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January 26, 2005

Small is not Necessarily Democratic

Chris Bowers at MyDD.com, in talking about reforming labor, discusses the argument of those who prefer strong union democracy to SEIU's centralized approach to building its union. Chris argues this:

Regional locals and fewer unions might mean more power for an individual union, but it also means less grassroots input and less local democracy. It means fewer local officers, less attention to local concerns, and adopting a significantly greater top-down approach...Certainly, it is important to increase activism and militancy at the local level, to find new means of getting our message out, and to increase political participation, but the sort of reorganization that SEIU proposes is the most expedient means of increasing union power. While more active, democratic unions are important goals, the primary goal is more powerful unions that can improve working conditions, period. If a union is not improving working conditions for its members, then it serves no purpose.
I think Chris has this formulation wrong. Democratic unions are crucial, because without them, timeservers and crooks take over unions and destroy them. And democracy feeds stronger activism by members that leads to better working conditions for members.

The problem with this debate is that it usually gets framed as undemocratic centralization versus local democracy.

Not that SEIU is immune to criticism, but many unions with strong local power have very undemocratic union structures. As for SEIU, leaders like Dennis Rivera of Local 1199 in New York state are directly elected -- and he got his position in a contested, hard fought race for that position. Direct election of leaders is a big demand of many union democracy advocates and, while Andy Stern himself is not directly elected, he is directly accountable to the directly-elected leaders of the large "locals" that have been created in SEIU's new structure.

Compared to the layers of indirect elections in many unions, SEIU doesn't look bad from a democratic viewpoint. It's been using trusteeships -- claiming locals are mismanaged and directly administering them for a while -- a little bit too heavily for my tastes, but some of that was needed to root out what were in many cases quite undemocratic (and ineffective) local structures.

I'm not arguing that SEIU wins on all democratic virtues, far from it, but the debate shouldn't be polarized as if local equals democratic and centralized equals undemocratic.

And on a political level, big decisions need to be made at the national level of union politics, so if a union members vote is only for a leader of a small local union, it's actually rather hard for their views to translate into real choice at the local union ballot. The smaller the union local, the more likely the elections will turn on local personalities, while national union votes are far more likely to turn on the big issues labor faces.

The key is not the size of the locals, but whether the union elections are fair and opponents have a real chance to get their views out. Almost all unions have problems on that score, but that is where labor reform advocates should put their focus.

Update: To add an example of needed reforms as unions centralize, a decision by an Appeals Court last fall required direct elections at regional councils of the Carpenters, arguing that as traditional functions of locals are moved to higher regional bodies, those bodies must meet the requirements of direct and fair elections by the members.

Posted by Nathan at January 26, 2005 09:09 AM