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Do core doctrines of labor-relations law obstruct the internal democratic governance of labor unions in the United States? Union democracy is likely an essential precondition for the broader strategic and organizational changes unions must undertake in order to recruit new union members — the labor movement’s cardinal priority. Yet according to widely accepted wisdom, the weakness of democracy within labor unions is the unavoidable outcome of an “iron law of oligarchy” that operates in all such membership-based organizations. This Article challenges this conventional thinking and argues that the triumph of oligarchy over democracy in US labor unions is not inevitable, but conditioned on the nature of American labor law. The main message is that labor law will directly or indirectly undermine what I call “workplace association,” a decisive strategic component in the florescence of union democracy, when, as in the US, it (1) provides for exclusive representation, (2) establishes institutions and procedures for collective bargaining, and (3) inhibits the use of economic “self help” as alternatives to such procedures. To reach this conclusion, the Article develops a game-theoretic model of union democratization, formalized in the Appendix, that highlights the role of union bureaucracy and workplace association in the success or failure of union democracy. The Article then uses the model to analyze the impact of US labor law on this game of union democracy, and makes comparison to Great Britain, where labor law has contrasted dramatically, with equally divergent results for union democracy.

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Denver University Law Review

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