Democracy is power

Submitted by Newcastle on 16 July, 2009 - 9:11 Author: Martin Donohue

Martin Donohue recommends Democracy is Power, from the Labor Notes rank-and-file organising project in the US.

In the last issue of Solidarity I recommended the Trouble Maker’s Handbook (also produced by Labor Notes) as an invaluable resource for rank and file union activists. This companion volume addresses the key question in any serious attempt at union renewal, democracy.

The central message of this book is that only consistent democracy offers hope for union revival. And it is the struggle for that democracy and accountability that can itself transform the existing movement.

Why should members invest time and energy into a union that denies them any real say over the key questions that matter to them? Apathy is a charge often cynically thrown at union members by full time officers. As this book shows democracy, mobilisation and involvement are inseparable.

Like the TMH, Democracy is Power is strongly rooted in the US experience; but there is much here for any serious UK union activist. The voices and experiences of rank-and-file reformers come through loud and clear.

The struggles of Teamsters for a Democratic Union contribute much to this book and illustrate the strengths of a democratic rank and file approach. The unfinished struggles for democracy in the Teamsters were not around abstract structural changes but were also fought over the concrete issues of accountability and control of contract negotiations. These were the issues that impacted directly on the members and that could inspire active participation. Organising around questions of union democracy was clearly seen as integral to the struggle to defend and improve pay and conditions.

This book is also a starting point for discussions around the nature of leadership, promoting involvement in the union, reform caucuses and inclusion and equality among other topics. The nuts and bolts of democracy are not neglected either.

Sections on being effective at meetings, structures and byelaws and elections are rewarding. Particularly useful is a section on what to do once “reform” candidates have taken power in a branch.

Unions can only be rebuilt from the bottom up. This book is valuable as an antidote to empty top down “organising” rhetoric. However it is also valuable as an illustration of what genuine rank and file organisation looks like and does.

The UK union movement is littered with broad lefts, “united” lefts, socialist this and that etc. etc. How many of these organisations are based on any notion of rank-and-file organising or the centrality of democracy?

This book could usefully fuel a very necessary debate around these key issues for socialists in the unions.

• Democracy is Power (special offer with Troublemakers Handbook 2) $30 from www.labornotes.org

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