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One-member, one-vote can democratize our unions


One main reason for the recently successful Teamsters UPS strike threat and SAG-AFTRA and UAW strikes is union democracy. In November, I wrote about reasons for the surging labor movement. In these three unions, the members have a direct vote for the leadership. 

Today most unions like mine, the California Faculty Association, elect the leadership through the delegate system.This means that delegates appointed by local chapter leadership to a convention serve as an undemocratic electoral college that elects the statewide leadership.  

This allows the same leadership to become an entrenched one-party state which is reelected by their supporters year after year.  

Until UAW’s Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus successfully achieved one member one vote at the last convention, the UAW was ruled by the same junta that went back to the autocratic Walter Reuther.   

Today, according to a recent study by a former longtime union staffer Chris Bohner, only six of the 20 largest unions have one member, one vote. The other 14, representing 80 percent of all union members or 10.6 million workers, use the undemocratic delegate system.  

If you are inspired by these recently successful strike threats and strikes, it is because the members were able to vote for their leadership. 

In my recent email interview with Chris Bohner, he pointed out that “1M1V [one-member, one-vote] can help cut through the conservative tendencies of organized labor by encouraging more robust democratic participation and debate.”  

That has frequently resulted in broad participation in open bargaining, debates and access to information about negotiations. It also results in developing tactics, strategies and objectives including a plentiful strike fund that can sustain a long disruptive strike. 

While one-member, one-vote, as we just saw with District Council 37’s Local 372 revote re-electing its president to a fourth term, is not a panacea it is critically important in order to have a competitive debate over the vision and strategy of the union for the leadership. 

Most importantly, it also opens the decision about how to use existing union assets. In 2022, Bohner issued a report showing a massive increase in capital assets held by the largest unions even as membership dropped. Democratically electing the leadership gives the members the power to determine whether those assets are invested in Wall Street, the enemy of workers, given as campaign donations or used in organizing workers to take action. 

Unite All Workers for Democracy’s success at changing the payment of strike funds at the convention made the recent UAW strike possible. Bohner estimates UAW spent $100 million in strike pay. After the strike ended, it famously announced that it also plans to spend its ample assets to organize workers at all the other non-union automakers and called for a general strike beginning May Day 2028.  

The delegate system makes it extremely hard to democratize our unions because it fragments the members into chapters, locals and regions, which dilutes our power. That’s what rank-and-file caucuses at the seven big unions representing seven million workers will face in delegate based elections in 2024.  

The Essential Workers for Democracy reform caucus experienced these difficulties at the recent UFCW convention. Teamsters for a Democratic Union worked for decades to achieve success in the last election and strike threat. 

Forming a caucus is easy. Democratizing our unions can take years or decades. 

Change won’t be done by persuasion alone. The fastest route is for the leadership to democratize our unions directly rather than wait for a member revolt, decertification, loss of members, and even a government lawsuit that helped transform UAW and the Teamsters. 

Wildcat strikes organized by members that organize and strike without union sanction are another effective strategy to transform our union while bypassing the entrenched leadership. When a minority of UAW 2865 University of California graduate student workers wildcatted during the pandemic at two campuses, they eventually won the COLAs they demanded and fired UC Santa Cruz organizers were rehired.  

The wildcat built the organizational culture deployed in the successful six-week strike in 2022, the largest in the history of U.S. higher education.  

Although the leadership didn’t change, the wildcat inspired the members to organize the disruptive strike to win some of the changes they needed. 

As Joe Burns shows in his book “Strike Back,” wildcat strikes in the 1960-70s led to widespread unionization of the public sector that today makes up the majority of all unionized workers in the country. 

Union assets are still growing and $13.5 billion of the $37.5 billion in total assets are held in cash or Treasury bills, according to Bohner. This money can organize a lot of workers and keep them out on disruptive strikes. But it will require democratizing our unions for the members to get access to these resources.  

The success of these efforts are not limited to the workers movement. As Bohner added in our interview, “labor has been central to the fight for democracy in capitalist systems. And I think expanding democracy to work — a dictatorship of bosses and managers — is a crucial role for the labor movement.”  

Democratizing our unions is an essential first step to democratizing work and ultimately the entire economic system. Our union leadership, many of whom are richly paid in their safe lifetime jobs, stand in our way. Many cherish capitalism and their service to the Democratic Party, which does not want strikes. Others are dependent on top well paid staff looking out for their own jobs. Too many are willing to collaborate with the boss and sell out the members.  

It’s long past time for them to go. 

Robert Ovetz is editor of "Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle," co-editor of the forthcoming "Real World Labor (Vol. 4)" and the author of "When Workers Shot Back" and "We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few." Follow him at @OvetzRobert


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