Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Human Beings with Rights: Unions and Democracy in the 21st Century

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Human Beings with Rights: Unions and Democracy in the 21st Century

Article excerpt


It is often said that the cradle of democracy is the local community. In towns and cities around the world, issues of immediate practical interest to citizens are decided by elected officials who are known to the attentive public. They are accessible to the voters and the results of their work are immediately visible to their constituents. Trade unions are also cradles of democracy. Working people rarely get to choose their bosses. They work within rules that they have no part in determining. The workplace often more closely resembles an ancient tyranny more than an egalitarian community. Yet, the prevailing neoliberal ideology and the business community along with the politicians who represent its interests regularly attack unions as selfish, undemocratic and hurtful to economic prosperity. In fact, unions are strong advocates for justice both for their members and for society at large. Contemporary unions are developing vigorous and innovative strategies to reach out to others-unorganized workers, anti-poverty groups, environmentalists, aboriginal organizations, feminists and members of the GLBT community and other progressive people to build popular alliances for social justice. Strategic and tactical innovations are crucial to the union movement in the twenty-first century. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has been in the forefront of the labour movement in designing and implementing innovative initiatives to expand working people's influence in identifying and solving the real social problems that do environmental, economic, social and political harm not only to its membership, but to vulnerable people across the country and around the world.

Keywords: public sector unions, democracy, workplace, Rand formula, economism.


The relationship between unions and democracy has been dramatically thrust into public debate in Canada in recent years. This sudden appearance out of nowhere of a topic normally of interest only to academics and union politicians comes as a result of a concerted push by business groups, conservative politicians, and right-wing commentators seeking to limit the economic and political effectiveness of trade unions.

"We need a lot more democracy in our supposedly democratic unions, and fewer top-down orders on how to think, vote, and run our communities," writes Windsor Star blogger Chris Vander Doelen (2012). That unions are undemocratic is a constant theme in much conservative commentary, which routinely depicts unions as self-serving bodies that are unaccountable to their members, unconcerned for their welfare, and frequently (it is implied) taking actions contrary to members' wishes. At the root of this critique, fundamentally, is the assertion that unions are authoritarian organizations contaminating democratic society.

The idea of "union bosses," so prevalent in the discourse of politicians like Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, is the succinct distillation of this theme. It taps into and harnesses our deep emotional (and often negative) understanding of what a "boss" is, all the while inverting the term to associate it with the very people- union leaders-who make it their mission to hold accountable the actual bosses in any workplace, that is, the managers and owners. The "union boss" meme is designed to strip union leaders of all democratic legitimacy. It succeeds, at least partially, whenever it is repeated. It is brilliant public relations.

But in my experience, which now covers a quarter-century of close observation of Canadian union leaders, their legitimacy is most often hard-won through a democratic process that is just as demanding as the one that elects politicians at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. In OPSEU, for example, the path to the presidency begins with winning election as a steward in the workplace; developing a track record of local- level advocacy to earn the right to represent one's co-workers at the regional level; gaining recognition and winning votes regionally to earn a spot on the provincial Executive Board; and winning the support of a clear majority of delegates (each of whom is elected at the local level) at a provincial Convention. …

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