Direct Elections for Labor Leaders Make for More Militant Unions

The labor movement is rightfully celebrating recent contract victories by the United Auto WorkersTeamstersSAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, which together cover nearly 650,000 workers. An essential thread uniting the campaigns is that the top union officers were all directly elected by the members, a basic democratic right denied to many union members in the United States. As other unions seek to learn lessons from these historic contract fights, a key takeaway is that a vibrant democratic process—“one member, one vote”—is crucial to a revitalized labor movement.

A robust democratic process certainly played a major role in the Auto Workers (UAW) contract fight with the Big Three automakers and the Teamsters campaign against UPS. Leading up to their contract expirations, both the UAW and Teamsters had highly competitive and contested elections for their top leadership positions, directly engaging the membership in debates about the union’s negotiation strategy with employers and concessionary contracts, improvements in strike benefits, and the removal of antidemocratic obstacles.

For example, at the Teamsters’ convention, delegates removed a constitutional provision that previously allowed union officers to impose a contract even if a majority of members voted against it. Injected with the energy of a contested election, the recent UAW and Teamster conventions were marked by spirited debates about union strategy, engaging members for the upcoming contract fights.

But a review of the constitutions of the 20 largest unions in the United States shows that “one member, one vote” is a right denied to most union members. Of the top 20 unions—representing approximately 13.3 million members and 83 percent of all U.S. union workers—only six have direct elections. Only 20 percent of all union members, or 2.7 million, have the right to directly elect their top officers. In contrast, 80 percent of members, or 10.6 million workers, have no such right.

Apart from the Teamsters and UAW, the only other large unions with a form of direct elections are the Steelworkers, Machinists, SAG-AFTRA, the Letter Carriers (NALC), and the Postal Workers (APWU). Some smaller unions, like the Writers Guild and the Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), also have direct elections.

The Laborers (LIUNA) used to have direct elections as part of a consent decree with the Department of Justice, but the union’s executive board eliminated the practice in 2010. The Operating Engineers and Carpenters also had direct elections, but they moved to a delegate system in the 1960s.

Maybe it’s a fluke of the calendar, but the majority of strikes in 2023 (through October) were led by unions with “one member, one vote” policies, even though they represent a minority of unions. According to the Department of Labor, 448,000 workers have been on strike this year, and approximately 250,000 workers (by my count), or 56 percent of strikers, are affiliated with unions that have direct elections. Perhaps a more democratic union is a more militant union.

‘One Member, One Vote’ vs. the Delegate Convention System

As opposed to direct elections, most unions chose their top officers indirectly, electing delegates to a regularly scheduled convention at the local level through a membership vote. Those elected delegates then nominate and elect the top officers.

While it’s formally democratic, the flaws of the delegate convention system have been widely documented. Rather than promoting worker participation and vigorous democratic debate, the delegate system tends to entrench incumbents who can deploy the union’s vast legal, financial, political, and organizational resources to maintain power and stifle reform challenges. As a result, many unions are effectively run by a semipermanent officer and staff strata insulated from member control and accountability, leading to weakened organizations and a ground ripe for corruption.

Under the delegate convention system, the rise of new leadership at a union is typically triggered by the retirement or death of a labor official rather than a challenger winning a contested election. Union conventions, a huge opportunity to involve the membership in organizing and contract campaigns, instead often resemble a choreographed beauty pageant thrown by the ruling party in a one-party state.

With few substantive issues debated and without contested leadership fights, it’s not surprising that labor reporters don’t bother covering most union conventions.

Despite the long-term decline in union membership and urgent debates about the strategic direction of labor, few of the top leaders of large unions even faced a challenger at their last convention, as the table below shows. Of the 14 unions without direct elections, only five had a challenger for the top position. In contrast, of the six large unions with direct elections, four had contested elections.

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at Jacobin on January 5, 2024.

About the Author: Chris Bohner is a union researcher and activist.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.