"Democracy" is a contested term, so anything I write about union democracy is bound to be controversial. And this is as it should be, because one vital characteristic of democracy is the positive, creative role it allots to disagreement. If we desire democracy, it is because we believe that no individual or economic or political elite has a monopoly on truth. The "correct" policy is simply the one we can get most people to agree on in the face of opposition. The policy is correct only as long as it has majority support, so that the test of correctness is whether it can withstand opposition. Without opposition, democracy withers. Politics, including union politics. is hollow, autocratic, or despotic in the absence of opposition.
If opposition is important to democracy, then egalitarianism is even more important. At root, democracy is the idea that everyone affected by a decision should have an equal opportunity to participate in making it. Democracy is an answer to the question of what procedures a collectivity should adopt when faced with having to decide between different possible courses of action. The alternative to democracy is always some form of elitism - the idea that a group or individual less extensive than the collectivity itself ought to make the decisions, or at least the most important ones.
The contentious issue is not that democracy must somehow include all those effected in the decision-making process, nor that disagreement is involved in democratic decision-making. It is rather how to institutionalize these two dimensions of democracy. Concerning egalitarianism, for example: is it possible for all members of a collectivity to decide directly on courses of action, or must they do so through elected representatives? Should decisions be made by consensus or majority rule? Exactly who belongs to the democratic collectivity: alien residents as well as citizens? children as well as adults? all union members or only those "in good standing?" and so on. With respect to the role of opposition, should those who oppose a majority decision have the right to continue opposing it once it has been made? Should opposition be made public beyond the limits of the relevant collectivity? Should dissenting members have the right to form organized factions, caucuses, etc?
These are just some of the issues about which there can be principled disagreement among democrats (small "d"). While recognizing this fact, I will offer my own ideas about how to institutionalize union democracy, many of them based on the practices of what I believe to be the most democratic unions. I offer them here without argument, simply as a way of stimulating discussion among union activists and members. I'm prepared to defend my claims in the course of such a discussion, but I also want to hear and consider objections since, as I've already said, this is the only way of testing beliefs democratically.
1) All union members should have an equal right to vote for candidates for union office, as well as on all important matters of policy.
2) Policy decisions, as well as the outcome of elections, should be determined by a simple majority or plurality of those voting. A possible exception to this rule might require a super-majority to amend the union constitution or by-laws.
3) All officials and delegates to higher bodies should be elected rather than appointed.
4) The highest salary of an official should not exceed that of the highest paid worker in the union.
5) Every member should have full access to the union's financial records.
6) All members should have the right to form caucuses and meet without the presence of elected officials or staff, unless invited by caucus members.
7) There should be full freedom of information and communication.
a) All union publications should be open to dissenting voices.
b) Caucuses should have access to union mailing lists, email lists, lists of phone numbers, etc.
7) Contract negotiations should be conducted with the widest possible participation.
a) The negotiating agenda should be determined by the membership through questionnaires or open meetings.
b) Negotiating teams should be elected by the membership.
c) The negotiating team should report frequently to the membership.
d) The negotiating team should refuse even temporary nondisclosure agreements.
8) The power of officials should be limited
a) by constitutional provisions;
b) by term limitations.
9) Every member should enjoy an effective right to run for union office in fair elections.
a) There should be fixed, predetermined filing deadlines.
b) All necessary forms should be available online.
c) Incumbents should be prohibited from electioneering in union publications, except in areas set aside for that purpose and equally available to opposing candidates.
d) Debates between candidates should be held at times when members can attend.
10) The number of paid staff should be limited. In no case should lawyers and lobbyists outnumber paid organizers.
11) Only a relatively small percentage of membership dues should be devoted to political contributions.
12) Endorsement or financial support of political candidates, as well as all legislative proposals and agreements, should be decided by vote of the membership.
13) Agency fee (union dues automatically levied by the employer) should be refused in favor of collection of dues by stewards or their equivalents.
14) A system of shop floor (or cluster or department) union representatives (e.g. stewards) should be established, with, ideally, at least one representative per management supervisor. An important purpose of the union rep system should be to pursue and settle grievances quickly on the shop, cluster, or department level.
It seems obvious that a democratic union will want to pursue workplace democracy as one of its principal goals. These are my suggestions for advancing workplace democracy, all of which are capable of being realized through ordinary bargaining campaigns.
1) Contracts should be in effect for no more than one or two years.
2) There ought to be no or limited no-strike agreements.
3) Grievance procedures should have a small number of steps with strict time limitations for each step.
4) Just-cause dismissal procedures should be in place, including the right of the worker concerned to be represented by a union attorney or elected official, and the right to call witnesses on his or her behalf.
5) Individual workers or groups of workers should have the right to stop working when necessary to protect themselves, other workers, or clients from unhealthy or otherwise dangerous situations.
6) A system of union-management of pension funds should be established.
7) Increases in work load should be negotiated with the union and approved by the members.
8) Ditto for the introduction of new technologies.
These suggestions, like those for union democracy, are not written in stone, and they are certainly not exhaustive. I encourage union members and supporters to give what I've written here some thought, and to make additions, emendations, and criticisms.
Gary Zabel has been a member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the National Education Association (NEA). His articles on the labor movement have appeared in New Labor Forum, Labor Notes, Dollars and Sense, Industrial Worker, Workplace, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, and Steal This University, as well as other books and publications.