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  • Writer's pictureSteven Klein

Towards a Democratic Theory of Labour Unions



After decades where labour unions were on the defensive, recent years have witnessed a surge in union activity. Inflation and tight labour markets have sparked strike action across several sectors in the UK and Europe. And in the USA, unions have made historical inroads into service sector jobs, such as Starbucks and hospitality, and stood up to new tech conglomerates like Amazon and Netflix. Grassroots revolts installed more confrontational leadership in historic, large-scale unions like the Teamsters and the United Autoworkers Union. The Teamsters used the threat of a strike to negotiate a better contract with UPS, and the UAW is now engaged in the first ever simultaneous strike of the big-three auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler).


All this raises the question of the specific democratic function of labour unions. While democratic theorists generally bemoan the decline of unions, they are not typically taken up as a specific object of institutional and normative analysis (with some exceptions). This contrasts with the recent attention given to other key features of capitalist societies, such as the firm, central banks, labour markets, and the workplace. Here, I want to sketch a democratic theory of unions and contrast it with what I call the liberal and the radical views. While the liberal view focuses on market failures and the radical view on strikes as extra-legal modes of direct confrontation, the democratic view emphasizes unions as contesting control over production and investment decisions.


Unions take on a wide range of different forms in different national and historical contexts, and there are important differences, for example, between public and private sector unions, industrial unions and craft unions, and more activist and more conservative unions. And unions exist in a broad range of political contexts—from liberal and social democracies to authoritarian regimes. Indeed, unions were important political actors in Eastern Block communist regimes—all of which points to the need for a broader theoretical analysis of unions as political institutions. For now, I will set aside these differences to develop a stylized account, but a full theory would require engaging with such distinctions.


While the liberal view focuses on market failures and the radical view on strikes as extra-legal modes of direct confrontation, the democratic view emphasizes unions as contesting control over production and investment decisions.

Are labour unions compatible with liberalism? While many contemporary liberals working in the tradition of egalitarian liberalism would answer yes, Mark Reiff shows that unions are compatible with almost all strains of liberalism, ranging from Nozickean libertarianism to Rawlsian egalitarianism. I take Reiff as exemplary of a more general, liberal model of thinking about labour unions, one that tracks many of the ways unions are institutionalized in European and American law. Reiff’s central argument is that labour unions are necessary given the existence of firms, which means that workers must enter an employment relationship rather than act as independent contractors. Given the existence of such firms, workers will naturally have weaker bargaining power in specifying their employment contracts. Unions are thus forms of voluntary associations that correct for the power imbalance between workers and firms. Unions both equalize the bargaining power of workers in the context of wages and protect workers’ rights in the context of underspecified labour contracts. In both cases, the justification for unions rests on the failure of capitalist labour markets to live up to their purported ideal of equal exchange between workers and capitalists. Market failures are then compensated for by creating strategic assurance mechanisms—in this case, labour unions—that can overcome those failures through collective negotiation and monitoring.


Reiff’s view focuses on the labour contract as the object of union activity. By framing unions as a response of the failure of markets to live up to their own ideals, the liberal view accepts the image of work relations as basically voluntary contractual relationships. The problem, then, is to ensure that the workplace lives up to its ideal of free and equal exchange and that workers’ rights are protected. The liberal thus accepts the rationale for the capitalist firm as a mechanism to overcome another market failure—transaction costs—and so the need for a hierarchical structure of control over production and investment within the firm. Unions exist to counterbalance the capitalist firm, not transform it.


[...] the idea of distinctive labour rights, masks the reality of hierarchical structures of production. This picture is further reinforced by institutional mechanisms that instead represent unions as mechanisms for wage bargaining and overcoming market failures. [...] we should regard these as efforts to tame the democratizing effects and character trade unions, rather than the purpose of trade unions.

The radical view starts from strikes rather than collective bargaining. The radical view emphasizes the fact that strikes, to be effective, require the exercise of coercion and the infringement of certain liberal rights, such as the right of employers to hire replacement workers. Alex Gourevitch argues that such coercive means are justified as a method of resisting oppression. Against the liberal view, the radical view challenges the overall legitimacy of the firm as a site of economic production. Actual capitalist societies, characterized by class divisions grounded in the right to private property, are systems of oppression. It focuses on the disruptive, often extra-legal tactics that workers often have to use to succeed in strikes, especially in those segments of the economy where strikes are most necessary.


