Democratize the union: let the rank-and-file decide!

  • January 25, 2017

Work & Workers

To revitalize labor unions, workers themselves will have to be put in control. Applying participatory budgeting to dues allocation would be a good start.

According to exit poll data, Donald Trump won Ohio union households 54 percent to 41 percent against Hillary Clinton. At the national level, Clinton achieved a narrow victory, winning 51 percent, to Trump’s 42 percent. This despite the fact that labor unions spent more than $100 million in support of Clinton. Of course, factors relating to race, gender and class are at play. Nonetheless, the right-wing slant of union households should also be cause for concern.

Unionization of US workers has declined both under Democratic and Republican administrations and congresses. In the 1950s, approximately 35 percent of US workers were in unions. Today, this number has dropped to a mere 11 percent. Unless organized labor finds solutions to problems pervasive within its own organizations and structures, union membership numbers will continue to shrink, and remaining members will be too cornered to mobilize effectively.

To tackle longstanding administrative and organizational problems endemic to labor unions, we must start with how we approach union dues. That is, creating member-focused and driven mechanisms which endow the rank-and-file with direct control over dues allocation a fiscal base amounting to $8.6 billion in the United States.

Fortunately, such mechanisms of direct control like participatory budgeting  have been tried and tested in other areas of social life. Participatory budgeting has revitalized social life and empowered people through its implementation in municipalities, in schools and colleges, in public housing and now even at the national level. What problems could participatory budgeting address in labor unions? And how can it provide a socialist thrust to one of the bulwarks of the American left?

Organized Labor’s Democracy Deficit

Too often union members are seen as dues-paying devices that are to be turned out and checked off. Leaderships view their rank-and-file as a burdensome hurdle to contract ratification. Members see their unions as corrupted empty shells that nevertheless offer some valuable legal services and a defanged formal check on their employers. Members don’t see themselves as the union, but see it as an entity over and above them. These phenomena are, in part, a result of a deficit in democratic decision-making apparatuses.

The democratic deficit was witnessed in splits between and within unions prior to the Democratic Party’s presidential primary. The Intercept reported that, when leaders decided which candidate to endorse, Hillary Clinton received the organization’s support. When members decided, Bernie Sanders received the endorsement. In times of rampant populism, the former only intensified existing distrust of union leadership felt by members.

In the face of this, there has been a sporadic rise of rank-and-file unionism. Yet, rank-and-file unionism often amounts to simply more regularized interaction. Meetings that are substantively deliberative, organizers in consistent contact with individual members, occasional referenda and generating informal spaces that inject energy into the union. When members are encouraged to step up, it’s often for positions requiring skills in mobilization. These are all valuable ingredients to a well-functioning workers’ organization. However, none of them alter the very structure of a labor union.

It is not enough to simply hold general membership meetings and assemblies. Particularly meetings that consist of talking at people, rather than talking with people and people talking amongst themselves. How can we expect members to constructively discuss union issues and activities on their own time when we don’t make official union meeting spaces and times an example of how this can be done? General assembly participation fades in quantity and quality if such spaces are not tied to the exercise of material power.

Lack of Proposals

Even with all the talk of unions being in crisis, many proposals exclusively focus on organized labor’s external relations. In more extreme forms, proposals veer off into disavowing unionism itself. For example, in an article in The Nation, proposals to rectify organized labor’s external relations are framed in a manner that appears to almost renounce unionism:

The organizations we give birth to won’t look like old-school unions. Instead, these new models and platforms could look more like politically constructed regional or sectoral bargaining (such as the Seattle minimum-wage commission, or the New York fast-food wage board); increased worker ownership of firms; a system of labor-employer co-determination as in European nations; more collective power over work distribution technologies like TaskRabbit and Uber; deeper and more effective labor standards enforcement; the launch of purchaser-facing certification and labeling; or better systems for connecting all workers with the quality, portable benefits they deserve.

Yet the conclusion is: “Labor might seize an opportunity to switch gears from merely acting as bargaining agents to fostering vibrant, participatory workplace democracy.”

Prior to her illness, Karen Lewis, current president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), was slated to run for mayor. Lewis called for “the restoration of participatory democracy,” which meant a call for the implementation of participatory budgeting in “in everything from the Board of Education’s annual budget to the city’s annual budget.” Even recent participatory democratic books such as Stanley Aronowitz’s The Death and Life of American Labor: Towards a New Workers’ Movement, and Julius Getman’s Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement, fail to make real proposals about the internal structure of unions.

While the above-stated proposals are concerned with fostering participatory workplace democracy, they do not aim at doing so within unions themselves. How do we do this? Where do we begin? To effectively and sustainably implement participatory democracy within unions, it is worth looking at those areas in which material power can be exercised. One such area is the collection of union dues.

Dues collection apparatuses are both a binding force and a source of toxic tension. Even the most sympathetic non-union workers fear union dues. And while this fear is often the result of right-wing propaganda, we do not put the rank-and-file at the heart of our most effective responses to such fears. We correctly point out that dues are never instituted without at least an equal increase in wages. And we also correctly point out that these dues go to essential services. If this wasn’t the case, we would not be witnessing sustained right-wing efforts to deplete union capacity through right-to-work legislation.

