Union dues and the struggle for democracy

To avoid the need to rebuild our democratic organizations -- and thus waste valuable time -- we must defend our current institutions of democracy. We must defend them even though they can, from time to time, be lead by flawed individuals -- we are human, after all. It is not the people we defend as leadership can and will be replaced, but the institution. This defense is part of the historical fight for our right to practice and perfect our own democracy. (Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash)

Union dues and the struggle for democracy
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Our democracy

Our opponents have an ideological aversion to our structures of solidarity. Those structures include labour unions, student unions, farmer associations, anti-poverty groups, political parties with class politics, movements opposing mass impacts of climate change, mass protest movements, coordinated pluralist democratic opposition groups, and mass representative structures. The current way the opposition in Canada has been attacking our institutions is through attacking dues collection.

For our opponents, their undermining of our institutions is more than just countering anything that gets in the way of the rich or elite having their way or having to explain themselves. And, it is more than just opposition to forcing capitalists to think about broader impacts of their profit seeking. Their system, capitalism, cannot incorporate mass democracy because it has the authority to put the whole ahead of the individual capitalist in economic decisions.

Capitalism is about allocation of resources to production in a way that generates profit for the owners. It is based on a logic of ownership above all. It states that if you own capital, then you should decide how that capital is allocated, what that capital produces, and how it is produced.

  • Capitalism is not historical. How ownership of that capital came to be cannot be challenged.
  • Capitalism is not concerned with what it has excluded from being measured. So, "externalities" such as labour exploitation, accidents at work, unpaid labour at home, poverty, pollution, climate damage, and war are produced.
  • Capitalism requires adherence to its short-term "market" – even (especially) if that market does not work even in the medium term to generate benefits.
  • Capitalists require a state to save them because it is an imperfect system that creates crises.

Most importantly when discussing their opposition to our democracy, capitalists require a level of freedom from the rest of us – freedom from our interference – to make their system work. Capitalism is, in its purest ideological form, anti-democratic.

Real people, the rest of us, do no have this level of personal freedom where we can ignore everyone else, our communities, or the environment. And, while some of us look to those who do with some envy, most understand that the very structures of the economy by which we are held back also prevent progress on social issues and lead to the kind of externalities that make our lives difficult.

Most of the time the rest of us can come to an agreement on what needs to be done to mitigate the negative externalities. The form this opposition takes is recreated in a near-identical structure with surprising frequency through history – even by people who have never seen democracy work before.

Our response to this imbalance of power is always to build structures of democratic solidarity – unions, political parties, and mass movements. Our goal since the birth of capitalism (and even before) is to tame the oppressive system (or replace it) through democratic control by using these organizations.

To avoid the constant need to build our democratic organizations from scratch – and thus waste valuable time – we must defend our current structures. We must defend them even though they can, from time to time, be lead by flawed individuals – we are human, after all. It is not the people we defend, as leadership can and will be replaced, but the structures and institutions themselves. This defense is part of the historical fight for our right to practice and perfect our own democracy.

It is within this context that we must understand the recent attacks on the collection of labour unions and student unions dues. Attacks that are lead by governments, corporate leaders, and elites in institutions in Canada who oppose our independence. The actions that attack stable funding, independence, and sow division within our membership aim to undermine our very structures of democracy and incorporate them into the value system of capitalism.

Commodification of dues

The goal of the right-wing in making union dues non-mandatory (they say "voluntary") in Canada has several negative impacts beyond the simple reduced cash-flow to the union. The primary goal of making dues non-mandatory is diverting resources away from functioning union democracy and the resulting activism that comes from that empowerment.

Their objectives are achieved through the following:

  • Create a situation for necessary cuts within the union bureaucracy.
  • Divert resources away from democratic engagement and towards dues collection.
  • Increase the ratio of bureaucratic resources for maintaining services provision compared to all other activities. (To be more like charities that spend a lot of resources simply collecting resources to exist.)
  • The commodification of dues by making members think about dues as just buying something – instead of to funding democratic independence.

In Canada, we have had a state imposed collective model for funding labour and student unions – known as the "Rand Formula" for labour unions or enforced through contracts for student unions. The argument is that everyone who benefits from the work of a union pays irrespective of being a signed-up member. Like taxes for government-provided public services, you pay because you exist in society and walk on the sidewalks, go to the schools, and receive emergency care that the taxes maintain.

When being forced to move away from this model, the result can turn the relationship between the members and the union to one of an exchange (or a commodified) relationship. The notion of what a union is can easily change under this relationship to one similar to an insurance company instead of a union. The union as an insurance company is no longer the collective of democratic decision making, but a corporate entity that you pay and receive services from.

But, a union is not an insurance company, and the right-wing know this. In fact, at the very basic level this is what the right-wing's antagonism against unions is about: they oppose resourced, independent, collective, democratic power that a union brings. The right-wing wants unions to act, at most, as simple insurance/service companies to their members.

Similarly for the student movement, the move to the "pay for services" model is the commodification of student unions and their services where the student pays the student union for some particular service that they provide and where a student "union" sells its services to its voluntary fee payers.

The distinction between a commodified union and one that acts as a "real" union changes when the membership no longer see the union as an expression of themselves, but instead as some external entity like a corporation or the local curling club they choose to belong to.

This is not to say that a reduction of democracy and overly bureaucratic processes cannot happen under a universal dues model. But, the fix in a democratic structure is democratic involvement – members have an incentive to vote for the change they want. In a non-mandatory dues system there is "consumer choice" and fixing the dysfunction is done by leaving and not paying your fee. In this way, "voluntary dues" are not dues at all, they are fees.

This commodification of union services must be avoided at all costs. It is the only way that corporatization of the movement can be avoided. They way we do this is through building an democratic organizing model within our unions.

