Labor Union Democracy Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Labor Democracy

Labor Unions a are combination of seemingly contradictory elements. On the one hand, labor unions are conceived of like an army with soldiers of labor winning battles in conflict with management. On the other hand, the membership looks upon them much like the high school debate team where everyone on the team expresses themselves. The leadership of the union many times feels like elected colonial militia officers with dozens or hundreds of soldiers whose loyalty he can not quite completely count upon and who may act like rank amateurs. In this short essay, the author will consider a case study in labor union democracy in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).


In a Politics & Society article, Levi et al. Points out that in Europe, scholars are more concerned about deliberation and membership involvement. Alternately, American scholars focus on procedural democracy and participatory democracy providing a model of the federal government's electoral institutions.

The authors of the ILWU study are not satisfied with procedural democracy however and rely upon the analysis of rank-and-file member participation in order to ensure union leadership accountability to membership. In such situations, scholars find that oligarchy still persists. Participatory democracy also is possible where the rank and file are active and where there is a strong constitution insuring democratic involvement by lower levels (Levi, Olson, Agnone & Kelly, 2009, 205-206)

Rank and File Democracy in Practice-ILWU

Levi et. al. points out that nearly all labor scholars see the ILWU as a successful example of participatory democracy that is deviant in its survival since so many unions like it died out. Even more unique, since the 1934 strike, they have an almost total monopoly in the supply of labor for cargo handling in ports. This stability allows them the ability to retain the participatory democratic structure. Other sociological reasons are there as well, including procedural democratic elements mixed in with participatory democracy (ibid.,…

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