of just one party, the Administration Caucus. It wasn’t until the UAW settled a wide-ranging criminal complaint with the Department of Justice in 2020 that union members obtained the right to directly elect the top officers of their union (approved in a referendum supported by 64 percent of the membership). UAW members promptly threw out the Administration Caucus, engaged in a victorious strike against the Big Three automakers, and launched one of the most ambitious organizing campaigns in recent history.

Is it just a coincidence, or is there any link between the UAW’s democratic reforms and the more militant direction of the union? And if there is such a link, does it have any lessons for the broader labor movement? In a recent Jacobin article, I discussed some flaws in the state of contemporary union democracy, contending that the direct election of top union leaders is an important reform that could help reinvigorate the labor movement. Dave Kamper wrote a reply defending the current state of union democracy, saying that while he of course values democracy within the labor movement, “democracy is a value, not a strategy” and won’t necessarily lead to more militant unions.

There have been some significant victories for unions in recent years, but the percentage of workers who are unionized is still declining, and labor is not organizing at a rate that will reverse this trend. There are many external causes for the decline, but one internal factor is a failure of union leadership and a breakdown of democratic governance — “one member, one vote” is a worthy reform that could help address this failure.

“The Electoral College on Steroids”

In starting to answer the question of whether unions are democratic, let’s review the two predominant election models for electing top officers — positions typically vested with significant power to set a union’s direction. A handful of unions have direct elections (or “one member, one vote”), while most elect delegates to a convention at the local level through a membership vote, who then nominate and elect the top officers. The delegate system looks democratic, but the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), two of the largest private sector unions, provide examples of how the delegate system can work in practice.

Like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters before they were taken over by the Department of Justice in 1989, the UFCW and SEIU make liberal use of ex officio delegates: elected local officers who automatically became delegates without a membership vote. This is similar to the “superdelegate” system used by the Democratic Party that was famously deployed by party insiders to blunt the momentum of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential candidacy.

Kamper argues the “delegates of [the UFCW] convention were all directly elected by members in secret-ballot elections.” However, according to the UFCW Constitution, top local union officers are automatically delegates to a convention by virtue of their office “without separate nomination and election as a delegate,” even if they were elected to office up to three years before the convention.

As one UFCW member remarked, the system is “like the Electoral College system on steroids.” Indeed, the UFCW delegate system is analogous to voting for candidates to the Electoral College before knowing the Democratic or Republican nominees for president.

Because of superdelegates and other features of the UFCW constitution, the UFCW reform group Essential Workers for Democracy estimates that up to 60 percent of the delegates to the 2023 convention were officers or staff. This built-in incumbent bias is a central reason why the top leadership “elections” at the UFCW resemble a dynastic form of succession. Over the last thirty years, there have been only three UFCW International Presidents, none of whom faced competitive or contested elections.

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The lack of leadership challenges occurred as the union lost over 200,000 members, saw a steep drop in union density in its core industry (supermarkets), and negotiated a union contract at Kroger — one of the UFCW’s largest employers — that leaves one out of five workers on food stamps and other social assistance. Kamper argues reformers aren’t doing the hard organizing work to challenge UFCW leadership, but the structural obstacles to democratic participation are a better explanation.

UFCW isn’t the only large union using a superdelegate system to control union conventions. SEIU has an upcoming convention in 2024 to replace Mary Kay Henry, the retiring president of the union. Under the SEIU constitution, not only are the top officers of locals automatically delegates to the convention (even if elected up to three years ago), but the entire slate of local officers are automatically delegates. For example, SEIU’s largest local — 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers, representing some 450,000 members — is apportioned two hundred delegates for the 2024 convention, but seventy-nine of the delegates, or 40 percent, are superdelegates.

The superdelegate system is just one undemocratic feature of union governance, but there are many other formal and practical obstacles impeding worker participation, open debate, and competitive leadership elections. Kamper doesn’t address these obstacles, but surely union members voting for superdelegates years before a convention — without any knowledge of the competing convention candidates or resolutions — aren’t meaningfully participating in a democratic process.

“Morbid Symptoms of Democracy’s Opposite”

It is true that “democracy can and does have a different look in different unions,” and some delegate systems can be substantively democratic. One example is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), while Kamper offers the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual Representative Assembly (RA). Still, he provides no data on how many NEA delegate elections are contested or the degree of member participation — all critical indicators of a robust democratic culture. Incidentally, Becky Pringle won the top office at the last RA with 93 percent of the delegate vote.

Is it a “disservice” to the labor movement, as Kamper warns, to ask the “question of how leaders are chosen”? Kamper, who has written insightfully on labor, didn’t think so when promoting Sara Nelson (the president of the Association of Flight Attendants) as the next president of the AFL-CIO. Arguing that Nelson’s election would be an “enormous boon” to “building a more democratic, militant, progressive US labor movement,” Kamper criticized the fact that “the overwhelming majority of the people . . . will have no effective say in how delegates are selected.”

