Union Democracy: Practice and Ideal: an Analysis of Four Large Local Unions

By Alice H. Cook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
A Model for Union Democracy

TO ATTEMPT to construct a model of union democracy is a large order, but a proper one. We have seen that in all its details, democracy is far from realized--indeed so far that some students looking at the record have abandoned the belief that unions can achieve democracy or that it is even properly within their scope to do so. In the Michels' view, it is the power-hungry leader who intervenes to derail formal democratic structure and practice within labor organizations. As Lipset has recently pointed out, the Michels' thesis rests on the assumption that "all leaders of mass organizations [are] inherently self-interested conservative oligarchs."1If this is so, democracy has no chance and the "iron law of oligarchy" takes over. This view has operated with mesmeric effect on scholars because many oligarchic leaders do in fact exist in unions--and elsewhere in society, notably in corporations-- and these oligarchs often succeed in maintaining efficient organizations. If efficiency is the sole end of organization, it is possible that in the short run and in certain apolitical organizations it can be achieved better under oligarchy than under democracy.

But this is not the problem we face. Unions on the whole claim to be and presumably want to be democratic. At the same time, they are political institutions and not merely corporations. For them the choice of oligarchy or democracy is a vital one. Most of them have opted for democracy.2 That none of them has at-

____________________
1
S. M. Lipset, Michels' Theory of Political Parties, ( Berkeley: Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, 1962), Reprint 185.
2
It is recognized that this choice on the part of American unions of being democratic in form and practice has often not been the result of conscious selection

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