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Are Unions Democratic? The Internal Politics of Labor Unions and Their Implications

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Are Unions Democratic? The Internal Politics of Labor Unions and Their Implications

September 10, 2014
Public SectorOther

Labor unions in the United States are supposed to be democratically governed. Federal law mandates that privatesector union elections be conducted by secret ballot and that elections be held for choosing officers, setting dues, defining membership requirements, and approving a union’s constitution. Public-sector unions, though governed by a patchwork of state laws, generally must adhere to similar requirements.

Such rules are important bulwarks against corruption in any union. Even more important, for public-sector unions—now more than half the labor movement—democratic processes are the guarantee that their influence in politics genuinely represents their members. This is vital because these unions influence political decisions in governments whose workers they represent: their bargaining and lobbying activities directly affect taxes, government spending, and public policy. Therefore, the processes by which these organizations represent their members have an impact on all citizens in a way that the activities of private-sector unions do not.

Unfortunately, much evidence suggests that unions are, in the vast majority of cases, only superficially democratic. A review of the existing literature shows that:

  • Very few members vote in standard union-leadership elections (turnout is often below 20 percent; in one recent New York City public-sector union election, turnout was 4 percent).

  • Those who do vote are not representative of the membership as a whole (with older workers voting at higher rates, thus skewing, for example, union policies on the importance of pensions relative to wages).

  • Incumbent leaders often go unchallenged for long periods, sometimes “anointing” chosen successors (who then anoint another generation) instead of fostering genuine contests.

  • Unions, especially at the state and national level, often take political positions with which a substantial number of members disagree (thus forcing those members to pay, with their dues, for the advocacy of policies that they do not support).

All these factors are signs of a gap between union democracy as a theory and its actual practice. This paper examines that gap and locates its cause in the incentives that union leaders face.

Indeed, those incentives push leaders toward the maintenance of an effective organization and toward keen attention to the overall satisfaction of a majority of their members—but away from the potentially boat-rocking effects of real debate, truly contested elections, and widespread participation by members in choosing leaders and policies for their organization. In short, leaders’ incentives, combined with widespread apathy about union politics among the rank and file, conspire to keep democracy at bay in most unions.

This paper closes by pointing to reforms that could, and should, bring the practice of union democracy in line with the values of American society and the spirit of the law. Specifically, it recommends that Federal, state, and local governments:

  1. Require unions to publicize electoral procedures and report election returns. In particular, unions should report the names of the candidates for various offices; whether members voted in person, by phone, electronically, or postal mail; and the number of members who voted, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage.

  2. Require unions to adopt online voting systems, thereby eliminating cumbersome barriers to voting (such as traveling to the union hall to cast a ballot); improving transparency; speeding the dissemination of election results; and reducing the costs of holding elections.

  3. Stop requiring union members to pay for advocacy that they do not support. Specifically, public-sector unions need to formalize their political decision-making by holding referenda to gauge their members’ policy preferences more precisely. The results of these referenda should be made public.

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