Does Trade Union democracy favour the Moderate over the Militant?

I came across an interesting argument today when researching the decision by ICTU to enter into a social pact with the government and employers in 1987. The rise of the PD’s (who received 11.8%) of the vote in the 1987 election, coupled with the rise of Thatcherism in the UK (and her effective undermining of Trade Unions) was obviously a key variable for ICTU’s decision.The Union movement in this context would obviously favour an institutional framework that gave them direct access to national policy making (particularly labour market policies and tax reform).

However, there was obviously divisions within the trade union movement to enter into a concerted social pact. The conflict between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ factions is an interesting story and occurred in every country that adopted a social pact as a response to an exogenous economic crises. Baccarro (2005) highlights how increased democratic procedures within Trade Union confederations (and he uses Ireland as a case study) favour the median voter and therefore the moderate factions. In countries where there is less internal democracy within Trade Unions (Korea) militant factions successfully blocked all attempts at union involvement in national policy making. More democracy within Unions favours moderates not radicals. It tends to block a more militant ‘vanguard’ from monopolising strategic decisions. It also fits well with political science literature that highlight the importance of the median voter for center-politics.

This hypothesis is at odds with the popular perception amongst some elements of the Left that it is the union ‘Leaders’ who are the moderate vanguard blocking rank and file militancy. It would appear that it is rank and file moderates who strengthen the legitimacy for social pacts such as social partnership. This also fits well with recent survey data (of 3,500 employees) by Geary, Roche et al in UCD that found most employees support a partnership approach to employee relations and not a militant approach. It also fits well with a more ‘bottom-up’ approach to understanding the strategic perspective of structural actors. In the Union movement therefore a logic of representation (one person, one vote) replaces the logic of mobilisation. These are interesting arguments and empirically refute the argument that it is the ‘leaders’ who are conservative. It would appear that the ICTU leadership and their preference for dialogue over industrial action is a reflection rank and file preference, not an undermining of it.

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