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Should Unions be More Democratic?

One of the bitterest ironies of recent political campaigns is that the Republican party has managed, with some success,  to tar their Democratic foes with the label of “elitist.”  Mind you, these are the same Republicans who have opposed any and all attempts to loosen up bureaucratic procedures that would allow more people to register to vote.

They are the same Republicans who opposed allowing same-day, on-site voter registration, or having 18-year olds automatically registered to vote at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) when they get a new license or register a car.  These ideas were simply too wildly egalitarian to suit them.

Republicans don’t want everyone to vote.  They don’t want minorities to vote; they don’t want the young, the progressive, the disenfranchised or the unemployed to vote.  These are the same Republicans who argued against the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, the same ones who opposed repeal of the poll tax in order to prevent African-Americans from voting.  And yet, they have the nerve to piously accuse the Democrats of being “elitist.”

Labor unions are different, at least in principle.  Because there is a fundamental trust involved in a workers’ collective, a genuine bond linking the rank-and-file and their officers against a common “adversary,” unions generally want as many members as possible to vote in elections.  A large turnout is a symbol of unity and commitment.

That’s not to say that a small turnout can’t be a healthy, encouraging sign.  Frequently, voter apathy is evidence of the rank-and-file’s belief that things are purring along well enough not to want to change them.  Rightly or wrongly, in this scenario not voting is interpreted as tacit approval of the status quo.

But there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction among union members regarding how their votes are actually cast.  Instead of voting directly for a candidate, many union members (especially those belonging to the larger unions) are required to vote for a convention delegate who, in turn, does the actual electing.

This arrangement is not quite the same as the electoral college system we use to elect our president, but it shares some similarities.  And one critical similarity is that it’s a procedure which overwhelmingly favors the “professional” politician over the “amateur.”

There is currently an internecine battle raging in the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), America’s fastest-growing union, between Sal Rosselli, the president of a large and influential California SEIU local, and Andrew Stern, president of the International.  One of the sticky issues in this dispute is Rosselli’s insistence that the SEIU abandon the convention delegate format and allow its members to vote directly for national candidates.

Although Stern opposes this change, he can’t condemn Rosselli too harshly for being “radical,” or for wanting to rock the boat, since it was Stern himself who, in 2005, rebelliously led the charge that resulted in seven huge unions (including the Teamsters) leaving the AFL-CIO and forming a labor coalition of their own, called Change to Win.

Taking on the estimable AFL-CIO was a \ risky move by Stern.  Had he lost, he would have been cast as an overly ambitious malcontent; but by winning, he instantly leap-frogged into the national limelight, and is now generally recognized as America’s most important labor figure.  Andy Stern now does things like meet face-to-face with President Bush, and fly to China as a guest of Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s CEO.

So why do labor unions still cling to the delegate format?  Why do unions prefer a large and robust voter turnout for elections, yet, simultaneously, not wish to go the direct vote route?  Arguably, it’s for the same reason that both American political parties oppose jettisoning the electoral college system—i.e., because it’s a system that favors the “ruling class.”  After all, if you start allowing everyone’s vote to count the same, you risk setting in motion something you can’t control.

To be fair, there’s always been a decent counter-argument to this—an argument against having too much “raw democracy” in the mix.  Namely, that there’s a fine line between the noble “will of the people” and the scary “whim of the mob.”   People are easily influenced.  If they weren’t, beer and auto companies wouldn’t spend billions of dollars a year on advertising.

Still, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that, bad choices aside, we’ve managed to stay in business as a Republic by voting directly for our mayors, state legislators, congressmen, senators and governors.  Unless you have an intrinsic mistrust or contempt for the common man, what would be so wrong in extending this “raw democracy” to include electing a president?

And the same certainly goes for labor unions.  Over the years, unions (not counting some rare exceptions) have elected their Local officers via a direct vote.  Workers have been allowed to directly choose their own leaders.  Why not adopt this same format for choosing the leaders of their Internationals?  If nothing else, it would demonstrate to the membership that organized labor (unlike the politicians in Washington) has the utmost confidence in their constituency . . . the people.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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