Union "bureaucracies"

One argument against unions (and government) used by the opposition is about "bureaucracy". They call our democratic structures too "bureaucratic" (i.e., they employ too many people and have too complex structures) – as if democracy were something that can just happen magically without work. This builds on a general low level of understanding of the inner-workings of these organizations. In most unions, bureaucratic structures are there for very good reasons and are responding to meet needs identified by the membership.

Even outside unions, the bureaucracies of services organizations including governments cannot be easily reduced in size. There are several reasons for this, but the main issue has to do with paying people to do work.

It is not "work" that is cut in a budget reduction, it is individual workers. As such, any reduction in fees to a union with staff results in at least one layoff and a disproportionate reduction in services provided.

And, workers do not come in parts – no matter what Uber and the other casual worker companies would like us to believe.

When a staff position in a union is created, it is to respond to a need expressed by those receiving the service, a need that can only be solved by someone doing some work. And, since there is nowhere that has the over-production of needed services in society, when a new staff person is hired the work that they do expands into new areas.

From the perspective of staff, their work is not segmented into discrete parts. A receptionist sitting at a desk answering phones is also dealing with a computer, entering information, setting schedules, etc. all at the same time. A teacher in a school is not just a teacher, they also carry-out function throughout the school acting as guardian during recesses, tidying-up their class, acting as councillor to students, and engaging in the democratic and bureaucratic processes of the school.

There is more than just the single job that is lost when a clerical or teaching position is cut.

For example, say the union spends 80 per cent of their money on staffing (as they usually do since that is what the union is) on a group of 10 staff. Also assume that the rest of the money is allocated to fixed capital such as rent for space, utility costs, and direct services for members..

Then, if five percent of their budget is cut, the result is usually the reduction of staff even if that 5 per cent does not even make up a full position. And, since workers do not usually provide one single piece of work, the union looses the equivalent of ten per cent of their workforce and over ten per cent of the work carried out by the union.

Now, you may be thinking that the other workers in such an organization can pick-up the slack. This is a classic neoliberal argument: that there is always slack in an organization. The reality is that if the workers were working at a certain rate in the provision of services before, they will continue after someone is cut. Some of the work that was done by that employee that was laid-off will be spread, but it will usually come at the expense of other work.

Even in a badly run bureaucracy, there is never a full absorption of previous work when cuts are made. This is made even more obvious in smaller workplaces or when there is only one worker.

Cuts to funding government services do not work the way most liberals and conservatives think they should because they forget that these services are provided by people. This is one of the reasons that neoliberal cuts over the previous decades have resulted in the "unintended" reduction in the actual provision of services.

Cutting money in a budget is easy. Reducing service costs and providing the same level of service is a complex and near impossible task.

The unsuspected cuts being forced on student and labour organizations are devastating to their function and decimate services that they provide their members.

Decisions in the face of non-mandatory dues

The decision before student and labour unions who are facing cuts in funding through the elimination of mandatory dues are enormous. Not knowing how much in dues are going to come in makes long-term planning and stability impossible. Planning for this change takes a lot of resources and work.

These are democratic organizations, and thus it is up to the membership what the organization will look like. In many ways, this makes it more difficult to cut needed services than even in the government.

An educated membership is essential to the re-organization of union services in the face of undermining mandatory dues. A true accounting, history, and understanding of what staff do on a regular basis is important for everyone to understand if these discussions are going to go well. Especially if the cuts to services seem larger than the cuts to budgets and it is not explained well that it is staff who provided those services.

Alternatives to cuts, such as dues increases can only be considered in this context.

Too often, however, decisions are made within the bureaucracy focused on cuts without consulting the membership. The result is a (further) alienation of the union's work from the membership. There will also be an inevitable reaction from staff who are being laid-off and receiving downward pressure on their wages and benefits.

In this way, moving towards a non-mandatory dues structure of unions can result in commodification of the services that the union provides. And, an undemocratic reaction from the bureaucracy and leadership will lead to the corporatization of the union.

Also, from what we are seeing in terms of size of cuts experienced at student union in Ontario, a simple reduction in services does not work. You cannot cut 50 per cent of the funding to any organization and get to a stable position through just cuts to services and staff as you will always be left with a top-heavy bureaucracy and poor service provision.

If the cuts are large, the only solution is a full rethinking of the structure and function of the union. The student movement in Ontario (and Canada) will need restructure. To do this they must spend much of their remaining resources engage in a re-imagining of the role and function of the student movement.

Re-imaging structures within the new paradigm

With the impending introduction of non-mandatory dues, a restructuring of our unions is going to be forced on us. However, if we engage in the process of restructuring before it is forced on us, there are a few benefits that can be reaped and negatives that can be reduced in severity.

Some benefits of an active restructuring process:

  • A re-engaged movement.
  • A sustainable and stable organizational structure that can resist funding attacks.
  • A non-corporate union bureaucracy.
  • An understanding of dues, membership, and services that are not commodified.
  • A movement resistant to further attack.
  • A movement and organization that can grow if resources are re-affirmed.
  • A dues rate that is democratically agreed to and pays for democratic services.

Some downsides that will have to be dealt with include:

  • It is a lot of work on top of already busy structures (inevitable with cuts directed out of your control and a confused and disengaged membership).
  • It will require hard debates within the membership about dues rates, provision of services, staffing, and what kind of modernized process can be implemented.
  • Job losses (perhaps fewer than what seems inevitable with cuts out of your control) or reclassification of staff positions.
  • Loss of services (inevitable with cuts out of your control).

The way forward should be clear enough and, as with everything else within our democratic structures, the work to defend and build them can only be done by us.