News & Events

Union democracy: not a passive activity

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
November/December 2009 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

There has been a lot of discussion recently on the issue of union democracy. So, it may be an appropriate time to review what in fact makes a union “democratic.” This issue gets to some very basic questions for union members. What kind of union do members want? What does workplace democracy mean? How do you build a democratic union?

Union democracy means that the members are a part of an open organization and have direct input into how the union operates and how decisions are made. A democratic labor union is transparent and it is member-driven, while exclusion and secrecy are its enemy. This is not a revolutionary concept in the labor movement by any means, but it is often an illusory one and sometimes difficult to implement in practice.

The Labor Management-Labor Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959 includes a “Bill of Rights” that provides for certain democratic rights for union members, including: free speech and due process; freedom of assembly; the right to a secret ballot on dues; the right to receive a copy of the contract. While the LMRDA was controversial when debated in the late 1950s—since organized labor properly noted that Congress never would insert itself so directly in the internal operations of corporations—it has nonetheless provided a baseline for democratic operations.

The legislation grew out of a reaction to abuses of some unions towards their membership- with top-down and autocratic structures and decision making that locked out the rank and file, and operated in secrecy. Some of these unions were in fact corrupt and there was a strong desire to rectify these by law.

Benchmarks of union democracy

The Association for Union Democracy (the AUD) is described as a “non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the principles and practices of democratic trade unionism in the North American labor movement.” It has suggested that there are “benchmarks” for measuring and monitoring union democracy. These include:

  • Fair elections that promote participation
  • Frequent contested elections (that go beyond the minimum Department of Labor requirements)
  • Open publications
  • Elected shop stewards (floor representative)
  • Member ratification of contracts
  • Grievants’ bill of rights (full participation in the process with full information on their case)
  • Regular local meetings
  • Education for members
  • Internal communication (including member caucuses, rank-and-file newsletters and Web sites)

The AUD acknowledges that this is not an exhaustive list and some items may be debatable, and that achieving such democracy entails “constant vigilance and struggle.” But these benchmarks offer a good starting point as well as providing a checklist to measure a union’s progress toward that goal.

Leadership development and organizing

A union is not a passive organization nor is it a secret society. It functions best when there is openness and when the membership owns and participates in its operation. A union is not an insurance company nor is it like the American Automobile Association, which comes to our rescue when we need it because we have paid our dues. A union requires an active and engaged membership with dynamic and visionary leadership at all levels. Again, secrecy is not a sign of a strong, confident or democratic organization, but rather a sure sign of control, paranoia and exclusion.

Labor activist and author Michael Eisenscher once wrote, “So long as union members are treated like, and see themselves as, consumers of union services rather than co-creators (with one another and with their leaders) of union power, efforts to recruit members to this organizing task … will always fall short of what is needed.”

This organizing and democratic model also suggests that it is not enough for a union to simply “win” grievances and arbitrations and to negotiate collective bargaining agreements— what Eisenscher calls the “Contracts-R-Us” model. But rather the challenge is to build a truly democratic and powerful union that can achieve such short-term goals while also focusing on the larger picture which would include the role of the employee and the relationship to the employer and to the product or service being produced. For MNA nurses and health care professionals this easily translates into advocacy for safe working conditions (safe needles, safe staffing) as well as the delivery of quality patient care (safe patient handling) and issues such as national health insurance.

The MNA and the democratic model

The MNA has evolved over the years into a strong and active labor union. Many of the benchmarks listed above are ones that have been met in MNA units. Examples include bargaining units that have:

  • Regular monthly membership meetings
  • Ratification of initial contract proposals
  • Organizing members in support of grievances
  • Group actions that challenge bad management policies and actions
  • Open negotiations with members in attendance
  • Unit newsletters and bargaining updates
  • Contract action teams
  • A fully mapped and regularly updated facility
  • An operational and effective internal communications system
  • High union visibility
  • Structured union orientations
  • A full complement of elected officers and floor representatives

But the work continues and the challenges remain as it is always an on-going process. With the advent of the new National Nurses Union (NNU), the MNA has a tremendous opportunity to develop into a powerful and democratic union.

While the recent membership vote to affiliate into the NNU was not without differences of opinions, there was a full opportunity for debate of the issues involved in creating a new national union. Such opportunity to discuss and dissent and then to ultimately make an informed decision is an example of union democracy in action.

The MNA passed the test of union democracy and can only become stronger as a result.