Thinking about anarchism

Democracy In Our Unions?


Trade unions were set up to defend and advance the interests of workers, but over the years have become more and more dominated by a largely unaccountable bureaucracy. Unions - or at least their leadership - have been co-opted into becoming ‘partners’ with the employers, and see their main role as controlling difficult situations rather than assisting struggles. You are much more likely to see a trade union official selling the management’s latest "restructuring deal" than to hear him/her calling for industrial action to win pay rises.

Given this, one might wonder why anarchists spend so much time talking about and working inside the trade unions. To write off trade unions, however, is to ignore the reality that a worker joining a trade union is recognising, to some degree, that he or she has different interests to the boss.

Trade unions are certainly not revolutionary organisations. But if you accept - as anarchists certainly do - that the emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves, then you must also accept that the biggest movement the working class has ever built cannot be ignored. This holds true, no matter how progressive or how reactionary the attitudes of its members at any given time.

When asked about the alternative to the present set-up, many activists will respond that we need unions that are prepared to fight for their members’ interests, and which are a lot more democratic than at present. Sadly, the question of democracy is usually little more than a well-meaning slogan. Little thought goes into how we might advance a democratic agenda right now.

Within our unions we could be trying to win rule changes that increase democracy and membership participation. As union rules differ, it is up to activists in each union to prioritise particular changes they want to achieve, but some suggestions for kicking off the process are…

a ballot of the members on every wage deal, and on any revised terms which may be proposed at a later stage.

equal space in union publications for both sides of the debate before any ballot on a national pay deal.

for elected lay editorial committees to oversee union journals and publications, and ensure that all views within the union are given space.

we should be aiming for a situation where the national bodies of the union see their role change from one of ‘leadership’/order-giving to one of co-ordination and providing resources to the membership.

more regular branch general meetings (not just an annual general meeting).

allow sections and branches to retain a proportion of members’ subscriptions. Such cash to be spent at the discretion of the section/branch. Full accounts of expenditure to be submitted to their annual general meeting.

for representative voting at conferences. Where a branch general meeting (or branch committee where appropriate) votes on a specific motion going to conference, and — for instance — passes a motion by 55% to 45% their delegates should register that same percentage vote. An end to the winner takes all form of voting. Alternatively, a branch may decide to leave it to their delegates to decide how to vote after hearing all the arguments from the conference floor. The decision should lie with the people giving a mandate to their delegates.

a maximum term of office for all full-time elected union positions (even SIPTU has a five year term for its General Officers). No more elections to lifetime positions.

no full-time union official to earn more than the average wage of the members of his/her union.

the right of branches to directly propose rule changes to conference (presently not allowed in SIPTU!)

Sometimes work in the unions can be extremely boring and seem to be almost a waste of time. But if we manage to wrest control from the bureaucrats currently strangling them, they will prove to be one of our best weapons in furthering the battle for a free and equal society. One element of this struggle is kicking off the fight for more democracy. After all, they are supposed to be our organisations.

Alan MacSimóin


This page is from the print version of the Irish Anarchist paper '
Workers Solidarity'. We also provide a PDF files of our publications for you to print out and distribute locally

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This edition is No63 published in March 2001