Beyond Government: Democracy in Trade Unions

How can trade unions engage members in new ways? A collaborative blog post.

One of our focus areas at the moment is Democracy Beyond Government - how organisations create internal democracy. In that context, we’ve been thinking about it with some friends involved in the UK trade union movement.

We’ve seen that the work of unions has got harder. In practical terms, precariously employed, dispersed in small workplaces, WfH, freelancing and gig-workers are harder to organise than the more homogenous post-war workforce. 

But, on the other hand, we now have comms, research and co-ordination tools that older trades unionists could only have dreamed of. There is a real opportunity to re-think democratic collective action among workers, using the new tools and methods of the digital economy.

Unions are there to enable workers to assert themselves collectively, as a counterweight to employer interests. Those unions also elect their own leadership and, in theory, collectively deliberate and set their own policies. 

Even the most democratic of unions struggle to do this well though. It’s hard. The word ‘engagement’ is often used glibly but the real challenge unions have is engaging members who have many other distractions. 

All of the usual consultation problems of ‘hard to reach’ and ‘hard to avoid’ minorities apply here. Unions can be dominated by political activists, or minority political concerns. Active groupings among the membership can out-shout everyone else. 

Obvious injustices can be challenged and bigger, less obvious ones can be ignored. Prospective members aren’t daft. They can see this happening and it damages the brand of trades unionism.

In an individualistic society, people won’t be part of something that represents interests that aren’t theirs unless they can clearly see their own interests being part of the negotiations – making trade-offs in a consensus-building process.

These are all problems that can be resolved either with increased engagement, where the inclusion of individual members is designed well, and transparent, well communicated participative deliberation.

Or – perhaps more likely – it can be resolved by promoting better democratic representation – people who are prepared to volunteer to build trust, and to facilitate and amplify the interests of their whole membership and not just their own personal concerns.

We know people want more control over their working lives. They value that control when they get it - it’s called ‘procedural utility’. So we have to ask ourselves why unions find it hard to solve this problem? What are the barriers? What needs redesigning?

It’s not all bad news. Some trade unions are achieving landmark successes. In the UK, the GMB has challenged 'bogus self employment’ and won key employment rights for Uber drivers and employees of Addison Lee. 

BECTU have effectively mobilised film and TV crews by building strong active freelance branches, and they achieved sectoral agreements and well-respected craft ratecards. Other unions – small and new – are also challenging on behalf of precarious workers but it’s difficult, and very hard to sustain. 

The shift of working arrangements and patterns we have seen in recent years is only going to accelerate. As unions prepare for that, they also need to prepare for the new demands of members for more direct influence and a wider say.

This is why we’re seeking to work with two or three innovative trade unions or branches, who are interested in exploring workplace and union democracy. Our work on democracy beyond government can provide methods, ideas and support for this work.

We want to look at rethinking representation. How do we incentivise people to facilitate colleagues, curate participative deliberation, establish facts & priorities, & communicate in a way that promotes trust in democratic processes? 

How do we then design collective action that can succeed? How can this create the sustainable structures of the future that can match the successes of the past?

If the trades unionists of the 1880s, 1920s or 1950s were around now, knowing what we have learned from the digital economy, what would they do? We’d like to work with unions, or their sectors and branches who would like to get involved in this project. Interested? Contact Marian Cramers.

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