Union Democracy in the US

                     J. David Edelstein

     [This appeared in the journal AGAINST THE CURRENT,
March/April 1994 (c/o Center for Changes, 7012 Michigan Ave.,
Detroit MI 48210.  E-mail, cfc@igc.apc.org.  Subscriptions $18/one
year, $25/foreign airmail.)  The endnotes shown here were omitted
from the published version.  Capitalized words in this text were
in italics in the journal.  No restrictions on unedited citation or
reproduction, but please inform journal or author.]

     While socialists favor democracy in working class
organizations, there has understandably been widespread pessimism
regarding the prospects for democracy in national unions under
capitalism. The bleak American scene certainly provides little
encouragement. My main purpose here is to provide two important
contrary examples of large, fairly democratic unions, both in
Britain, and to show the organizational basis for their democracy.
There are also implications here for democracy under socialism.
Neither of these unions has ANY appointed full-time officials, and
both elect ALL  of their full-time officials by direct votes of the
membership. The unions are the Amalgamated Engineering Union and
the National Union of Mineworkers. A widespread knowledge of these
two unions' democratic features, among socialists and rank-and-file
activists, could offer useful examples and inspiration.

     American revolutionary socialists have rightfully emphasized
rank-and-file struggles within the labor movement, within or
through the unions and sometimes bypassing oligarchically dominated
union structures. Within the unions the struggle has often been for
democracy. But the democratic reform of a national union under
capitalism is a major undertaking and, some would argue, an almost
impossible task. Nevertheless there may occasionally be
opportunities for rank-and-file movements to democratize national
unions by forcing through and institutionalizing changes. Miners
for Democracy accomplished some of this, and Teamsters for a
Democratic Union may now have such an opportunity. But even lost
struggles for workers' democracy can develop the ideal of democracy
and keep it alive.

     Electoral competition is not the only criterion for democracy
in large organizations, but its long-term absence or gross
ineffectiveness in elections to top posts may reasonably be taken
as a sign of oligarchic control, especially when incumbents are not
running for re-election. Uncontested elections in filling top
vacancies are extremely common in American unions, but rare in
Britain, with the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the National
Union of Mineworkers towards the extreme in competitiveness.

     I'll first describe the unions briefly, present a model of
democracy which conveys their essence, show how the organization of
the two unions approached the model, and then present the evidence
regarding electoral opposition.

    THE AMALGAMATED ENGINEERING UNION (AEU), formed as a craft union in
1851, is the oldest national union in Britain. It became the
organizational model for other craft unions, many of which still
exist. The AEU's industrial jurisdiction (1) and the occupations among
its membership, which reached over a million in the 1960s, are
similar to those of the International Association of Machinists in
the United States. It is no longer a craft union. The basic
structure of the AEU remained stable between 1921, when a full-time
presidency was added, and 1980. The AEU formed the keystone of the
Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, which
bargained with the Engineering Employers' Federation for a basic
agreement covering 3.5 million workers. In most of British industry
no single union has exclusive bargaining rights, so the AEU
controlled few closed or union shops.

federation in 1889. With the nationalization of the coal  mines in
1947, the NUM achieved a virtual closed shop for almost all
categories of non-supervisory blue collar workers, and it organized
most white collar workers in competition with another union. Its
membership declined from over 600,000 in 1960 to 260,000 in 1973,
as a result of mechanization and mine closures. With these
processes continuing, and with a split during the defeated strike
in 1984, the union declined to about 80,000 members by 1989.

     The basic organization of the Mineworkers has changed little
since 1889, except that referendum elections for the top posts were
added in 1918.(2)


     In this idealized model there are two or more full-time
officers of equal rank at each level of the hierarchy, including
the top. In seeking higher office such officials are often forced
to compete against each other in referendum elections, under a
voting system which permits the opposition to coalesce when there
are three or more candidates. Power at the very top is divided
between at least two top officers. It is also limited by the
regional election of second-ranking and lower officers, by
substantial regional autonomy, and by independent power centers
such as the executive council and the convention, with rank-and-
filers playing the most important role in the latter. The Engineers
and the Mineworkers approached this model in many respects.

     Another model without any full-time officials whatsoever will
be commented on later.


     THE SELECTION OF OFFICERS: There are NO appointed full-time
officials -- all are elected, by referendum, in a multi-stage
process which permits a pooling of the votes of anti-administration
tendencies while assuring an absolute majority for the winner. The
AEU used run-off elections, with the two leading candidates going
on to a second ballot. The NUM used a transferable votes system,
with voters listing their preferences 1, 2, 3, etc., and the
counters eliminating candidates one by one until one has a
majority. This avoids the need for a run-off election.

