Democracy is a class concept
Bosses said "right to work" was democratic because it allows individuals to refuse to pay union dues. In Missouri, workers in huge majorities voted it down as "undemocratic" because it took away their rights as workers to join unions that could effectively represent their interests on the job where bosses normally try to remove even the pretenses of democracy. | Charlie Riedel/AP

In today’s rapidly shifting political climate one of the debates taking place concerns the status of “democracy” in the United States. As with “freedom,” everyone, from every political shade, is for it while surprisingly fewer have a solid, objective understanding of what it actually means.

As the old adage goes: “’Freedom’ for the fox means freedom to eat the chicken, but ‘freedom’ for the chicken means freedom from the fox!”

I remember landing in Cuba with the first Venceremos Brigade in 1969, putting my fist in the air and yelling; “Power to the people!”  To which some of the Cubans there asked, “Power for which people?  To do what, in whose interests?”

“Freedom” and “democracy,” are generally seen as “good” concepts. It is this fact about them that has allowed corporate ruling classes to use the terms in their arsenal of weapons against working people and against attempts by workers to build any kind of alternative to capitalism. This applies very much to the former socialist countries and to efforts by workers and their allies to build socialist societies.

Working-class organizations, unions and political parties that claim to operate in the interest of workers, among them some communist parties, have, unfortunately, at times, bought into a ruling class trap that has been laid with regards to the issues of democracy and freedom.

Example: We all believe in “free” elections.  However, the presence of free elections alone is insufficient as a definition of democracy.  Plato’s slave republic, the slave-owning Confederacy,  the Jim Crow South and even many monarchies held elections.  We held elections until 1920 with women denied the vote, and our Supreme Court recently upheld the “right” of corporate, right-wing administrations to gerrymander districts, making it extremely difficult to challenge pro-corporate incumbents.  These are all “democracies,” but of a type controlled by our class enemies.

Under pressure from a wide variety of corporate media/social sources, our movement sometimes downgrades our understanding of democracy as something that should function as a tool of workers and as something that is in the interest of workers and their allies who form the overwhelming majority of the people.

Cuba’s non-partisan, all-inclusive, local elections to bodies that do truly run that society are tremendous examples.  I was amazed when, on a trip to the Soviet Union, Soviet steelworkers told us that their bosses were elected, or un-elected, and that (workers) controlled production.

What of the role of Soviet Communists in recognizing and fighting anti-Semitism and national discrimination by developing autonomous areas for national minorities that wanted them?   The empowering of anti-Nazi resistance fighters and intense education against racism were examples of democracy in the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany before it was absorbed into West Germany.

The left and communists, in particular, should never abandon these and other examples of definitions of democracy. Walking away from this fight allows our corporate enemies to win this question ideologically and to weaponize it in their fight against not only socialism but against the idea that there is even an alternative to capitalism.  We can see the horrible disaster this type of thinking has wrought for the world’s people!

We had a situation in 1990 at the 8,500-worker Republic Works in Lorain, Ohio, that brought some of these lessons home to many of us, in a kind of home-town, on-the-job kind of way.

Background to this struggle includes the year-long lockout during the previous contract fight, which, while it gained pension, wage and shop floor gains, had difficult economic, social consequences for workers and their families.  Nobody wanted to see a repeat!

The union, USW, and company, Republic, in the interim period had entered into a Labor-Management Partnership’ Agreement.  In the union’s interest, it was to be a “problem-solving” agreement that would involve workers in some management and give workers a chance to speak up in areas previously closed off to them.  The company spoke positively, saying they were only in it to “have a better, more democratic, workplace, and see happier, more involved and productive workers.”

Those of us on the left saw it differently, but we’d not been as active since the big lockout.  The left, around a steelworker’s Communist Party club and the Rank & File Committee in the union, saw things from a working-class perspective.  We saw a company that now had found a way into our union, that wanted to split our local from the strong Steelworker’s USW international union, undermine participation in our union and ultimately destroy it.

Workers and their families were nervous, concerned as the contract deadline grew closer.  For the regular worker, the main issue was wanting peace, not another strike.  They wanted to keep what we’d won, just hoping that could be done without hitting picket lines again.  Unfortunately, the main local union leadership bought the partnership idea and did little to prepare for talks or for a potential fight.  While the International folks were deeply involved in preparing for negotiations, knowing they wouldn’t be easy, the company saw an opportunity.

