Union Democracy Is a Value, Not a Strategy

Democracy is a central value of every trade union worth the name. But we shouldn’t assume that a more democratic union means a more militant union.

Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally inside the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, US, on April 3, 2018. (Scott Heins / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Chris Bohner’s recent essay in these pages, “Direct Elections for Labor Leaders Make for More Militant Unions,” lays out an argument that at one level is so uncontroversial that it should be a platitude — unions should be democratic. No one who believes in organized labor in the United States (or anywhere in the world) can disagree with the sentiment. Nevertheless, Bohner is right to say it, because even seemingly obvious truths bear repeating.

However, Bohner goes much further and commits an error common to union reformers — conflating the morally good with the inherently strategic. A “more democratic union,” Bohner contends, “is a more militant union.” The path to a stronger, better union is through democracy.

Would that it were so. Building more effective unions requires commitment, patience, planning, and considerable skill, and cannot be achieved by changing a constitution. We are doing a disservice to those who want to build a better labor movement if we reduce the scope and scale of our challenges to the question of how leaders are chosen.

Democracy and Militancy

Let me back up, though, and begin by questioning one of Bohner’s underlying assumptions, that “‘one member, one vote’ is a right denied to most union members.” This simply isn’t true.

It is true that if by one member, one vote, you only mean direct election of an international union’s top leaders, most unions are not structured that way. But that’s the only way that Bohner’s assertion is true.

For example, Bohner criticizes the delegates of the convention of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) for not backing what he calls “commonsense resolutions” to make it easier for the union to strike, increase strike pay, and direct resources to organizing. He asserts that if “the general membership of the UFCW had direct elections, these resolutions would have likely received widespread support.” This is because, as he puts it, union conventions that elect leaders by the delegate system “entrench incumbents who can deploy the union’s vast legal, financial, political, and organizational resources to maintain power and stifle reform challenges.”

But the general membership of the UFCW does have direct elections. The delegates of that convention were all directly elected by members in secret-ballot elections. The UFCW constitution lays out the process in excruciating detail, one that guarantees members the right to vote.

Why is a convention delegate elected by one-member-one-vote a shill for incumbents, but an international union president elected by one-member-one-vote a liberatory figure who will change the union in fundamental ways?

Bohner here falls prey to another common error made by union reformers — treating union decisions they don’t agree with as self-evident proof of some kind of corruption.

Unions are political entities. Reasonable people can disagree on what the best path forward is for a union. To stick with UFCW: it’s entirely possible that UFCW convention delegates might have sad memories of the 2003–04 California grocery strike, where some seventy thousand UFCW members were out for 140 days, the union’s assets were cut in half, and the final deal was a bitter pill that few believe justified the walkout. Remembering that experience might well make a delegate reluctant to increase strike pay because of the risk that a long strike would drain the union’s coffers.

I’m not saying those convention delegates were right; I’m not saying they were wrong. I’m saying that their decision can be explained without resorting to allegations of corruption.

And, yes, it is likely true that, if the current leadership of UFCW opposed the reformers’ suggested changes, they might have tried to persuade convention delegates. That’s called politics, not corruption. Leaders get to try to persuade people to support their policies. That’s what leaders are supposed to do.

While Bohner reluctantly acknowledges that union democracy goes beyond direct election of international officers, that’s clearly the part he considers the most important. If so, he seems to me to be doing a disservice to, say, the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual Representative Assembly (RA), arguably the world’s largest parliamentary gathering, which some years can see close to ten thousand delegates, directly elected by members across the country. Democracy can and does have a different look in different unions.

However, even if we grant Bohner’s contention that union democracy equals one member, one vote, for the top leadership of the union, we shouldn’t assume that such a reform will automatically lead to a more militant, more organizing-minded, or more successful union.

Bohner (rightly) praises the Teamsters’ successful UPS contract campaign, a militant, strategic, well-executed plan that won a lot of good things for the members. But Bohner can’t (and doesn’t try to) explain why Teamsters presidents directly elected by the members since 1991 didn’t produce what he considers a revitalized and militant union, but the direct election of 2021 did.

Bohner has produced very provocative work on union finances, arguing that unions are hoarding assets at the expense of organizing and militancy. His argument is that more union democracy would change that trajectory. I can understand why people might want to believe it, but saying it doesn’t make it so.

The only systematic effort to study the relationship between union democracy and union organizing doesn’t support that point of view. In the mid-2000s, Andrew W. Martin looked closely at union financial data and came to the conclusion that the greater the influence union staff have on a union’s actions, and the less control local unions have over the operations of their locals, the more likely that union will engage in new organizing. Martin’s data is based on LM-2 reports to the Department of Labor, which is not an ideal source, but it is the same source that Bohner uses for his work on union finances.

As to the other half of Bohner’s argument, that directly elected union leaders will also be more militant, there isn’t any robust evidence to back it up. If you squint at the year 2023, it does kind of look like unions with directly elected leaders were more militant, but there are any number of years in recent memory where the most militant union was (say) the Communications Workers of America (CWA), or the NEA, or Service Employees International Union (SEIU), none of which directly elect their top leaders.

The Hard Work of Reform

What does seem to be true is that unions that become more focused on organizing and become more militant have gone through some kind of internal shift in power. But that shift in power isn’t always tied to changes in constitutional arrangements. If you’d asked folks before the recent United Auto Workers (UAW) strike what the most inspiring recent story of union reform and militancy was, many would have said the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In 2010, a CTU reform caucus won power and took the union in a much more aggressive direction, launching a series of powerful strikes and even getting a former CTU staffer elected mayor. The CTU reform story is inspiring and powerful; it does not feature notable constitutional changes.

The 2018 Red for Ed strike in West Virginia and elsewhere had a different path, but also one without a union-democracy-equals-union-militancy storyline. In West Virginia in particular, member-organizers bypassed official union structures and put together a statewide strike with little reference to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or NEA leadership in the state.

You see this again and again if you look at how unions reinvent themselves. That conflict is rarely centered on the union’s formal structures. What it always requires, though, is considerable amounts of hard work.

If you want to reform your union, reform your union. Have one-on-one conversations to identify organizing issues and figure out what it will take to move members in the direction you want to go. Find and support better leaders, at every level of the organization. Develop strategies to win based on the circumstances of your union and the employers against whom you struggle. Build energy for those strategies through even more one-on-one conversations, leadership identification, and action. Execute your strategies, and win.

If you want unions that do more organizing, that are more militant, you’re going to have to build it, carefully and consciously. No silver bullets. Just organizing.