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Rekindling Union Democracy Through the Use of Sortition

Abstract

There is a long-standing and growing interest in democratizing labor unions. Union democracy is important for many reasons, including fostering greater member voice in the workplace and society, improving the internal effectiveness of unions, building members’ capacities to engage in democracy in other contexts, and helping foster union renewal. Despite these benefits, democracy in unions as practiced today is characterized by several problems. In this paper, I analyze several of the remedies to increase union democracy proposed to date by scholars and practitioners, finding that despite their potential positive impacts, many of them may have inherent limitations. I then argue that sortition—the use of lotteries in selecting leaders—shows potential in helping address many of the problems facing union democracy and overcoming the limitations of recent remedies. An important democratic tool in Ancient Athens and other city-states, sortition has a long history in political theory and practice, yet application to unions is in its infancy. I conclude by developing and evaluating several ways in which sortition could be used as a tool in union governance structures, and by discussing the implications of my theorizing for ongoing work on union democracy and union renewal.

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Notes

  1. It is important to note that there is disagreement about the importance and relevance of increasing democracy for union renewal, as other scholars have found that more top-down or even hybrid approaches may be more effective In a challenge to much conventional wisdom that increased union democracy is the best means of fostering union renewal, several scholars have suggested that union renewal may instead require top-down interventions by leaders, including those brought in from other unions (e.g. Behrens et al. 2004; Hickey et al. 2010; Voss 2010; Voss and Sherman 2000, 2003). Leaders, particularly those who had worked in other unions, likely have experience with novel ways of organizing, are more attuned to the challenges facing unions, and can inspire change within their unions (Behrens et al. 2004; Oxenbridge 2003; Voss and Sherman 2000). Furthermore, too much grassroots democracy has the potential to limit unions’ ability to systematically advance their agendas and maintain discipline (Lynk 2000; Wood 2004). In contrast, others have pointed to the limitations of a top-down approach, including that it can lead to authoritarianism on the part of leaders, a reduction in vibrancy, and a disconnect between the interests of members and leaders (Bach and Givan 2008; Eisenscher 1999). Some scholars have suggested adopting a middle-ground perspective, arguing that both bottom-up and top-down approaches have their merits and that a more hybrid approach may be the most effective (e.g. Bach and Givan 2008; Hickey et al. 2010). In developing my solution in this paper, I build off the work of others (e.g. Flynn et al. 2004; Lévesque et al. 2005; Lévesque and Murray 2006; Wood 2004) in focusing on the potential benefits of changes in union governance and democratic structures for union renewal, yet also remain attuned to the relative merits of top-down and bottom-up approaches. I discuss how my solution relates to this debate in the discussion.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the editor, Edmund Byrne, and the three anonymous reviewers for their very thoughtful and constructive engagement with this paper. I would also like to thank Adam Cronkright, Tao Wang, Brandon Froh, Armando Martins, Francisco Brahm, and participants at the 2017 Sustainability, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship Conference for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

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Pek, S. Rekindling Union Democracy Through the Use of Sortition. J Bus Ethics 155, 1033–1051 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3526-2

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Keywords

  • Union democracy
  • Union governance
  • Workplace democracy
  • Demarchy
  • Sortition
  • Union renewal