Self-Guided Tour of a Rank-and-File Union in Action

“Business unionism” is by far the predominant trend in the United States labor movement, and it has held this dominant position for at least the past 50 years.  It is a form of labor unionism which essentially sees as its basic mission the sale of the labor power of its members to employers on (sometimes) the best possible terms.  The union function is to broker the sale of this labor power, with any broader political goals frequently limited to reforms safely within the framework of our current system.  While lending itself to stability and having adapted well to our particularly prosperous conditions here in the U.S., business unionism survives best in periods when employers and government are tolerant of worker organization.  Also when the threat of a more militant left-wing union alternative is real.  It doesn’t do so well in times like these, when all bosses and far too many politicians are more than happy to see any form of unionism liquidated, and when potentially competing forms of unionism are at low ebb.  Business unionism has always benefited from the existence of a militant alternative, often providing a more acceptable and conservative option for workers and bosses alike.

Alternative models of unionism — or, as we call our version in UE, “rank-and-file” unionism — do exist, but are overshadowed by the mainstreamand are routinely ignored by the news media.  The liberal and progressive press also generally ignore the alternatives to business unionism, although they are sporadically capable of recognizing that such organizations exist.  Don’t forget that unions come in many flavors: there are business unions that are aggressive, timid, comatose, centralized, decentralized, craft, industrial, or general; and then there are company unions, gangster unions, staff-run unions, family-run unions, political unions, religious unions, rank-and-file unions, revolutionary unions, and others.

UE offers one version of a rank-and-file union alternative to business unionism.  Romanian immigrant James Matles, the founding UE Director of Organization, speaking to a west coast UE meeting in 1973 explained that “There is no question that if any working man, or woman, who is going to play any role in the leadership of the labor movement in the days to come, they cannot hope to do that without studying the UE as an outstanding example of rank-and-file unionism in America. . . .  We have no monopoly on rank-and-file unionism . . . rank-and-file unionism has come in waves.  It would be at a low point, it would rise, it would go down again, it would rise again.  And no matter what the employers in America have done they have not been able to liquidate it, extinguish it, kill it for all time.”  Matles authored the definitive history of UE entitled “Them and Us,” available for anyone seeking a deeper read on this very topic at

What are some of the features of UE rank-and-file unionism?  They are many: Constitutional protections of democratic practices; similar guarantees of contract ratification and strike votes by members; strict limits on officer and staff salaries with none higher than those earned by working members; frequent Conventions; short elected terms of office; financial practices at all levels which are open to member inspection; affordable dues rates arrived at democratically; an emphasis on union stewards and workplace union activity; a policy of struggling for political solutions, as opposed to automatically settling for crumbs and “lesser evils”; and a Constitutional preamble that urges maximum unity to encourage the members to “pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions.”  UE also exists as perhaps the only union in the U.S. today that does not have a Constitutional provision enabling the National union to place any of its locals into any form of trusteeship.  Union reformers, activists, and memberships in our labor movement have suffered more damage and defeat from these autocratic provisions than perhaps all other leadership devices and tricks combined.

For those outside the labor movement, or those who only have a business union frame of reference on the subject, describing our particular alternative unionism can be a challenge.  For a self-guided tour through a rank-and-file union, visit the UE web page to review the deliberations at the recently concluded 70th UE National Convention.  Go to for an opening day report, and don’t forget to follow the proceedings for the subsequent four days.  You may be surprised to see rank-and-file women and men running their own union.  Visit several of the daily segments and you will get a good feel for rank-and-file democracy in action.

On the collective bargaining front, certainly one of the most important yet neglected aspects of unionism, a second self-guided tour is in order.  UE completed another round of negotiations with the General Electric Company (GE) back in June, and our web page is used as a daily negotiations update tool for our membership.  You may follow the recent bargaining battle between UE and GE by visiting and searching several of the dispatches.  You may be surprised to see how negotiations unfold between a rank-and-file union and a behemoth like GE.

A brief visit to these web pages that detail the UE Convention and GE negotiations is not the entire story of my union, but it’s a good start.  And try as hard as we do, we are not perfect.  We do not win them all.  We are subjected to the same anti-labor corporate and political forces that are crushing the life out our movement in the current period.  It is one way to run a union, however, and I leave it to you to judge whether or not it is different, or better, or both.

Chris Townsend is the Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE):

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