     In the AEU ANY MEMBER could nominate a candidate for any full-
time post, with no seconding or local branch approval required,
although in practice more than one nomination for a post from any
one of the 2,000 branches is rare.(3) In the NUM nominations could be
made by any one of the fourteen geographic Areas or six
occupational or industrial subdivisions.(4) Nominations were made
differently in the various Areas, by Area councils with rank-and-
file delegates from each local, by rank-and-file Area executive
committees, or by a direct vote of all Area locals.

     THE FULL-TIME OFFICIALS: The structures of the full-time
officialdom, to be described, plus the voting systems facilitated
and indeed generated competition for office throughout each union.
Furthermore the overwhelming majority of full-time officials had
little to fear from their superiors because they were elected
within and were responsible to their regions. The power of
assignment (and hence the potential for harassment or favoritism)
by the top officers was extremely limited. Five officials could
have been assigned their duties in the AEU, and none in the NUM.(5)

     Each union had a general secretary and a president, both full-
time and of about equal power. The same pattern of equal, multiple
full-time officials existed at each rank in both unions. Thus there
was no heir-apparent below either top office or below any other
full-time office. In the AEU there were seven executive council
members, and two assistant general secretaries, all at the second-
ranking level. This situation was repeated at the four next lower
levels, each level having multiple potential full-time competitors
for higher office. It is significant that only the very lowest
ranking full-time office, district secretary, had a large percent
of uncontested elections.(6)

     In the NUM there was no full-time second-ranking NATIONAL
officer -- the vice-president was part-time, and usually an Area
official who, in practice, had no special advantage in competition
for a top post. Thus the second-ranking full-time officers were the
heads of the Areas, the larger of which themselves had two co-equal
top officers and ward-elected miners' agents below them. Thus in
neither the NUM nor the AEU was there a single "logical successor"
for a top post, or for any other full-time office.

of the vast majority of officials is a reflection of the
administrative decentralization of the two unions. This is
reinforced by the absence in the union constitutions of any
provision for trusteeship over unruly locals or other subdivisions.
(None of the thirty-one British unions whose constitutions were
studied had a provision for trusteeship.)

(conventions) of both unions were well shielded from manipulation
by the top officers. Resolutions submitted could not be removed
from the agendas or altered without the consent of the bodies
submitting them. The conferences were small -- fifty-two voting
delegates in the AEU (currently 121) and 135 in the NUM -- as was
made possible by their indirect election.(7)  The AEUUs conference
consisted of rank-and-filers only, and every fifth year considered
constitutional revisions. No full-time officials other than the
president and general secretary were entitled to attend. The AEU
also had an important twelve-member rank-and-file appeal court,
each member elected by referendum within one of the twelve regions.
The NUM's conference did not exclude full-time officials,, but was
elected by well-organized rank-and-file Area conferences which also
met, as councils, throughout the year.


     Hard evidence on the extent and effectiveness of electoral
opposition is necessary to overcome the skepticism and pessimism
which the American union scene has fostered, and because apologists
have often labeled union oligarchies as essentially democratic.

     NUMBER OF CANDIDATES: The AEU had NO uncontested elections for
vacancies in the full-time top posts between 1875 and 1975, and
each election had three or more candidates. The average (median)
since 1945 was eight candidates. All elections were by referendum.

     The NUM instituted referendum elections for top posts in 1918,
and through 1975 it also had NO uncontested elections. Of the
twelve top vacancy referenda in the NUM, eight had three or more
candidates. Since 1945 the average number of candidates was four.

     PREVIOUS DEFEATS FOR TOP OFFICE: More important, the winners
often had to fight their way into the top office.  In half of all
such elections in each union since 1945, the winners had been
DEFEATED IN EARLIER ELECTIONS for a top post vacancy. For example,
the winner of the NUM's presidency in 1971 had been defeated for
the co-equal secretaryship in 1968, in a fairly close election.

     CLOSE ELECTIONS: The votes for the runner-up in filling top
vacancies have almost always been more than nominal, although only
occasionally approaching the standard of a close governmental
election under a two-party system. In half of such elections in the
AEU between 1945 and 1975, the runner-up received at least 77 votes
per 100 for the winner. In the NUM the comparable figure was 79 per
100.(8) In two of the AEU's six top vacancy elections the ratios were
91 to 100, and 99 to 100. Probably only the International
Typographical Union in the U.S. could have come anywhere near to
these figures.

