union democracy

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Refers to the participation of trade union members in the government of their trade unions. Trade unions are membership organizations that are formally democratic and allow for member participation and control of policymaking through a variety of mechanisms. At local level, trade union members directly elect shop stewards and the officers of the local union branch. The branch, in turn, will typically nominate delegates to attend committees, councils, and conferences at regional and national levels of union government. In addition, under UK law, voting members of the union's national executive must be elected by a secret postal ballot of all members. Postal ballots must also be used to endorse particular decisions, such as the setting up of a political fund and taking strike action, and, although not obligatory, they are used increasingly to decide the acceptance of wage offers from employers. Identifying the conditions under which union democracy flourishes, and the iron law of oligarchy is kept in check, have been major concerns of industrial relations researchers. According to one view, genuine union democracy is dependent upon the existence of competing factions or parties within a union which allow members to choose between alternative programmes and provide a source of opposition to the incumbent leadership. An alternative view stresses the value of ‘direct’ as opposed to ‘representative’ democracy and the scope for the union rank and file to participate in union activities at workplace level. Union democracy in the UK is subject to close legal regulation as a result of the Conservative reforms of trade union government of the 1980s and 1990s, which introduced the requirements to rely on secret postal balloting.

Subjects: Human Resource Management.

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