Unions and Democracy

Further to Jim’s post on the recent ratcheting up of the war on unions, I note that Hudak’s lead argument is that voluntary union membership is needed to “make unions more responsive to unionized employees.” (p6) “Labour laws” it is alleged “have given union leaders substantial power  with little or no accountability.” (p9) The basic idea seems to be that unions don’t have to listen to or reflect the views of their members since the members have no choice but to shut up and pay their dues.

Unions are imperfect institutions, but they are nonetheless democratic institutions. Even the mainstream economics and industrial relations literature recognizes that union leaders have to respond to rank and file needs and interests since they are elected by those members. Thus there are models of collective bargaining outcomes based upon the idea of the “median union voter”, which explain why bargaining tends to flatten wage differentials between union members in the same workplace and industry.  Almost all unions involve the membership in bargaining, albeit to a varying degree, and activities outside bargaining such as lobbying and political action are undertaken through internal procedures involving elected leaders.

The irony of all of this is that the most democratic unions, the ones that most closely involve rank and file workers, also tend to be the most militant in terms of both bargaining and political action.  That is, of course, not at all what Hudak wants.

Jim is bang on that elimination of mandatory dues would create a major free rider problem. This is not true just in economic terms, with respect to access to union wages and benefits, but also in procedural terms. When it comes to issues like promotion and discipline and work rules, the union represents all members of the bargaining unit.  I would guess that very few union members would drop their membership if they were also required to waive their seniority rights, protection against layoff, right to appeal arbitrary changes in responsibilities and work rules etc.


  • Andrew an all,

    There’s no such thing as “union bosses”.
    There are “union presidents”.

    Your typical “boss” at work is appointed by a dictatorship at the top who don’t care what employees think. That’s why people hate their bosses.

    All “union presidents” earn their responsibilities by competing in democratic elections. Employees vote them in based on merit and policy.

    Democracy doesn’t end there. Employees vote on the negotiated agreements, they vote on merger with other unions, and they can even vote to END their union.

    If Tim Hudak actually cares about workplace “democracy”, he should start by challenging the communist leadership model most companies have adopted.

  • Piccolo Economista

    I was a member of a union as a welder/fabricator for a couple years (the pinnacle of my career, I might add) and the one thing that amazed me is that members are apathetic.

    The only reason a majority of people get into a union is for the “money”. All of these other aspects that are being debated about are practically irrelevant–or taken for granted–from the average perspective of participants. Out of an active membership that numbered around 500, less than a dozen people would show up to meetings (except when it was time to vote on wage contracts, of course).

    So if the argument is that “unions need to be more responsive to employees” perhaps “employees need to be more responsive (or responsible) to unions”?

    Otherwise, they will just continue fading out into the obscurity of anachronism.

  • Dan Tan wrote:

    “If Tim Hudak actually cares about workplace ‘democracy’, he should start by challenging the communist leadership model most companies have adopted.”

    I’m sincerely interested in this remark.

    Kindly explain what’s specifically “communist” about the leadership models most companies have adopted.

    A communist like me would like to know.

    Piccolo has an excellent point that goes right to the heart of the argument many American leftists have been having since Walker:


    (Start at the bottom with Gordon Lafer’s June 15th piece then work upwards.)

  • Todd,

    Don’t act so innocent.

    Business leaders constantly enforce their whims without seeking the consent of their employees (and if they can get away with it, the entire population).

    And where governments turn a blind eye, they even “disappear” critics & dissidents (Colombia, Nigeria, Honduras, etc.).

    Typical communism. And Tim Hudak’s nothing but their Manchurian Candidate.

  • I assume he means big C Communist as practiced by Stalin and Mao, which is, of course, the exact oppisite of actual communism.

  • Ummm, yeah, this topic has strayed!

    I agree with Piccolo; in my experience many union members are either apathetic, (except when it comes to voting on contracts), or even downright hostile to the union, complaining about having to pay dues into an organization whose existence they feel is an abomination.

    Having been part of a union negotiating committee as well as a few other committees, I can say that those who chose to be involved were very much concerned with the welfare of the group as a whole. Everything was voted on: every position on every committee, and pretty much every decision by every committee.

    So, the democratic-ness of unions really should not be in question, I don’t think.

    The problem of whether modern unions can remain relevant to the workers has less to do with democracy within the union, and more to do with the Neo-Liberals controlling business and government, and the apathetic nature of some of the workers that belong to unions (some would say a majority of those workers).

    Democracies only work if everyone is engaged, and the same is true for unions. Sadly, Capitalism favours and encourages individualism before collectivism, which works against unions and Democracies every time.

  • Tan wrote:

    “Don’t act so innocent.”

    Now you read this, you braying donkey:

    Socialism and communism is founded on democratic control over the means of production. Capitalism has NO such foundation, never has. Don’t confuse the two.

  • Bill Prouten,

    The conversation has not strayed.

    We are saying similar things.

    I pointed out that unions are merely democratic institutions. Nothing more, nothing less.

    You pointed out that voter engagement is a problem in every type of democratic institution.

    We clearly differ on the challenge posed by Tim Hudak, and the appropriate response.

    We all know the implications of his manifesto. Like a hormonal teenager, he’s decided that blowing up a democracy is better than participating in it.

    Your response is self-reflection and lament.

    My response is that Tim Hudak has a Baader-Meinhof complex. He wants to create total anarchy for employees, so they can be easily exploited by the Soviet union’s his business-elite friends have created.

    This thing will not be decided in an exam where the most detailed & accurate answers win. It will be decided in the presentations, where resonance and emotional appeal win.

    So let’s figure out how our detailed and accurate answers can resonate with emotional voters.

  • Tan brayed:

    “My response is that Tim Hudak has a Baader-Meinhof complex. He wants to create total anarchy for employees, so they can be easily exploited by the Soviet union’s his business-elite friends have created.”

    Do you even know what you’re writing about when you juxtapose these ideas?

  • How do I get in to one of Hudak’s gulags? Aside from that, I agree with Dan and Piccolo. I used to be a part-time union member in which I lost my job to no fault of my own. Unions only cover full-time employees in a nation full of part-time labourers. The only way to break free from wage slave labour is to work for yourself (for your clientele directly). The problem never lied with people taking ownership for their work; It lies deep within those who take credit for your work and pay you less than 10% of the labour you commit.

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