     The competitive situation described above is exceeded at
second-ranking and intermediate levels of full-time office in both
unions, with the occasional defeat of second-ranking officers in
the AEU. Although incumbent top officers are almost invariably
opposed in the AEU, there was only one defeat, in 1913. (Top
officers were removed by the executive council in 1895 and 1932.)
The NUM's full-time officers were "permanent" (not subject to
periodic elections, but removable for just cause). The 1989 Rules
provide for five-year terms for full-time officials until they
reach the age of fifty-five, with retirement generally required at


     Both unions invariably had oppositionists well represented
among their second-ranking full-time officers and in their
executive councils. These were generally left-Labor or Communist.
In the NUM there was a sharing of power at the top level between
1946 and the early 1970s, with the three successive presidents
being orthodox Labor and the first two general secretaries being
Communist and the third left-Labor.

     Power at the very top has been similarly shared at times in
the AEU, but more consistently so in the full-time executive
council, with each member elected by referendum from a separate
district. The union also used referenda to elect its delegations to
the annual conferences of the Trades Union Congress and the Labor
Party. Voting for various posts was so frequent as to be almost a
normal part of local meetings -- perhaps not an entirely favorable

     As of 1992, the major democratic features of the NUM and the
AEU seem to be intact, although the NUM has fallen into especially
hard times, and the AEU's continued expansion through mergers with
less democratic unions may present problems.


     The AEU's run-off elections between the two leading
candidates gave an advantage to the best-organized but often small
minorities which, between them, often had less than half of the
vote. The arbitrary result was too often competition between the
candidates of right-wing Labor anti-Communist groups and official
Communists. The NUM's preferential ballot avoided this artificial

     The competition for top vacant posts in the AEU  was on the
basis of a low voter turn-out -- between 8% and 12% from 1943
through 1967. Voting was at the meetings of geographically-based
locals with no necessary connection to workplaces -- a holdover from
the union's craft years. The AEU shifted to postal ballots in 1972
over the objections of most left-wingers, who feared a loss of
support. Participation increased to 30% in 1975, and a left-winger
was elected as an assistant general secretary in 1976. (The NUM had
voting at the mines, with over 60% participation.) The NUM's
avoidance of periodic elections to full-time office was
intrinsically undemocratic, but it allowed independent lower-level
full-time officers to compete for higher office without fear of
retribution. They had independent regional power bases, and secure


     Could the greater politicization in Britain and the unions'
affiliation to the Labor Party explain the electoral opposition in
the AEU and NUM? I believe that left-right divisions provided the
content for controversy but were not the root cause of electoral

     Openly operating factions (caucuses) and freely circulating
campaign literature were considered illegitimate in the AEU and
NUM, and, with one partial exception, in other British unions. The
generally accepted view was that organized internal factions are
unnecessary, unfair, and probably conspiratorial (as they were,
under the circumstances). The AEU banned any but hand-written
campaign literature, but distributed booklets with the election
addresses of each candidate through its locals. Only enough for
from one-tenth to one-fifth of the membership were provided, and
there was no guarantee of a fair or complete distribution. (The
1989 rules provided for mailing 500-word election addresses from
each candidate with the postal ballots.)(10) Some of the statements
made were definitely misleading, and only the give-and-take of
unrestricted campaigning could have smoked out their authors. The
restrictions on campaigning were only partially compensated for by
occasional unsigned illegal local factional flyers, and by
comments in the periodicals of outside political organizations.
The latter partially but ineffectively filled the void in the NUM.

     In the NUM there was the rare instance of the subterfuge of a
position-taking pamphlet by a candidate or his Area. (There were
never any full-time female officials.) The NUM did not provide
election addresses and indeed prohibited campaign literature.
While the restrictions against open campaigning may have been
breaking down, even today it remains far from legitimate. (In
recent years the national executive committee has authorized
election addresses.)

     The NUM had only sporadic factional activity between national
elections, while in the AEU factions functioned continuously but
covertly. The ambiguous place in the AEU's structure of shop
stewards, and of interplant stewards' committees, may have
contributed somewhat to factional activity, but I think not
substantially. The NUM had no such situation.

     On the whole, the electoral success and sharing of posts by
factions, or incipient factions, were due to the same factors
which made for close competition between individual candidates: It
was the achievement of office by individual oppositionists and
faction members, under a system conducive to this, which gave the
anti-administration factions a foothold, and furthered their
growth and continuity.


     It has been shown that the 8,000-member Spanish longshore
union, Coordinadora, gets along democratically and well without a
single full-time official and only two paid employees.(11) Working
dockers run the union on a rotating part-time basis, with time off
to do this guaranteed under Spanish law. To what extent is this
preferable model of union democracy generalizable to other
national unions?

