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Unions 21
| Blog post

Does union democracy matter?

By Rob Yeldham, Director of Strategy CSP | 2 min

Democracy is seen as an important part of the union movement. So much so that it’s not unusual for someone to bemoan low turnout in an election, blaming anti union laws and wishing for online voting. We have a tendency to idolise union conferences as if the format our forebears used for the TUC congress over 150 years ago is the perfect democratic form.

My question to all unions is, is this really democracy in the 21st century? Can these models of democracy that were built for the 19th century, really engage members and help us reflect their views?

Despite often judging democracy and engagement purely on voting, we know that members choose to be involved in different ways. Recognising this and supporting members to develop up an activism ladder is core to organising. Just because members are not voting or standing for office does not mean they are not taking an active part in shaping their unions. Unlike traditional representative democracy, engagement can take many forms including; joining a diversity network, sharing a campaign message on social media, replying to a member survey, being on a member jury, sharing professional expertise and many more activities. Different members may prefer to be involved in different ways.

At its strongest, member engagement is characterised by pride in being part of the union and a willingness to help us achieve our goals as activists. Building a positive two way relationships between our members and their union is important to:

  • Ensure policies, activities and services are informed by member needs and experience

  • Enhance influence through member action

  • Build and maintain strong communities of members

  • Enable members to support one another.

Rather than blaming members for not voting in elections, or beating staff up for not achieving higher turnouts, don’t we really need to understand how members want to influence their unions and find ways which work for them?

This is the challenge that Unions 21 have set us all in the upcoming months.

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