Although the AFL-CIO president has very limited powers, the leaders of national unions have considerable constitutional muscle to drive the strategic direction of a union. Top officers typically control the finances of the national union, set the strategic direction of organizing and contract fights, establish and limit local jurisdictions, and impose trusteeships on rebellious locals. In the case of the UFCW, a small committee led by the international president can prohibit local unions from voting on contracts, deny strike benefits for unsanctioned strikes, and override strike votes.

Given the powers of top officers, the question of how leaders are chosen is essential. Jonah Furman’s Jacobin article “How Democratic Are American Unions?” suggested that one metric to measure whether unions are democratic is 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 . . . could very well be morbid symptoms of democracy’s opposite.”

In my article, I presented data on the election of top officers at the largest unions. Four of the six large unions with “one member, one vote” had competitive or contested elections for the top spot at the last convention. In contrast, for the fourteen unions without direct elections representing 10.6 million members, only three had competitive elections at the previous convention, and not one incumbent lost.

Kamper doesn’t address this data because he argues there is no strategic value to democracy. However, one of the primary arguments for democracy is that contested leadership elections with open debate lead to better long-term decision making than autocratic systems. That’s why “one member, one vote” is valuable as a reform — it isn’t a “silver bullet,” but it is an important pressure valve that members can use when local democracy is not working effectively.

In this regard, Kamper ignores the importance of “one member, one vote” in revitalizing the UAW and, conversely, the strong link between delegate systems and the rampant corruption that necessitated the federal takeover of several large unions. Instead, Kamper focuses on the Teamsters, pointing out that direct elections did not “automatically” lead to a militant union under James Hoffa Jr, the former general president.

This is true, but every presidential election at the Teamsters since 1991 was competitive, a rarity in many delegate systems. Meaningful elections are important organizing vehicles for members to openly debate union strategy, helping sustain the relevance of reform movements like Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

When Hoffa Jr imposed the UPS contract in 2018 against a majority of workers voting no, “one member, one vote” gave Teamster members a direct avenue to throw out his successor and elect new leadership. It is highly doubtful that this would have happened under a less responsive delegate system.

Oligarchy vs. Democracy in the Labor Movement

Kamper doesn’t look very deeply into the actual practice of democracy in today’s unions because, surprisingly, as much as he values union democracy abstractly, he sees little strategic value in democracy as a path to labor’s revitalization. This is not an uncommon view, as some labor theorists have long argued that oligarchy and elite rule are necessary for labor unions to effectively fight the vastly disproportionate power of capitalists.

But this view may be surprising to contemporary reform movements seeking to change their unions or the many rank-and-file activists profiled in Herman Benson’s classic book on union democracy: Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement. As Benson documents, union reformers fought for democracy at great personal cost, frequently subject to retaliation by employers and union leaders and, in some cases, violence and murder. These members weren’t motivated by some abstract moral value of democracy. They saw democracy as a strategy to transform unions that were failing to effectively represent workers in their fight against employers.

Of course, union democracy doesn’t “automatically” lead to more militant or effective unions, but it is a crucial ingredient.  Kamper claims there hasn’t been a “systematic effort to study” the relationship, but he overlooks some essential academic scholarship. Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin’s book Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions exhaustively probes the relationship between union democracy and mass organizing in the 1930s and 1940s by the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO).

Citing a 1948 study of union democracy, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin point out that most unions at the time — especially the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions — were “not even nominally democratic.” But when they looked more closely at the CIO unions (many of whom had the opportunity to write their constitutions from scratch), Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin found that “seven out of ten CIO international unions, as of that same year [1948], were democratic: either highly (29 percent) or moderately (40 percent); only three out of ten (31 percent) were ruled by an autocrat.”

Moreover, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin “found that the contracts won by the locals of stable highly democratic international unions were systematically more likely to be prolabor on a set of critical provisions (management prerogatives, the right to strike, and the grievance procedure) than those won by locals of stable moderately democratic and stable oligarchical internationals.” The findings of Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin are consistent with a large body of theory that argues democracy is a more effective governance system than autocratic forms of organization.

The labor movement has rightly condemned the undemocratic features of our political system, calling for the elimination of the filibuster and the expansion of voting rights to create a government more responsive to the working class. But why shouldn’t the same standards apply to union members seeking to participate in the governance of their union?

“One member, one vote” is no silver bullet, but as Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle argued in their classic book Democracy Is Power, “the demand for direct elections can be an important tool in a movement for reform, although not a substitute for a movement.”


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Chris Bohner is a union researcher and activist.

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