Yet, in speaking about union dues, organizers rarely frame their introduction as a positive development. We almost never speak of dues as a collective resource for the workers themselves to command. We implicitly regard dues as a necessary evil in labor’s struggle against capital. But if dues are one of the largest sources of power for the workers  and potentially the left  then we cannot continue to regard them as a necessary evil. Dues should not be ignored, or considered a burden that must be borne. Instead, dues must be discursively and materially readied as a resource for the workers themselves.

More substantively, this means we cannot continue to only design, implement and defend dues-collection apparatuses, which so much of the present-day dues check-off battles are about. We must also design membership-driven dues-allocation apparatuses. The workers themselves cannot put themselves on the road to emancipation if they are deprived of exercising control over what can and should be one of their primary sources of social power.

To flesh out what this might look like, it is worth putting this proposal in conversation with what Moody identifies as four problems in organized labor: (1) unpredictability and lack of control in raising class-consciousness; (2) unions as schools for socialism particularly in the operationalization of the micro-structures and mechanisms of socialism; (3) the adversarial character of relations within unions; and (4) the role of bureaucracy in such adversarial relations.

Fostering Class Consciousness

Recently, political theorists like John McCormick and Jeffrey Edward Green have touted the creation of a class-based political organization, with strong institutions of “plebian democracy.” McCormick stresses the need to create “class-specific, popularly empowering, and elite-constraining institutions that accomplish two tasks: … raise the class consciousness of common citizens and formally enable them to patrol more exalted citizens with a vigor that electoral politics in and of itself does not provide.”

Despite the current right-wing imbalance, we need not foreclose ourselves to this thinking. In the absence of government initiative to create class-based democracy, labor unions can create such institutions. Unlike other sectors of the left, unions possess an infrastructure of buildings, meeting spaces, massive mailing lists and extensive administrative apparatuses.

As such, participatory budgeting need not be circumscribed to union locals. To foster class consciousness, participatory budgeting can be operationalized at the level of cross-union formations, such as geographically-based union federations and other types of cross-union arrangements. This builds off of Kim Moody, Fred Eppsteiner and Mille Flug, who wrote in 1966 that “participatory democracy is just as viable for workers as for anyone. In fact, it is absolutely the best way to organize workers, because it is the only way that actually builds revolutionary consciousness.” If we do in fact believe in the democratization of our unions  and a number of unionists do make explicit commitments to “participatory democracy” within unions  then the question is one of mechanism and operationalization.

Cross-union participatory budgeting processes could foster feelings and material networks of solidarity. Currently, when solidarity is expressed between unions, it is characteristically between respective leaderships. Union leaders often symbolically express solidarity with one another, but there is little opportunity for rank-and-file to do so  and worse, there’s little opportunity to convert and operationalize such solidarity when it does exist. Unions that conduct sympathy strikes are often punished. There has not been a general strike in a major US city since 1934.

The left needs other ways to foster class consciousness through labor unions and their various federated arrangements. Leftists also need other ways to foster cross-occupational solidarities, primarily by using the existing material infrastructures of unions, which the rest of the left so sorely lacks. Union halls and buildings can become sites of participatory budgeting assemblies. Municipal central labor councils could also become sites of municipal labor assemblies, where rank-and-file educators, manufacturers, transit workers, etc., intermingle through the exercise of material power. Contact between the rank-and-file of various unions, on the basis of constructive power, will generate positive spillovers into arenas outside of participatory budgeting.

Cross-occupational labor assemblies are not foreign to US unions. For the Knights of Labor, assemblies were the bedrock of union power. From this perspective, it is no surprise that the Knights of Labor promulgated a vision of moving beyond capitalism to a cooperative commonwealth. It is equally unsurprising that the Knights of Labor proved to be the most effective union in US history in developing cooperatives. This leads to our next point: labor unions organized as schools for socialism.

Participatory Budgeting as Worker Education

Before the working class can aspire to generalized control over the means of production, it must aspire to and operationalize control over the means of its defense: labor unions. In operationalizing the self-management of its defense, labor  en masse  would acquire the know-how and organizational capacities to eventually self-manage production, wherever and however opportunities for this might arise.

Anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker wrote of unions serving as schools for the working class:

… the trade union is by no means a mere transitory phenomenon bound up with the duration of capitalist society, it is the germ of the socialist society of the future, the elementary school of socialism in general. Every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism. Without this preliminary any social evolution is unthinkable. Even revolutions can only develop and mature the germs which already exist and have made their way into the consciousness of men; they cannot themselves create these germs or create new worlds out of nothing. It therefore concerns us to plant these germs while there is still yet time and bring them to the strongest possible development, so as to make the task of the coming social revolution easier and to ensure its permanence.

