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Frontiers of LaborComparative Histories of the United States and Australia$
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Greg Patmore and Shelton Stromquist

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780252041839

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252041839.001.0001

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How to Build a Trade Union Oligarchy

How to Build a Trade Union Oligarchy

Guidance from the United States and Australia, 1886–1970

(p.227) How to Build a Trade Union Oligarchy
Frontiers of Labor

Scott Stephenson

University of Illinois Press

Trade unions are ostensibly democratic organizations, but they often fail to operate as democracies in practice. Most studies of Western trade union democracy have acknowledged that oligarchy is the norm among unions but have nonetheless examined exceptional democratic unions to understand how those unions defied the trend. My study inverts this approach and instead examines two known oligarchical unions, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in the United States. I argue that union oligarchy requires certain conditions to thrive. Both unions lacked democratic rules, close-knit occupational communities, local autonomy, rank-and-file decision making, internal opposition, equality between members and officials, and free communication, but these absences were expressed in different ways in each organization. Comparing a prominent US union with a prominent Australian union allows for assessment of the extent to which oligarchy was the result of national context. I argue that the experience of trade union oligarchy in the United States and Australia was more similar than different. National differences between the two countries were important, but they manifested primarily as different methods to achieve similar outcomes.

Keywords:   Democracy, Oligarchy, Australian Workers Union, AWU, United Automobile Workers, UAW, occupational community

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