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January 23, 2006

Transit Workers and Democracy

The transit workers in NYC have narrowly rejected the contract negotiated by their leadership.

I'm not going to second-guess the wisdom of the rank-and-file but just take a moment to celebrate the moment as showing what most of the media ignores-- that unions are some of the only real democratic institutions in our society. It's almost Orwellian that you hear about isolated cases of corruption far more than the commonplace stories of workers exercising democratic votes in the workplace everyday through their unions.

Let's just trace the democratic decision-making that got us to that transit contract vote.

  • First, the transit workers got to decide whether to have a union in the first place.
  • Then, the current leadership led by Roger Toussaint won office in a vibrantly contested vote against an incumbent
  • The rank-and-file then voted on whether to give the leadership strike authorization
  • And now, the members get to reject the handiwork of the leadership and send them back to the bargaining table.

    Contrast that with other major institutions in our society-- corporations where shareholders can't even propose alternative candidates to incumbent directors, non-profit organizations with self-selected boards of directors, and a range of other institutions where leadership has little accountability to the broad membership.

    Plenty of unions can improve their internal democratic procedures and a few are basketcases, but compared to a democracy where Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff bought and sold favors for the last decade, unions like the Transit Workers are De Toqueville's ideal of Democracy in America.

    Posted by Nathan at January 23, 2006 06:07 AM