What Is A Democratic Union?

[Labor Notes’ book Democracy Is Power, by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle, talks about a “culture of democracy” in unions -- a relationship between leaders and members that is more than following a set of rules.

Our friends at the Association for Union Democracy agree, but they’ve set forth some basic rules and guidelines that democratic unions should follow. AUD’S site includes the text of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which spells out some legal rights of union members and requirements on unions, and links to many rank and file websites. For more advice, practical and political, on running a democratic union, order Democracy Is Power.]

AUD's Union Democracy Benchmarks

Q: I have a very basic question. What do you at AUD think is a democratic union? How do you judge -- what are the benchmarks? Is it enough to have elections and union meetings? Is a union democratic if it just obeys the legal requirements, even if those requirements are minimal? Do you have a list of unions that you consider democratic?

A: We do not maintain a list of "AUD-certified" democratic unions. We feel that judgment is best left in the hands of union members themselves, the people most familiar with the real workings of the institution. Visit the rank-and-file sites on our links page to see how various unions measure up in the eyes of some of their members.

But we like the idea of union democracy benchmarks, so we put together the following checklist. Warning! This list has many limitations (see below); we welcome your feedback.

* Fair elections that promote participation. Union goes beyond the minimum DOL requirements for elections (see links below): provides more time for nominations and campaigning, union representatives encourage members to run for office. All members in good standing eligible to run; no continuous good standing or meeting attendance requirements. No ban on non-member contributions (except employers and unions) to candidates for union office. Officers back members' right to time off for campaigning. If necessary, elections run by legitimate outside agency.

* Frequent, contested elections. More than minimum required by law; members regularly challenge incumbents; there is turnover in officers and representatives.

* Access to membership list. In elections, candidates have access to membership list (name, work location, phone, e-mail) for campaign purposes, including right to copy the list.

* Open publications. Local newsletter/website publishes members' views, including those critical of officials, representatives, or union policy; union encourages debate and discussion of issues and candidates. In elections, all candidates have equal use of union publications and means of communication (website, newsletter, e-mail list) to put out their campaign material.

* Member ratification of contracts. All contracts and side agreements between the union and management subject to ratification by secret ballot by members covered by the contract.

* Strike votes. Members vote on striking, on return to work, and on other decision during strike; strike votes not used to force members to ratify contracts ("either you vote ‘yes’ or you vote to strike").

* Informed vote. Complete text of proposed contract changes, amendments, referenda, etc. distributed to members prior to ratification with sufficient time for meaningful membership review and discussion. Union circulates different opinions about the contract offer.



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* Elected representatives. Shop stewards and business agents elected, secret ballot, by members they represent, subject to recall by members they represent; stewards and active members trained in legal rights and organizing; stewards council that meets to plan and coordinate action.

* Grievants' bill of rights. Workers participate fully in the grievance process at every step, with full information about their case and its progress.

* Access to information. Union representatives give members current and complete copies of the contract and the union constitution/bylaws. Contract and Constitution are published on union website. Members have easy access to information on officers' salaries, budget, and expenses. Union representatives regularly inform members of their rights under federal and state law, and how to enforce them, including rights and responsibilities under the LMRDA.

* Regular local meetings. At least quarterly; announced ahead of time; time and place convenient to members; agenda circulated in advance; real business conducted, not just a pep rally; members encouraged to speak, make proposals, vote, and ask questions. Reasonable quorum (not so high as to prevent member meetings).

* Independent organizing and communication. Members organize in independent committees and caucuses, publish rank-and-file newsletters and websites, run candidates for union office. Union officers encourage this.

* Inclusion and equality. All members are treated fairly; union fights discrimination by management and among members; officers and representatives reflect membership in terms of gender, race, language, craft, seniority, etc. Contracts, Constitution, meetings, publications translated into languages spoken by members.

* Education for members. Union trains members in legal rights and organizing, including how to participate effectively in the union and how to organize on the job.


The AUD Union Democracy checklist is not exhaustive -- we have undoubtedly left out items that in a given set of circumstances could be critically important.

Many of the items on the list are subject to legitimate debate -- is it always more democratic to have elected business agents? Are direct elections by members always better than delegated elections?

It is possible for a union to meet many of these benchmarks in form, but not in substance, for example, holding regular union meetings that really only serve to rubber stamp decisions already made by the officers. The reverse is also possible, a union's officers might do a fine job of representing members even in the absence of certain democratic practices or rules.

There are principles that are important to the union movement that are not strictly speaking union democracy issues: whether to oppose concessions, how much to prioritize new organizing, the role of unions in politics. This list is about what makes a union democratic, not about what union members should use that democracy for.

A union does not become democratic once and for all, but rather as a result of constant vigilance and struggle.

The checklist is neither our ultimate wish list, nor just the bare legal minimum. (See our summary of legal requirements.) It assumes that your union is already meeting its legal obligations under federal, state and local law. This checklist is intended to spark your thinking on the subject.