Management suddenly was our “best friend,” buying into this “partnership” idea with a vengeance!   They built the labor-management teams, but, in violation of the agreement, they chose the workers instead of the local union doing so.  The main local leadership did not object.  The company put out their own newspaper now, with union workers (chosen by them) editing it.  Teams began to reach little “agreements” violating contractual language, excluding some workers, creating divisions.  Again, the main local leadership did little.  As contract talks opened, the local president rode to talks with the company PR guy, rather than other unionists.  The company newspaper turned things up a notch, now talking of wanting “democracy,” “labor peace” and, of course, “flexibility.”

Things began to reach a crisis mode, as the company paper began to speak about a “new, more cooperative management team,” and hinting of a free-floating “company offer.”  This wonderful company offer would require no strike, and, (Heaven help us all) an actual raise!  “Why won’t the union let us all vote on this wonderful company proposal?” was the demand from the “partnership” paper.  The union, they said, was “undemocratic!”

Suddenly, there was a petition, on glossy, expensive paper, stating all signees “demand the democratic right to vote on the company proposal.”  Worse yet, this was now being coupled with the demand for “our own local, separate from the big International in Pittsburgh, and form our own Lorain local.”  We also heard of a decertification petition being circulated, to disaffiliate with the USW.

The Rank and File Committee saw the developments as very dangerous and that, if implemented, would lead to an isolated, powerless, ‘company-union,’ which would be brushed aside, destroyed by the company.  They got back together, began to agitate against it, speaking at union meetings, in break shanties, etc.  The Rank and File pushed a narrative, sarcastically calling the demand to vote on the company proposal an “ice cream poll.” (“Do you like ice cream?”)

The real break-point came when the local union called a huge mass meeting at a local high school to discuss the company proposal.

It was a circus!  Not just union members, but wives, husbands, neighbors, foremen, bosses and company agents, everyone but the family dogs showed up, with the expected chaos.  Workers screamed at each other, nobody could hear.  We found out that the “partnership” appointees were sitting near the stage and planned to present a motion to allow a vote on the company proposal without union oversight and to separate ourselves from the powerful USW.  Rank & File activists started a fight among the company folks, to take them out of things and had their own motion quickly raised to:

“Support our International Union, USW, and do all necessary, including strike if necessary to win a decent contract!”

While it passed “unanimously,” company reps screamed that we were “undemocratic!”

Events moved quickly then.  We called the company rep, the local newspaper, with news that we “got our strike vote, and it was unanimous!”  The International brought in trailers and burn barrels, placing them at every gate overnight.  The Rank & File group got a copy of the ‘wonderful’ company proposal and got out an overnight flyer.  It seems the ‘wonderful’ proposal would’ve wiped out the pension program which was at the heart of what we’d spent a year out for.  It allowed contractors to take most mill jobs and eliminated shop floor union rights.  Grievance procedure was restricted, civil rights wiped out, and forced overtime OK’d.

Suddenly, the spell was lifted!  You could literally feel the political shift when you walked into the mill.  Our old buddies, our union sisters/brothers were back and the “Stepford Wives” nightmare was over.  While they whined and called us “undemocratic,” the company sat down and hammered out a decent contract with our union.  We settled without a strike, but the threat of a strike, not capitulating to the company, is what did it!

I wish we could close this article with an “Alice in Wonderland” “lived happily ever after” type ending.  Unfortunately, Lorain Works is now owned by a Mexican company, the latest of many ownership changes, and is again in contract talks.  There are now fewer than a thousand workers in the mill.  The entire working class has taken horrible hits, but this fight is one that hopefully goes into steelworker history/tradition.  We can only hope that our new union sisters/brothers are able to learn of this fight and gain from this struggle and its lessons.

An important lesson we drew from this fight was that our corporate enemy will, if we fight for our own interests, ALWAYS call us “undemocratic.”  Only if we capitulate to company demands will they bless us by calling us “democratic.”  However, we understood much better now that democracy only meant something real if workers were educated, had a strong union and fought to protect themselves.  Further, workers’ democracy is something that only workers can implement and must be involved in.  Finally, democracy needs to be tied to real economic issues, in the workers’ interest, and we must involve/educate and fight to defend our gains.  What our class enemies call us, in defense of their own class interests, is irrelevant!

Meanwhile, the question of “democracy,” and its application to our working-class science/class struggle needs to be seriously studied.  Hopefully, this article can help that process a little.


Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.