Janus Decision Remedy? Union Democracy!

Given the final decision in the landmark case Janus v. AFSCME in favor of the plaintiff, now is as important time as any for the Labor Movement to take a long hard look at itself and its practices vis-a-vis its attitude towards its membership and to union democracy, in general. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Plaintiff Mark Janus’ favor, “fair-share” fees across the country will be forfeit, draining the trade union movement of a good portion of its revenue and, by extension, its ability to both organize new members and address the legal concerns of the ones already enfranchised.

Though Labor must always remain vigilant in the face of hardship, self-reflection must also have a place when formulating a future course of action. With a return of a sort of volunteerism that had previously existed during the early days of organized labor, union leaders would be wise to take a second look at rank-and-file involvement and its responsiveness to their concerns.

It would be easy to let the future lack of funds be an excuse to let specific membership concerns fall by the wayside and simply attempt to conserve the workplace power trade unionism has. The key to a stronger labor movement is today and always has been more union democracy. If the great trade unions of this country are to continue fighting the good fight in defense of collective bargaining and workers’ rights, it must be done with the loyalty and respect of the rank and file. Too many unionists simply ask “what good has the union done me?” Often the union is referred to as a third party or a service to be called upon in case of need. Rarely does the unionist refer to this great mass of humanity they are embedded in as the plural “we.” Why is that?

In part, the common union member “bowls alone” when it comes to their union because of their experience with faulty election procedures, free speech violations, dictatorial trusteeships, et al. After a full week’s work, what worker wants to deal with the intractability of their union, which is supposed to be the place wherein grievances are heard and a palpable sense of solidarity shared?

We at the Association for Union Democracy have always maintained that the key to a labor movement strong enough to weather the storm of whatever Management (or the Judiciary) throws at us is a devotion to the norms of union democracy as laid out in the Union Members’ Bill of Rights. Dues and the avoidance of the “free rider” problem enhances the fiduciary stability of the Labor Movement, naturally. But a union must also be so embedded in the life of the worker as a force for good that requirement of fees is inconsequential to maintaining their allegiance to it. Unions must earn said allegiance by addressing the concerns and rights of their members.

AUD has done its utmost for over forty years to bring an ethos of democracy into the labor movement. It is true we spend much of our immediate time and energy counseling rank-and-file unionists about their rights and how they can exercise them without repression. In the past year, AUD has provided advice to union members facing violations of their free speech rights, tampering with ballot boxes, and onerous eligibility requirements to run for office. But the goal of AUD is not “just” to contribute to individual cases, though that should be an end-in-itself for any civil libertarian. It is also to change the behavior of those unionists who ascend to the leadership of their respective unions and give them a sense of what makes a strong union and a loyal membership. AUD has done this as well, giving advice to recently elected union officials in Michigan and Ohio on how to be more responsive to membership anxieties and how to make those selfsame members aware of and able to exercise their LMRDA rights.

To continue our work both with membership and officer alike we ask you to make a tax deductible contribution to AUD. To maintain an office, sustain our due diligence with regard to responding to those who contact us, and produce our newsletters and website, we need your help and greatly appreciate your contribution to creating a more transparent, responsive, and (above all) democratic unionism.

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