To be sure, Gourevitch does not set out to provide a general theory of labour unions. Yet there seems to be at least an implicit image behind his account—one of rank-and-file labour radicals organising direct strike action, challenging captured, reformist union leadership that has become dependent on the bureaucracy of grievances and collective bargaining. In addition to conceding too much to libertarian views of property rights, Gourevitch risks missing the democratizing effects of these more mundane aspects of union politics as too accommodating of capitalist labour relations. If the liberal view risks reducing labour unions to bargaining and labour rights, the radical view risks excluding from sight activities that don’t point to a total rupture with capitalist relations.


[...] the political interpretation approaches capitalism as a specific mode of organizing power over economic activities. Firms are vested with control over decisions about production and investment and, therefore, the power to direct labour. [...] the democratic view contends that the full range of union activities can constitute a partial democratization of production and investment decisions.

In contrast to both the liberal and radical views, my democratic interpretation of labour unions begins from a specific analysis of capitalism as a political order. Unlike the liberal view, the political analysis does not view capitalism as a market order that sometimes falls short of realizing its ideal of free exchange. Rather, the political interpretation approaches capitalism as a specific mode of organizing power over economic activities. Firms are vested with control over decisions about production and investment and, therefore, the power to direct labour. The idea of the “economy” as a distinctive domain, one constituted through market exchanges, is what disguises the structure of power within capitalism. This appearance, as well as the idea of distinctive labour rights, masks the reality of hierarchical structures of production. This picture is further reinforced by institutional mechanisms that instead represent unions as mechanisms for wage bargaining and overcoming market failures. However, I argue that we should regard these as efforts to tame the democratizing effects and character trade unions, rather than the purpose of trade unions.


To this extent, then, the radical and the democratic view converge. But while the radical view looks to unions primarily as sites of resistance to oppression, therefore highlighting the disruptive features of strike actions, the democratic view contends that the full range of union activities can constitute a partial democratization of production and investment decisions. From this perspective, strikes are one form of exercising collective democratic power. While some could argue they will involve rights violations, to my mind this speaks to a larger tension between democracy and liberalism. Insofar as strikes are democratically generated, they challenge the legitimacy of certain forms of private property regimes. Strikes deploy democratically legitimate coercion to democratize power within the workplace. In this regard, they are a distinctive democratic mechanism that combines features of voting and protest. Like protest, strikes are continuous and can be deployed at the discretion of the strikers. But like voting, strikes are not just symbolic – they can activate democratically-legitimated coercion. Yet consequently strikes are particularly costly, and so they require strong organizational support to be effective.


Insofar as strikes are democratically generated, they challenge the legitimacy of certain forms of private property regimes. Strikes deploy democratically legitimate coercion to democratize power within the workplace. In this regard, they are a distinctive democratic mechanism that combines features of voting and protest.

There is always a risk of too much bureaucratization of labour unions, whereby they become largely managers of legal grievance procedures. But when such mechanisms such as grievance procedures exist alongside well-organized and mobilized members, they help constitute new forms of democratic citizenship within the workplace. For example, at the peak of inter-war unionism in the United States, union activists created an elaborate system of shop-floor participatory democracy. As Nelson Lichtenstein writes, “at the shop-floor level, day-to-day conflict over production standards and workplace discipline permeated the structure of work and authority in most factories and mills. The early union contracts were sketchy and ambiguous, and their meaning was worked out in battles large and small.” Shop stewards would call for spontaneous work stoppages if there was a dispute over working rates or safety. These forms of “direct shop-floor activity legitimized the union’s presence for thousands of previously hesitant workers, and such job actions established a pattern of union influence and authority unrecognized in the early, sketchily written contracts” (120).


As Lichtenstein argues, unions here forged a new vision of industrial citizenship. Workers and union activists sought to transform the capitalist firm such that workers had at least a say, if not actual discretionary control, over the production process. And at their peak, such as in Sweden at the end of the 1960s economic boom, unions went even further and began pushing for a democratization of investment decisions, in that case through the Meidner Plan that would create union-controlled investment funds. Both strikes, on the one hand, and labour rights and bargaining, on the other, were mechanisms that helped realize this broader and more comprehensive vision of industrial democracy. A task for democratic theory is to use our increasingly refined analysis of equality, power, and democratic institutions to revive this vision today.


Steven Klein is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London. He is the author of The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State (Cambridge 2020). He is the PI for the ERC/UKRI project “Systemic Risk and the Transformation of Democracy” and writing a book on the global political theory of labour unions.



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