JUNE 1999 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 6


BOOK REVIEW

 
Democracy is Power
 


Democracy is Power:
Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up

by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle
Detroit: Labor Notes, 1999
255 pages; $17.00

Democracy is Power is a valuable book for at least four reasons, three of which should make it of interest far beyond its target audience.

First, it serves its intended purpose of providing guidance to union activists and rank-and-file union leaders who win positions as union stewards or local officials on how to run a union effectively and democratically.

Second, in its discussion of how to create a working democracy within membership organizations, Democracy is Power contains important insights of relevance to students, environmentalists and anyone else trying to create a participatory organization that both empowers members but avoids getting bogged down in endless meetings or procedural formalities.

Third, in its own modest way, Democracy is Power makes practical contributions to theoretical debates about democracy, for example in a hard-headed and balanced discussion about the relationship between leaders and members in a democratic organization.

Finally, Democracy is Power offers a powerful critique of the organizing model associated with the new leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Federation head John Sweeney rode to power under the banner of organizing. Sweeney and his allies properly recognized that the stagnant labor movement could not survive without a massively stepped up commitment to organizing. And Sweeney came to the AFL-CIO leadership post with good organizing credentials.

Although his union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) expanded considerably through mergers, it was also one of the most aggressive in organizing new units, most prominently through its Justice for Janitors campaign. Justice for Janitors rightfully won plaudits and attention for its successes. Justice for Janitors organized a seemingly difficult-to-organize group of workers -- janitors, many of whom are Central American immigrants with fear based on experience of the risks of organizing in unions and other popular movements. It overcame the subcontracting problem (many buildings subcontract with janitorial services that simply go out of business and reconstitute themselves if they are unionized) by forcing buildings to agree to subcontract with unionized janitors. It achieved many of its greatest victories with "street heat" -- aggressive, public protests, including the use of civil disobedience.

When Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO, there was widespread hope that SEIU's organizing model could be replicated, and that the militant spirit of the Justice for Janitors campaign would be infused throughout the labor movement. But that has not happened; and union representation continues to fall as a percentage of the U.S. workforce.

There are surely many reasons for this failure. The AFL-CIO does not organize workers directly; national unions do. By and large, the national unions still do not invest sufficient resources in organizing. While many have proclaimed their commitment to organizing, their rhetoric has surpassed their actual efforts. Many national unions are unwilling to pursue the aggressive tactics of Justice for Janitors. And management intransigence, the threat of foreign competition and anti-worker labor laws impede organizing efforts at every turn.

But although Democracy is Power does not engage in an extended analysis of AFL-CIO leadership and its strategy, Parker and Gruelle do in fact suggest additional, persuasive  reasons for the labor movement's failure to organize more workers.

This critique flows from their outline of three models of unionism.

First is business unionism, sometimes called the servicing model. "Most American unions, local and international, operate as though they were a business providing services to customers," Parker and Gruelle write. "The customers are the members and the employers. In this view, the union is the officers and staff. They provide services for members, including grievance handling, contract bargaining and various social services." When it works well, the business model delivers important services to passive union members in an efficient manner. But the model frequently works poorly, because member passivity becomes an invitation for laziness, cozy relations with management and even corruption on the part of leadership. Even when it functions efficiently, member passivity weakens the hand of leadership in negotiations with management. And the emphasis on service typically comes at the expense of organizing.

The second approach, associated with the new AFL-CIO, is the organizing model, best exemplified by Justice for Janitors. But while applauding the organizing model as a major improvement on business unionism, Parker and Gruelle note its serious limitations. "In practice," they write, "some union leaders encourage membership involvement without membership control. They expect to turn member involvement on and off like a faucet." While this form of mobilization typically excites members initially, they may become frustrated as they find their ideas for action are not solicited or seriously considered.

Parker and Gruelle connect this faucet approach to the AFL-CIO's continued support for labor-management cooperation. "One of the big reasons for top-down mobilizing," they argue, "is a need to control where and when mobilization is to be used. Often, top-down mobilizers advocate for militant tactics, up to and including civil disobedience, for organizing the unorganized. But such tactics are seldom encouraged when established unions confront management. That is because the leaders of most international unions -- along with the AFL-CIO leadership -- are committed to labor-management cooperation."

Democracy is Power advocates a third model of unionism, a democratic or rank-and-file model. This approach not only emphasizes member mobilization, but member control. It places as much decision-making power as is practicable in member hands. It looks to the membership to help craft strategy and decide priorities. But it also recognizes the importance of strong leadership and staff in planning, administration, day-to-day decision-making, agenda-setting and leading (inspiring, proposing, showing the way to new horizons), and so it seeks to install mechanisms and procedures to ensure leadership accountability.

Parker and Gruelle advocate for democratic unionism both out of principle -- members have the right to control their own organization -- and especially out of a belief that democratic unions with strong member participation are the strongest unions. Unions with a permanently engaged membership will have the most power against employers. They will be able to win the most beneficial collective bargaining contracts and will best handle grievances to defend worker interests (whether through formal adjudication processes or direct action). They will be a more powerful political force than more passive unions, in part because workers will more directly determine the union's political involvement and in part because workers are already activated. And they will be the most effective organizers -- because the example of union power and success will attract others to unions, and because mobilized members will work as formal and informal organizers. Based on their own experience, members will be able to explain to neighbors and area workers how belonging to a union translates into concrete improvements in working conditions.

Parker and Gruelle are not romantics. They recognize that calling for democratic unionism will not make it happen, and that member-controlled unions are likely to make many mistakes (though they argue that fewer mistakes are likely than in top-down controlled unions). The bulk of Democracy is Power is devoted to a discussion of how to create a democratic culture in a union, including everything from how to promote inclusion (especially of women and people of color), to how to run a union meeting.

Democracy is Power is certainly important reading for union activists, but it deserves a much larger audience, as well. 

-- Robert Weissman