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UE News Book Review
Promoting the Power
Of Union Democracy

Democracy is Power ....

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.


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 they are.

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.


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

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Pres. Hovis Comments
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 rank-and-file participation."

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.

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UE News - 07/99

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