Does Democracy Pay? Determinants of Organizational Effectiveness in Labour Unions

Monday, 16 July 2018: 18:12
Oral Presentation
Barry EIDLIN, McGill University, Canada
Nathan WILMERS, Harvard University, USA
Amidst concern about rising economic inequality, a growing body of research has identified declining union strength as a key contributing factor. This in turn has sparked a vibrant debate as to how best to revive labour’s fortunes. Central to that debate has been the question of unions’ organizational form and functioning. Some emphasize the need to increase members’ commitment and willingness to fight by deepening unions’ democratic functioning. Others counter that focusing on democracy is short-sighted, as it emphasizes the ever-narrowing group of already-unionized workers at the expense of the vast majority of non-union workers who have no voice at all. Additionally, studies of existing revitalization projects have suggested that more staff-driven, “top-down” approaches are often necessary for success. The crux of the debate is whether union democracy and union effectiveness are counterposed or complementary. This paper is an initial step in the most systematic examination to date of the relationship between union democracy and union effectiveness. We report on findings from a pilot study that we will expand into a representative survey of local unions in the U.S. and Canada. As the building blocks of union organization, local unions offer the primary avenue for member involvement, making them the best site for evaluating democratic practices. For our purposes, we adopt a narrow conception of union effectiveness, and focus on wage gains. As for democracy, we use metrics that are easily quantifiable and minimally subject to interpretation, such as contested leadership elections, the number of elected and appointed union staff, the ratio of union stewards to members, union meeting frequency and attendance, as well as participation in union-sponsored activities. Our question is simple: do more democratic unions negotiate higher wages for their members? We are currently conducting the pilot survey, and will report preliminary findings at the conference.