Democracy is Power:
Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up by Mike Parker and Martha
Gruelle, a Labor Notes Book.
7435 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48210. Call: 313-824-6262. $17 plus $3
shipping for the first book; $1 for each additional.
What is a healthy relationship between
union members and local leaders? How far out front should the leaders be? Why don’t
members participate? Why do members participate? What is the importance
of fighting for gender and racial equality? How could meetings be made more
interesting and useful?
These are among the questions tackled in Democracy Is
Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up by Mike Parker and Martha
Gruelle, a new book from Labor Notes.
While written primarily for reformers seeking to restructure
their union to make it more democratic, Democracy Is Power nevertheless
grapples with numerous issues around democratic functioning often faced by UE
local leaders and members.
DEMOCRACY IS CRUCIAL
The central argument of the book is that a local union cannot
achieve the power of a united membership without democracy. In the boom years
after World War II, business-model unionism was sometimes able to deliver wage
increases without much activity on the part of the rank-and-file. But the
basis for such deals fell apart in the 1970s with increased competitive
pressure to increase profits by reducing costs, especially labor costs. And in
the 1980s, unions without a functioning democratic structure were powerless to
put up the struggles necessary to resist the wave of concessionary bargaining.
Sections of the book may seem old hat to UE members, but it’s
helpful to remind ourselves of the stark contrast between UE and most other
organizations. Throughout UE’s history we can boast that "The Members
Run This Union" — and that the level of our democracy is proven by the struggles we have been
able to mount.
Early on we led the fight for company-paid health insurance,
vacations, holidays and pensions. We were the first union to insist on
no-discrimination clauses in every contract. We were the first union to adopt
a "no concessions" bargaining policy in the 1980s. We fought for
seniority rights for women and protections for piece-rate workers when other
unions in our same industry took a back seat. Our wage increases in both the
public and private sector are consistently higher than the average. The early
founders built the union around a policy of rank-and-file control, no
discrimination and aggressive struggle. We’ve seen firsthand how important
Sticking to questions of democratic control, the authors point
out a number of areas where our uniqueness sets us out from other unions. We
are the only union that explicitly limits officers’ pay to the members’
level. Our convention decisions are brought home for local discussion and
constitutional changes must be ratified by locals.
When we provided a copy of the UE Leadership Guide to
one of the authors, we were shocked to hear how highly unusual it is for a
union to put that information in the hands of the members.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Not surprisingly, UE is acknowledged as "among the most
democratic unions." But before we get too smug, it is important to
acknowledge that this is an area where the ideal is often difficult to
achieve. We have a very proud history, but what kind of shape are we in
currently? How many locals feel satisfied with the level of attendance at
membership meetings? How many locals feel satisfied with their ability to
expand and replenish the pool of leadership?
The authors do a good job of drawing on a variety of
experiences, using examples and short case studies to look at what really
promotes involvement in the union. Their suggestions are down-to-earth and
realistic. The result is a useful tool for tackling a lot of the
nuts-and-bolts issues that even the healthiest local unions face.
— Carol Lambiase,
UE Education director
On New Book
In a letter to Labor Notes executive director Kim Moody,
UE Genl. Pres. John Hovis praised the new book, Democracy Is
Power, reviewed on this page by Education Dir. Carol Lambiase.
"Democracy Is Power is one of the most comprehensive
narratives on the subject that I’ve read," Hovis said. In
particular, the UE president praised the position taken by authors Mike
Parker and Martha Gruelle on "the absolute necessity of
UE’s president agreed that "the formation of a democratic
caucus in bureaucratic, undemocratic, top down unions is a necessity for
the revitalization of the labor movement in this country." But the
veteran union leader said he couldn’t agree with Parker and Gruelle
"that the formation of a caucus as a pressure group in an
established democratic organization is central to that democracy. Just
the opposite," he said. "I believe that democratic union
caucuses tend to divide the ranks and limit the democratic process to
consideration of their specific issues," Hovis stated.
UE News - 07/99