Why Our Worker Co-op Is a Union Shop 1: Democracy

05.03.2013

Democracy. A little over ten years ago, I had come to New York City with a van-full of my fellow union members, to join tens or hundreds of thousands of people who had come to protest the impending war against Iraq. A young white man on a subway car, berating us, explained how democracy works: "People voted for Bush, now he gets to do what he wants. That’s democracy."

I think most of us like to think we have a deeper understanding of "democracy" than this young man did. But the reality is that, in our governments and, truth be told, in most of the organizations we’re part of, we accept that logic. As long as we’re allowed to protest the decisions of those we elect, we don’t really think that deeply about the process of democratic decision-making, about making decisions together.

This may be, in part, because the organizations where most of us spend most of our time and energy are, like it or not, the places where we work. Our workplaces may be better or worse, but very few of them are democratic. Worker coops, of course, are one of the few exceptions - in a worker co-op everyone who works for the enterprise gets to have an equal say in decisions.

Last weekend I attended the Owning the New Economy Summit at the University of Vermont. At the "Envisioning the Cooperative Economy" workshop in the morning, Keith Taylor, Director of the Coop Research Project, reminded us about the importance of learning, and practicing, democracy, pointing out that the highly centralized government and corporate structures that govern most of our lives neither teach nor encourage democratic practices.

Which got me thinking — where did I learn democracy? And the reality is that I didn’t learn it from school, I didn't learn it from voting, and unfortunately, I didn’t learn it from the food and financial co-ops (credit unions) that I’ve been a part of. I learned it from my union.

Rank and File Democracy in ActionTo be fair, I’ve been a member of one of the most democratic unions in America, UE, for most of my adult life. The experiences of other union members are almost certainly different than mine. But here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from UE democracy, lessons that have helped Webskillet thrive, and lessons that all institutions that strive to be democratic - and most co-ops - could learn from:

1. Be Inclusive. Actively. If you’re a union and the only way you engage your members is to encourage them to come for meetings or run for the board (and then complain about them when they don’t), or if you don’t pay attention to how certain demographics within your membership are alienated from the union, you’re going to be in a pretty weak position going up against the boss. Democracy isn’t just offering people the opportunity to participate - it’s actively encouraging (and organizing) them to participate, and asking (honestly) why they aren’t, and being willing to listen and change.

2. Own the Big Picture. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where the "ground rules" — either explicitly or implicitly — prevent us from talking about the broader social problems that underlie the specific issues we’re trying to address. I’ve never experienced this in the UE — and, in fact, a willingness to talk about broader issues (even if we can’t solve them immediately) has often helped us come to a better, and stronger, consensus. A contentious discussion of gay marriage at a UE regional meeting in 2004 was aided immeasurably by our collective willingness to address deeper philosophical questions about whether the government should be in the business of regulating private relationships at all.

3. Democratic culture and practice is at least as important as democratic rules. UE, formally, uses Robert’s Rules of Order for all of our meetings. But 70-plus years of collective experience trying to make democratic decisions — and having to live with the consequences when decisions made through formally democratic processes divide the membership — have created a culture in UE that encourages collective and consensus-seeking leadership, far more so than in many organizations that formally use consensus processes, but often develop invisible (and therefore unaccountable) hierarchies.

4. Democracy is hard. And that’s ok. Democracy is a lot of work. It takes time, it takes intellectual and emotional energy, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re on the losing side. Sometimes — even worse — we’re on the winning side, and later realize that we were wrong. But the beautiful thing about (truly) democratic institutions is that nothing’s written in stone, that we get the opportunity to go back and fix it. Together.