     The basis for CoordinadoraUs democracy is a single-occupation
membership which keeps in good contact with each other on a daily
basis at the hiring hall. Rotating officers can get feedback, and
be controlled at quickie meetings before work. The Mineworkers
near their peak were eighty times larger, and more diverse
occupationally, but they were a single-industry union and most
members lived in mining communities. It is conceivable that ALL
full-time officials could have been dispensed with, IF ways were
found to direct and monitor various specialist departments -- for
example finances and technical and economic research.

     But I think the problems of communication and coordination in
the multi-industry, million-member Engineers would preclude a
Coordindora-type organization. And a part-time executive council
with a full-time top officer, common in Britain, has not seemed to
be a prescription for democracy. The British Railwaymen elected
only rank-and-filers to their national executive council, but then
made them in effect full-time for a three-year term, after which
they had to step down. This sounds attractive, but the general
secretary was the focus of power and usually had his way. Former
councilors were not likely, on the basis of this experience, to
become viable candidates for a top post.


     I picture unions under socialism as existing alongside of
more comprehensive workers' self-managed industrial/economic
institutions. Unions will remain more specialized organizations,
even if their functions expand somewhat, representing the concerns
of occupational groups and workers in specific work organizations.
With opportunities for more rounded participation greater
elsewhere in a self-managed society, and injustice at the
workplace moderated, one can't count on a continuously high level
of workers' involvement in union affairs. Or, worse, some degree
of routinization, bureaucratization and/or disillusionment and
passivity might pervade the society, affecting not only the unions
but the larger institutions of governance.

     During such unfavorable intervals democracy could be
sustained by the kind of competition-producing SYSTEM described
above, with relatively equal officers opposing each other at all
levels under a fair and permissive voting system. This self-
sustaining process could continue until rank-and-file movements
and meaningful issues again began to superimpose themselves on it.
Such a system is obviously not all that it required for a high
level of democracy, but it would seem to make a necessary
contribution in large organizations and supply the elements of a
fail-safe mechanism there and possibly within the larger political


1.In addition to machine-tools, the AEU had many members in auto
and aircraft production, maintenance and repair, and in the repair
of railroad equipment, and was also involved in bargaining in many
other industries. In 1989, as a result of mergers, the AEU had a
Foundry Section and a Construction Section, each operating
partially under its own rules. In 1992 the AEU seemed about to
merge with the Electrical and Plumbing Trades Union.

2.More complete information on both unions is in J.D. Edelstein and
M. Warner, Comparative Union Democracy:  Organisation and
Opposition in British and American Unions, New Brunswick:
Transaction Books, 1979.

3.This rule was still in effect in 1989. In addition, a retiring
full-time officer was prohibited from nominating a successor.
There were many other pro-democratic features in the AEU's very
detailed rules.

4.Under the 1989 Rules the region or regions nominating had to have
at least 20% of the national membership.

5.It has been alleged that an AEU executive councilor could
distribute some perks to lower-level full-time officials within
his region, or make life difficult for them. However the lowest-
level districts had considerable autonomy and extensive functions.

6.The AEU had one full-time officer per 6,300 members, with a
salary range from 950 pounds to 1,300 in 1960.

7.In the AEU district committees sent delegates to 26 divisional
committees, each of which sent two of their members to the annual
conference. This highly indirect method of election is subject to
criticism on democratic grounds, but seemed to work acceptably in
the AEU because of its many other democratic features. The British
Railwaymen elected their annual conference of 77 by referendum
within 77 districts, thus combining a small convention with direct

8.For 30 British unions studied, the average comparable ratio for
top vacancies for 1949-1966 was 54 to 100. The comparable average
ratio for the U.S. was only 10 votes for the runner-up per 100 for
the winner, with an additional 20 of 51 unions having no vacancies
at all during 1949-1966. Most of the British union constitutions
had pro-democratic features generally absent in the U.S.

9.The use of run-off elections rather than a transferable vote
system made for twice as many elections, given the numerous
candidacies for almost all positions. The 1989 rules removed
elections of delegates to the Labor Party and Trade Union
Congresses to divisional committees in the union.

10.Place-of-work balloting seemed impractical in the AEU because of
the numerous unions within most of its shops  Exclusive
bargaioning jurisdictions in the AEU's industries were rare.

11.See D. Fitz, La Coordinadora: A Union Without Bureaucrats, St.
Louis: WD Press, 1990.

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