This handout goes with the Visions of Unionism diagrams. It is not "the answer," but it does reveal my thinking about the diagrams and my biases. It is very schematic, just a starting point for discussion.
When I used this activity, I included this text in a packet of materials. I did not use it in the actual workshop because the workshop was about helping the participants articulate their own visions of unionism, not debating mine (much as I would enjoy that!).
How would you use this? Would you use it all? What would your summary look like? What would your visions of unionism look like? (Please share!)
Visions of Unionism
"Too long have workers been waiting for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out, even if I could. Because if I could lead you out, someone else could lead you back in. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves." --Eugene V. Debs
The models of unionism set out below are intended to clarify issues that confront all union members, by distinguishing between general types of unions. In practice, most unions combine features of the models of unionism listed below.
There can be corruption in a service or even organizing union. Service unions can be very active and mobilize and involve the membership in activity. Union caucuses can be undemocratic, or just be vehicles for people who want to get into office for the perks and the power.
In the end, everything depends on your goals and methods. There are legitimate arguments for different models. These models should help you clarify your goals and the methods you want to use to reach them.
There is a legitimate bargaining relationship between the union and management. The union has responsible leadership, often staffed with labor professionals. The members see the union as a kind of agency from which they get a service in return for the dues they pay. When members refer to "the union," they mean the officers and staff. Contracts are legitimate and may be good or bad. Grievances are filed and the union provides representation. Members' rights as union members may or may not be violated, but there is some degree of formal democracy - union elections, contract votes, etc.
Management and Union officials are partners, linked by money. Management has the upper hand and dominates the workplace. The union is either a front for management or for organized crime, or just a racket operated by the officers. Members are on the outside, scattered. Their rights are routinely violated and get no representation. Contracts are a sham, or bare minimum. Illegal activity is common. Workers who protest are threatened or retaliated against. Members' rights as union members are routinely violated.
The members are the union, participating in the union at all levels, with decision-making power. Leadership is broader than the official representatives and members know their rights and how to enforce them. Not all members are involved, but there is a constant effort to bring them in. There is dissent and debate within the union, and a high level of democracy. Grievances are filed and backed up by concerted action; contracts are negotiated democratically by elected negotiating committees, and ratified by membership vote. Contracts may be good or bad, depending on the ability of the members to force the employer to make concessions.
No one starts out in the perfect rank-and-file union, so how do you get there, if you start in a corrupt or a service union? The key is organizing by the rank and file, building a caucus or membership group of workers that can work to influence the way the union operates and can influence the way the employer treats the workers or the union. At some point, the caucus has to consider the task of taking over the leadership of the union, so that it can really change the way the union functions. The caucus builds its group and builds communication between the members. Internally, the caucus is democratic and works to make everyone a skilled organizer and leader. There may be more than one caucus in a given union.