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Unions 21
| Blog post

What is union democracy? Why should we care?

By Niamh Sweeney, Elected DGS National Education Union | 4 min

In coming days and weeks our movement is going to come under more intense scrutiny as public sector strike action intensifies and we protest against the threat of even more restrictive trade union legislation.

Mainstream media reporting of the ongoing strike action often demonstrates there is little understanding of how trade union democracy works in practice; how union officials are held accountable by national executives made up of working members; that trade unions policies and industrial strategies are democratically decided upon and leaders are mandated to negotiate by the membership.

But are we sure our members understand?

In our consumer society, trade union members often behave like consumers. We hear the call ‘what is the union doing about..?’ from our members regularly. Our democratic challenge is to try to encourage the mass membership to see themselves differently. They need to see themselves as participants in the decision making and action. Not the audience.

We cannot and should not rely only on those who are more ‘politically’ engaged. Trade unions are a great way of bringing people who would often be isolated in the workplace together. As trade union leaders, lay and staff members, we have a responsibility to not get carried away by our own activism by only speaking within our echo chamber. We can’t run the risk of decision making being too far removed from the union base.

Trade union members have joined us for a reason. They join to achieve goals they wouldn’t be able to on their own. It is about advancing the common cause rather than the individual political aim of one.

Trade union democracy needs to be a place of open communication, debate and deliberation. The wider membership need to be confident that those who are entrusted to make decisions on their behalf are doing so based on those principles. Too much time and energy in too many unions is spent on the divisions and debates within different factional groups who may hold a strong influence, an presence, on the unions’ executive committees. There is always a danger that factional elements of unions become increasingly distant from the mass of the membership – more interested in point scoring off one another, or pursuing their party line through the mobilising resources of the union they are meant to represent.

When this happens, when union Executives and activists fail to connect with, understand and represent the union’s membership, then bad things happen. The union loses its connection with the broad base of the membership; decisions are taken, campaigns waged, which fail to reflect the concerns and issues the broad base of the membership want addressed. An increasing disconnect between the activists and the ordinary members is an ever present danger – and one that must be resisted – often through the courage and commitment of the union leadership.

I am not arguing here that unions should not encourage and nurture activists within all levels of their ranks. It is activists who do the hard work of organising locally, becoming the voice and presence of the union in workplaces. It is from the activist base that present and future local and national leaders of union emerge. Their commitment and energy are invaluable if they can keep connected with their members.

Modern unions must be inclusive, not divisive. They must be places where serious debate can take place in a respectful way amongst people with strongly held opinions. They require leaders who are in the room when contentious decisions are made, giving of their opinion and experience. They must represent a plurality of members in the cause of the greater good.

None of this is easy. All of it is necessary.

Niamh's blog is part of our Giving Members Voice: Democracy seriesSign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.

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