Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin counterpose a compelling narrative of resistance, renewal, and hope to the declining fortunes of U.S. labor over the last fifty years. We are invited to embrace “Bargaining for the Common Good,” the explicit and conscious politicization of rank-and-file organizing, bargaining, and militant action. A central feature of this vision is participatory democracy—giving workers and community members more of a say in the movement, and more seats at the bargaining table.
In order to bring this vision to fruition, however, we must grapple with longstanding tensions between union leadership and member participation. Considering some of the rich literature on this problem from within the tradition I am most familiar with—unionism in the United Kingdom—can clarify the obstacles that stand in the way, and thus point the way to overcoming them.
Union democracy has been a focus of industrial relations since the late nineteenth century. Sidney and Beatrice Webb gave a classic analysis of the issue in The History of Trade Unionism (1896), arguing that the historical development of unions mimics the transition from primitive (or direct) democracy to representative democracy. The capacity for mass participation, the Webbs contend, depends on a localized membership base, most commonly associated with newly formed unions. Expanding nationally then calls forth representative structures, where leadership functions are executed by the few on behalf of the many.
The Webbs characterized this movement as the beginning of durable and modern unionism, in which specialized administrators and functionaries come to play an important role in organizational reproduction. While acknowledging the possibility for officer domination, they argued that union growth made it impossible, in most cases, for members directly to make all decisions. Representative institutions, by contrast, could enable members to combine the benefits of scale and scope, yet retain an important influence over general policy, if not detailed decision making. In this picture, organizational survival thus requires suppressing some localized and sectional adventurism.
An even more pessimistic account of member participation came in the early 1960s with H. A. Turner’s study of UK unions, which identified three models of governance. The first was that of “executive democracy.” Most closely associated with closed occupational unions, with rigid membership controls, this approach was characterized by high membership participation, few full-time officers, and little distinction between the leaders and the led, amounting in effect to the survival of the basic features of the primitive democracy detailed by the Webbs. The second of Turner’s models was the “aristocracies,” unions whose officials were subject to close scrutiny but only by one section of the membership. Typically this model was a product of the legacy of expansion, from the narrow confines of a particular craft union to wider constituencies: the dominant craft section would retain the executive elements, but this control would not be extended to all sections of the union. Turner’s third model was the “popular bossdoms,” unions characterized by low membership participation, greater dependency on professional officials, and with few avenues for popular control. Turner saw this style of governance as typical of general or open unions, covering a wide range of occupations dispersed across a wider geographical area. This vision has been borne out in recent and contemporary mergers of memberships into a smaller number of larger unions.
Later literature, following on the heels of the industrial militancy of the 1960s, began to take a rosier view of worker participation. Many emphasized the workplace as the key location in the understanding of union governance and the importance of role leadership in closing the gap between union centers and the rank and file. Hugh Armstrong Clegg, for example, claimed that workplace union representatives—“shop stewards”—could be seen as champions of union democracy: they attenuated the consequences of membership passivity and non-engagement in national policy deliberations and elections, acting as transmission belts and interpreters between higher union bodies and the shop floor.
This focus on workplace leadership greatly enriched understanding of union governance, even where it did not lead to a sanguine outlook about greater participation. In The Social Organization of Strikes (1978), for example, Eric Batstone, Ian Boraston, and Stephen Frenkel demonstrate that collective decision making is not confined solely to formal procedures but is crucially underpinned by informal and less overt processes of social organization. In this climate, these authors wrote, it is the representative and quasi-elite style of some stewards—combining representation of local membership concerns with the defence of broader union aims and principles—who are most effective in bargaining with employers. In an observation that mirrors the Webbs’ concern with organizational efficiency and survival and the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s denunciation of the corrosive effects of sectional militancy, The Social Organization of Strikes concluded that broader perspective and willingness to provide leadership is superior to the role performed by the populist steward, who seeks to act as no more than a delegate or vehicle of member wishes.
What can this literature—much of it skeptical of the feasibility of extensive participation—teach us about the revitalized forms of collective bargaining that Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin describe?
First, it helps us to challenge simplistic conceptions of fundamental contradictions between bureaucracy and the rank and file. In these careful studies of internal processes of workplace unionism and the complexities of local leadership, there is an explicit refusal to deploy the concepts of democracy and oligarchy. Instead they seek to reveal the range of particular tensions involved in organizational behavior.
Rank and file leadership, these studies show, is variegated. There are complex relations of mutual interdependence between full-time officers and local leaders. In fact, the elevation of local leaders to positions of national leadership and the institution of decentralized and delegate-based union decision making procedures featured prominently in the 1970s and into the 1980s, most notably in the National Union of Mineworkers in the UK. And as Richard Hyman pointed out in his later writings, bureaucracy becomes bereft of theoretical content when it is used to denote any particular layer of officials and leaders. Given that many administrative and representative functions are performed by unpaid local union activists and officers, it is extremely difficult to decide where the rank and file ends and the bureaucracy begins.
Second, this literature clarifies the barriers to greater membership participation and power. According to Hyman, for example, bureaucracy permeates trade union practice at every level and is manifest in a hierarchy of control and activism—a differential distribution of experience and participation—whereby the mass of members depends on the initiative and experience of a relatively small group of official and unofficial leaders.
Although this situation could be explained as the product of deliberate leadership interventions to maintain a hierarchy of control, it is important to acknowledge that this dependency can arise in the absence of manipulation. The mystifying effects of capitalist ideology certainly play a role: by prioritizing individualism and the unitarist vision of shared aims and interests between labor and capital, it obstructs acceptance of collectivist principles. Democratic interventions can appear as an alien strategy requiring special knowledge and confidence. Hyman even views the activists who might conceivably serve as facilitators of participation as being often as distant, if not further removed, from the sentiments of their constituents as are full-time officials. In all these cases, the bureaucracy of dependency undermines the foundations of collective solidarity and participation.
But the picture is not entirely grim. As this historical literature also demonstrates, the project of building participatory democracy cannot take place in isolation from the environment within which unions operate. And the environment today—the vibrancy Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin describe—is full of new tools labor activists and their allies can leverage to win greater democracy. It is in this context that engaging the work of the sociologist Robert Michels (a student of Max Weber) can prove useful. His significance today rests not so much in his claim of an “iron law of oligarchy”—according to which even the most radically democratic organizations inevitably become oligarchic out of tactical and technical necessity—but rather his communications-based theory of dependency, one that is possibly subverted by the new terrain of cyberspace.
Social media provide new spaces within which greater numbers of trade unionists can more successfully navigate the geography of power, build and utilize more effectively the potential of networks, articulate and broadcast “cultures of solidarity” (to borrow Rick Fantasia’s phrase), recast and reinvigorate collective imagination, challenge leadership dominance over the flow of information, and effect a sort of reverse panopticon to more readily call representatives to account. It is through such new forms of experimentation with power that workers may help to write a new chapter in the history of union democracy.