Richard Hyman, London School of Economics
Why is union democracy important? For four key reasons. First, unions have always identified their role, at least in part, as instruments for a more democratic order in industry and society. But how can they act as a channel of industrial democracy if they are not themselves democratic? Second, unions’ legitimacy as social actors rests in large measure on their claims to representativeness, but without internal democracy, such claims are tendentious. Third, unions are vehicles of solidarity, calling on their members and supporters to identify with broader class interests rather than merely pursuing short-term individual or parochial advantage. And fourth, unions require not just their members’ ‘willingness to pay’ but also their ‘willingness to act’ (Offe and Wiesenthal 1985), and this they are far more likely to demonstrate if they see themselves as having helped shaped the union’s programme.
A century ago, in their classic analysis of trade union functions, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1897) saw unions' central purpose as establishing a 'common rule' governing the employment conditions of all members of each employee group. Mass labour movements often embraced this principle in a form more rigid than the Webbs themselves envisaged: collective regulation in industrial relations commonly showed considerable resemblance to Durkheim's concept of mechanical solidarity. This was problematic in three key respects.
First, it presupposed a standardisation of regulation: a 'one-size-fits-all' model of employment conditions. Paradoxically, there was often an elective affinity between trade union rule-making and the standardisation imposed on workers by 'Fordist' employers. While employers insisted that workers were 'not paid to think', unions were suspicious of the notion that individual workers should exercise choice over their employment conditions.
Second, to some extent as a corollary, mass trade unionism was normally based on a hierarchical structure of control which mirrored that of the employer, with a centralised determination of policy and insistence on disciplined observance of authoritative decisions. Such a model of solidarity could be justified in terms of the needs of an effective fighting organisation; and more prosaically, from the Webbs onwards it has been common to argue that what they dismissed as 'primitive democracy' is incompatible with administrative efficiency and negotiating expertise: like business organisations, unions themselves should embrace the principle of scientific management. This may have worked in the past, but is inappropriate for a more individually assertive constituency of actual or potential members.
Third, the solidarity of interest representation has always been selective. In most countries and at most times, there have often been strong pressures to avoid questions which may prove internally controversial and to highlight those on which unions can deliver results through negotiation with employers or with governments. Commonly this has reinforced unions' role as bureaucratic bargaining agents at the expense of their potential as social movements.
In my view, mechanical solidarity is an idea and an orientation whose time has passed. It has locked trade unions in many countries into a language and a mode of action which no longer attract and in many cases repel those whose interests unions wish to represent. This has in turn resulted in the widespread perception of unions as a ‘vested interest’ rather than a ‘sword of justice’ (Flanders 1970). There is an urgent need for new understandings of solidarity based on new conceptions of union democracy.
Union membership is almost universally in decline: the main cross-national difference is in the speed, not the fact of this decline. In the main, the composition of union membership reflects the labour force of half a century ago: predominantly male,...