Socialist Worker

Ballots: the height of democracy?

Issue No. 2309

Voting to strike at a mass meeting  (Pic: Mark Krantz)

Voting to strike at a mass meeting (Pic: Mark Krantz)

Our rulers encourage us to see ourselves as individuals, not as a class with collective interests and strength. They want us to feel divided and weak.

Trade unions bring workers together to fight as a collective. But there are disagreements over how best to build a strong union.

And while some ways of organising can overcome the atomisation our rulers encourage, others entrench it.

For example, some union leaders see membership ballots as the height of democracy.

Only a minority of members attend union meetings, they say. Why should they get to make the decisions? Isn’t it better to have a full membership ballot that gives everyone an equal say?

But without a chance to collectively discuss, argue and ask questions, ballots don’t give everyone an informed say. This can leave workers passive and isolated. The most nervous or cynical worker is left unable to voice concerns and hear views that could boost their confidence.

This can make all the pressures and ideological muck the system slings at workers seem stronger. When workers feel isolated, it’s easier for the idea that strikes can’t win, for instance, to take hold.

And constant ballots can grind people down instead of motivating them. In a lively union meeting where people take on such arguments, anyone wavering can be won around.

Mass meetings are a chance for workers to have arguments out. People can feel more confident to go forward if they’ve thrashed out the issues in a meeting. Mass meetings are also a chance to air grievances against the boss—and challenge union officials.


Some right wing trade unionists characterise mass meetings as a way for left groups to manipulate and bully other workers. In truth what they don’t like is the fact that workers can be won away from pessimism.

Meanwhile right wing politicians characterise picketing workers as undemocratic. But pickets do not force their own views, unaccountably, onto other workers.

They try to impose the democratic decision of union members to strike on all workers. That is the point of a picket line. The undemocratic thing to do is to ignore those decisions by crossing a picket line.

How workers organise makes a concrete difference in struggle. For instance, women admin workers in west Yorkshire recently picketed a bin depot and called on workers not to cross it. Bin workers held a mass meeting outside the depot and voted not to cross.

If unions had emailed bin workers to ask if they wanted to cross the result could have been very different. But the strikers talked to bin workers, and the bin workers argued with each other—collectively considering all the arguments. This made the difference.

Socialists fight for workers to be active and not simply look to other people to lead them. We want people to fight for control over their own struggles and feel empowered from being involved in them.

That means arguing for mass meetings, and workplace and union branch organisation—things where all workers can come together, discuss and argue, and organise action.

This self-activity builds confidence and makes workers aware of their own power. And ultimately these things can help workers build a different world altogether.

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Article information

Tue 26 Jun 2012, 17:32 BST
Issue No. 2309
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