To be schools for socialism, unions must do more than simply mobilize. They must create structures that prepare workers for what are the ingredients of a socialist society. How many warehouses and factories with idle physical capital have been left vacant? What if those formerly employed in such facilities were prepared  by their unions  to take over production? While participatory budgeting does not in itself fully acquaint workers with how to self-manage production, it can serve as a big step towards preparing workers for control of their workplaces.

Before initiatives of workers’ control can be put into full effect  as the United Steelworkers and Cincinnati unions hope to do (as well as the more general union co-op model from “1worker1vote”)  the workers themselves must be collectively empowered with a vocabulary and material experience to act in such a manner. Workers are far more likely to succeed in operationalizing workplace democratization schemes if they have already experienced and dealt with issues related to participatory democracy. Participatory budgeting within the union could provide such a training that helps operationalize democratization schemes within the workplace and beyond.

Furthermore, unions’ participatory budgeting processes could also be designed to ensure equity. This means designing processes to address issues of gender and race. Just as any school of socialism must provide workers with technical training and administrative capability, it must also be a school for a kind of socialism that aspires to and enacts racial and gender equality.

Transforming Bureaucracy, Forging Collaboration

At a May 2014 event at the New School, Moody repudiated the idea that union bureaucracy could be eliminated. Bureaucracy is here to stay, and the question, instead, is how to deal with it. As Gabriel Winant notes, in contrast to the other segments of the American left, “organized labor … is at its finest both reliable bureaucracy and mass spirit.” Winant rightfully argues that “rank-and-file insurgency simply will not form without being fostered.” He argues that “forming organizations and hiring staff is a necessary step toward enabling workers to be heard; it is not, in itself, the elimination of their voices.”

Winant also writes that the union exists as an organization for workers to “pool their resources,” as opposed to being a “network of felt solidarities.” To its detriment, organized labor often lacks a network of felt solidarities. Nowhere is this more apparent than between rank-and-file and union bureaucracy.

One of the transformative innovations of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre was the reorientation and reorganization of municipal bureaucracy. Through a study of participatory budgeting, scholars Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza assert that “self-rule … does not rest only in communication … [but in] the coupling of the assemblies with administrative structures.” In Porto Alegre, spaces of non-coercive and egalitarian deliberation were coupled with reform of government administrative apparatuses. Baiocchi and Ganuza identify three key administrative reforms.

First, they point to the “exclusive conveyor belt.” The idea is that “the chain of popular sovereignty” is protected from external interference. It also means documenting every phase of the participatory budgeting process in a publicly accessible “Book of Projects.” Furthermore, to ensure neutrality and evenhandedness, a new budget planning office was created to stand above the other municipal departments to ensure city agencies did not deviate from the wishes of the residents.

Second, neighborhood assemblies generated a need for reforms in the internal structure of each administrative office. Each office was required to hire “community facilitators” that interfaced between residents and technical experts. Community facilitators were required to attend assemblies, and a weekly forum that ensured the coherence of the participatory budgeting process.

Third, the Municipal Council of the Budget constituted a “forum of forums” wherein representatives from different phases and points of the process where brought together “to debate and legitimate the process as a whole”:

… members of the council dealt with unexpected events beyond the rules; they deliberated and decided on the rules of the process; they set broad investment priorities according to abstract social justice criteria… This forum of forums provided the ability of participants to self-regulate the process and to have a second-order debate about the general principles that finally would shape administrative public policies.

These dimensions of the Porto Alegre process could also be translated to  and even deepened within  the labor union. One could imagine a union hiring a small staff whose job is to interface between the various administrative departments and the rank-and-file. Bureaucrats themselves may even be required to attend participatory budgeting assemblies. This would allow for the transmission of information about union benefits that members are often unaware of as a whole. It may also work to uncover the levers of power too often hidden in the backrooms of union staff and leadership.

Organized labor could also create Labor Union Council(s) of the Budget. Such Labor Union Budget Councils would bring together various actors within a union to ensure member input and control  which in turn would reflect beyond the participatory budgeting process. This Council could serve as a site of collaborative relations between the rank-and-file and the union leadership.

The Untapped Potential of the Rank-and-File

Participatory budgeting within unions is not simply about addressing the problems outlined above. It’s most simply and primarily about unleashing the untapped potential of nearly every union member. It’s about creating the networks of solidarity that can unleash a scale of people power that by far and away surpasses the fiscal power possessed by unions. If the power of the union is in its membership, then the power of the membership must be harnessed and materialized.

In speaking about his experiences at union meetings, Dave Kamper writes that at union meetings he often asks “members to raise their hands if they ever talk to their nextdoor neighbor about their union or their politics. After counting the number of people who respond, I always have fingers left over.”

A union that endows its members with the power to decide its direction  to decide where its funds go  is a union that a member will surely talk to their neighbor about. It is a union their neighbor will want to join.

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Alexander Kolokotronis

Alexander Kolokotronis is a PhD student in political science at Yale University. He is the founder of Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives, and formerly the Student Coordinator of NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives and Worker Cooperative Development Assistant at Make the Road New York.

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