Be Democratic

Credit: Gage Skidmore for Arizona Education Association

Organizing in its best sense—helping people work together to achieve what they want—is at the root of union democracy.

Anti-union politicians claim that right-to-work laws free workers from paying a third party. Union activists rightly counter that there is no third party, emphasizing to co-workers that “you are the union.”

But just saying it doesn’t make it so. The uncomfortable reality is that many unions don’t afford rank-and-file members much power over their own organizations. Too few get the chance to help make the union’s plans; instead they are simply asked “Are you in, or are you out?”

This democracy deficit has consequences. When members are treated as an ATM for predetermined priorities, it’s no wonder they feel disconnected—and may opt out.

On the other hand, workers who know that the union is theirs will be glad to stick around and invite others to be part of it. That’s why building a more democratic organization is the best avenue to strengthen the union.


Local officers are often frustrated with low attendance at union meetings and a lack of volunteers for committees—and then they get an earful of complaints about how the union is run. “We’re not keeping anybody out,” these officers say. “We’d love to have more involvement, but all we can do is to open the door.”

It’s true that anyone trying to promote member involvement is up against the “let the experts do it” reflex that we learn in community life as well as in unions. Being a passive member has definite attractions for workers with plenty of other demands on their time, from kids to church to overtime.

But often low participation is because the union seems to have no power, or participation seems to make no difference. What’s the point?

When people see results from involvement, more will want to get involved.


The heart of union democracy is that members feel they have the ability, smarts, and permission to take action.

One of the Arizona teachers we met this spring decided to join the union only after she had organized a sickout at her school. To grow, unions need to support bottom-up initiatives when they appear—and foster many more of them.

Officers, staff, and stewards should be careful not to make the union an exclusive club. If members are hot about an issue, it’s the union’s job to help them think through a plan.

Turning the Bus Around

How did Nashville bus drivers raise their union membership from 60 to 80 percent in a year? It took a turnover in leadership. Members booted out officers who wouldn’t even let them see the tentative agreement before they voted on it.

Bus driver Patrick Green ran for union president on a very different platform. He and his slate pledged transparency and member participation in negotiations. They organized town hall-style debates at a local restaurant, where members showed up with their families to eat breakfast and lob questions.



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Green and his slate won the election and in the next round of bargaining, achieved strong gains—starting wages went up by $3 an hour—in a contract that all members got the chance to read before casting their votes.

Now officers and stewards use every opportunity to talk with drivers and hear their concerns, including at new-hire orientation, during training, and when they meet to bid for jobs. The membership increase followed from there.

When your fellow member starts circulating a homemade leaflet, pulls together an impromptu meeting in the breakroom, or starts a workplace social media page, that’s a good thing—even if it isn’t done exactly the way you would do it.

Feel free to debate strategy with your fellow workers. But rein in any impulse to be territorial. Welcome the Johnny-come-latelys to your side.

After all, to build a movement that gets more done, we need more of us who feel empowered to act in the name of the union. It can be hard for people to put themselves forward—and even harder if union leaders are going to squelch it and say, “We know best.”

Instead, the union should offer trainings like “how to march on the boss,” ideally at the workplace. When a grievance or action campaign is won, stewards and the union newsletter should trumpet the details and ask who else has the same problem.


Has a co-worker—let’s call him Bob—ever asked you, “What happened at the union meeting yesterday?” Did you feel like saying, “You shoulda been there”?

But what does Bob’s question say about him? That he’s more interested than all the members who have never asked. Instead of getting mad at Bob for what he doesn’t do, be glad he’s interested—and design a small request that he is ready for.

You can make a deal with Bob: if you find him every month and give him a short report from the union meeting, he will agree to pass along the most important points to the co-workers he has lunch with.

To bring the union meeting to even more workers, you’ll need to identify and recruit more volunteers like Bob. When you do that, you will have a communication structure: a member-to-member network that can share information about far more than the monthly meeting.

Make the workplace, not the union hall, the main place where union issues are discussed. Often the most honest and imaginative discussions about union strategies happen informally at work—on breaks or at lunch, or waiting for the copier.

How to Get a Member Involved

  • ONE-ON-ONE CONVERSATION. If you want people to do something, ask them personally! A general call for volunteers in a newsletter or on social media will rarely do the trick. People appreciate being asked, and in a one-on-one conversation you can find out what they want to do.
  • ASK ABOUT THEIR INTERESTS. What would this person like to see changed at work? Who else might want to work on the same problem?
  • START WHERE THE MEMBER IS AT. Someone getting involved for the first time will gain confidence by taking on tasks that come easily. Ask what they think they can do. Have some suggestions ready, but be flexible. Can they talk to the co-worker they know best? If this person likes to draw cartoons, can you incorporate that into a union campaign?
  • GIVE POSITIVE FEEDBACK. When a newly active member does something to help build the union, no matter how minor, make them feel good about it. Let them know that they’re helping build a powerful organization that can fight for all of us. Ask what they think is their next step.
  • KEEP IN TOUCH REGULARLY. Share progress on union campaigns. Solicit ideas. Ask them to do another task—maybe something slightly bigger than before. You are helping each co-worker to climb a ladder, one rung at a time.


If the union hall seems to have the culture of a white male comfort zone, suspicion will run high among women, Black workers, Latinos, and other left-out groups. Same goes for a union that ignores the concerns of its lower-tier members, a teachers union that ignores paraprofessionals, and so on.

In the same vein, every member should be able to participate—for instance, read the contract, attend meetings, and vote in elections—regardless of whether he has a disability or what language she speaks.

It might take organizing to push your local to add a wheelchair ramp, translate materials, or provide interpreters, but it’s worth the effort. According to Belinda Thielen of the Food and Commercial Workers, after the meatpacking division began providing Spanish interpretation, “workers came up and said, ‘I’ve been coming to these meetings for years, and this is the first time that I understood what was being said and what was going on.’”

A crisis like the Janus decision can inspire short-term thinking. Remember your long-term vision, of a union that’s strong because everyone is involved.

Make Meetings Welcoming and Useful

  • Publicize the topic in advance. It should be a hot issue, not “old business.”
  • Choose a time that makes it easier to attend. Ask for ideas to encourage turnout. Before or after a shift? Try mixing it up—some weekend mornings, some weekday evenings.
  • Choose an appealing location. Would a restaurant be relaxing, or too noisy? Someplace near the workplace? Does someone belong to a faith community or social organization that will welcome a union meeting? Organize carpools.
  • Offer language interpretation. Translate printed materials too.
  • Be family-friendly. Arrange childcare. Invite spouses and let them speak.
  • Welcome newcomers. Designate a greeter. Ask current active members to sit with first-timers.
  • Run the meeting democratically. Many people find Robert’s Rules clunky and complex. Instead, consider simple rules like these:
  • Make meetings participatory. Put lengthy reports in writing so they don’t use up too much time. Break into small groups sometimes, so everyone gets to speak. Role-play. Agree on action plans and next steps.
  • Review the agenda when the meeting starts. Let people add items. Put a time on each point.
  • Timekeeper. Appoint someone to keep the meeting on track.
  • Firsts before seconds. Everyone who wants to speak gets a chance before anyone speaks a second time.
  • Stack. When many people want to speak, get a show of hands and write down a list.
  • Next steps. Members and leaders should take assignments, and these should be summed up at the end.
  • Have social time afterwards. Keep the meeting short so people don’t drift out before then.
  • Hold workplace meetings too. A half-dozen people huddling in the breakroom can accomplish a lot. Some people will never come to an after-hours meeting, but they could still be powerful activists on the job.
A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.