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Unions 21
| Blog post

What is union democracy, why should we care?

By Paul W Fleming, General Secretary of Equity | 6 min

Union democracy is the way in which our movement translates the raw power of our membership into delivering workplace justice. That’s what it is, and it’s why it matters. So simple a summary I hope feels obvious, but it has taken me almost a month to find words which convey the meaning and importance of what I believe.

Along with explaining how Equity is living this understanding of union democracy through two years of root and branch reform of our structures, it’s important to start by expressing why these two questions often prove difficult or painful to answer.

Often trades unions’ radical desire to tear down the structures and systems within which they operate are not replicated from within. After almost half a century of attacks from government, bosses, the media, and society as a whole, there is a comfort in returning constantly to the stability of branches, conferences, committees and processes which remain unaltered. The world of the strong union often feels like it has slipped away – slipped away everywhere except in the ghostly structures which it has left behind.

This matters because timidity within ourselves begins to present itself in the world outside as well. The obvious consequences of outdated structures is that they cannot handle the modern world, but on a deeper level, where these structures become a shelter and an end in themselves – and even when accompanied by the well-practiced hand-wringing about how to get new, young, more diverse people involved – unions begin to prioritise standing orders over worker struggle.

When I was elected along with a new Equity Council in 2020, it became quickly apparent that our own structures were far too often there to restrain the union rather than empower it. This was in the depths of COVID when the strange prism of the pandemic created focus on where members believed the union’s ability to make change lay. The Council and General Secretary elections saw record turnouts, new crops of activists across our committees, and astounding attendance at zoom meetings focussing on industrial issues. If union democracy means anything, it’s respecting where most members put their mandate, and being bold with it. It is telling that those record turnouts would look good for any union – 17% in the General Secretary election, 10% in the Council elections in 2020 and 2022 – but would make most local councillors blush.

Democracy is not an endurance test – for precarious working people it cannot be about who has been there the longest, who stays at the meeting the latest, or who can answer the most questionnaires. When our Executive is directly elected, members expect its members to get on and get governing. Our current Council is 40% under the age of 40, majority women (as they have been for over a decade), and has the best representation of LGBT+, disabled, and people of colour ever – it is not right to second guess a diverse, representative, and dynamic body with protracted discussions about making change. Moreover, members are much more likely to vote if they see their structures acting with confidence: agree or disagree, if elected bodies are governing it makes your vote worthwhile.

Thus, over the last two years, two renewed governing bodies have taken major steps to reform Equity structures – culminating in our new rulebook, passed by referendum of the whole membership in December last year. In a referendum with the best turn out for over 15 years, over 75% of members backed these comprehensive changes which include changes ranging from an easy- to-read expression of the union’s rules instead of conflicting legalese, to a new conference, new Council seats, new disciplinary, complaints procedures, freedom from arcane processes and restrictive provisions. This has been accompanied by reformed committees and branches – the first time every member in the UK has had a branch to attend, and re-focussing every committee (whether they are advising on equalities, the devolved nations, or an industrial area) on mobilising our significant density across every sector where we organise.

Democratic reform cannot be a matter of ‘build it and they will come’ either. Unions need to believe that members have confidence in the organisation and its agenda so that they are able to step into their democratic structures. Within Equity we have that confidence that internal reforms based on external, industrial objectives will drive more engagement and a stronger union. A survey of our members on how well the union was doing at the end of 2022 demonstrated extraordinary results. Around a quarter of the membership responded: 84% were pleased and proud of their union. The largest portion (56%) believed passionately in both trades unions and that Equity was doing a good job. A further 28% believed that Equity was doing a good job in a difficult environment. When asked about their awareness of the union’s work, or the reasons why they started or retained membership or their priorities for Equity: pay, terms, conditions were in the top answers for members by an overwhelming degree. Surveys on pay and conditions, and turnouts in indicative ballots, consistently smash any thresholds introduced or suggested by the Tory government. Levels of trust but also of ambition are consistently high: now over 50% of members open the fortnightly circular email, almost twice as many as comparable organisations, and the rate over two years ago.

Surveys, straw polls, and statistics, however, don’t meet the definition of union democracy which I gave at the beginning – they are not an end in themselves. Unless unions are able to translate that power, that enthusiasm, into delivering workplace justice, it will ebb away. Equity’s membership and density has risen consistently for the best part of two decades, as well as the membership’s belief in and need for, a more radical trades unionism. By changing our structures and opening the doors to these grassroots, our democracy should move from being an irrelevance to changing the structural problems which motivate membership – and become the mechanism which stimulates new joining from those who see an industry renewed by the power of its workforce.

Paul's blog is part of our Giving Members Voice: Democracy series Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.

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