Steve Sachs Duke


Monday, April 26, 2004


Unions and Democracy: Just before leaving for Spain, though, I started flipping through Will Hutton's book The State We're In. Hutton is fiercely critical of a number of Margaret Thatcher's reforms, which he argues had yet to produce sustainable benefits for the economy as a whole. (Of course, despite Hutton's dour economic forecast, the book hit the shelves just before the boom of the late 90's, one of Britain's most impressive macroeconomic performances in history. Note to self: never make verifiable predictions in print--and if you do, make sure those predictions can't be proven wrong until long after you're dead.)

I haven't yet had the chance to analyze Hutton's arguments in detail, but while reading I noticed the following paragraph:
Beside these severe economic and social costs must be ranked the loss of civil liberties and the qualification of democratic principles entailed in the Conservative governments' version of trade union reform. The right of a majority, after a secret ballot, to require acquiescence in agreed decisions, should be a sacrosanct democratic principle--but not for British trade unions. Here the government has enshrined a higher principle: the right of the individual to work or to reach an individual arrangement with his or her employer so that majority decisions need not bind them. The right of free association has been curtailed by laws outlawing secondary picketing and sympathetic action. Important freedoms and a long-respected conception of democracy have been sacrificed--but for what?

It was interesting to read these words at a time when mail delivery in Oxford had been interrupted for a full three weeks, due to an unofficial "wildcat" strike by local postal workers. I've never been very comfortable with strikes by public-sector unions--such as postal workers, say, or the British firefighters (!) who went on an extended strike last year. A strike at a private factor primarily affects the owner of the firm (as it loses orders to its competitors), and it can be considered just part of the rough-and-tumble process of labor negotiation. But public-sector unions usually operate in industries with a government monopoly, where there are no competitors to pick up the slack. (When teachers go on strike for a month, we can't send our kids off to private schools as easily as GM can pick another steel supplier.)

But Hutton inadvertently provides another argument against public-sector strikes--that they're fundamentally antidemocratic. The public and its elected representatives, through a democratic process, decided to establish a postal system, to create public schools, and to build a network of firehouses. It did so because a majority of citizens wanted services from their government (like communication, and education, and protection from fires). This same majority also selected representatives to oversee the management of these services, and to offer certain packages of wages and benefits to those who sought employment at public expense. Why, then, shouldn't public-sector employees feel bound by this democratic decision? Why shouldn't we "require acquiescence" in this agreed decision of the majority? A strike in a non-competitive, public-sector industry affects everyone, not just the workers in the local post office. So why should those whose paychecks are drawn on the public treasury have the right to reach an "individual arrangement," especially by using as a bargaining chip three weeks' worth of other citizens' mail?

Majoritarian decisions aren't always "democratic"--or, perhaps more precisely, they're not always appropriate. It's not always clear whether the majority ought to be making the decision, and if so who that relevant majority might be. The closed shop can be a triumph of democratic decision-making, or it can be a violation of the worker's right to free association; the prohibition on sympathy strikes can be a violation of unions' free association or a triumph of the democratic institutions that prohibited them. Which interpretation is correct will depend on what line we draw between public and private affairs; the old tension between freedom and equality rears its ugly head. And the best way to resolve this tension--to make "civil liberties" compatible with "democratic principles"--isn't nearly as obvious as Hutton suggests.




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