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Iron Law Of Oligarchy




This essay will explain the iron law of oligarchy and see if trade union officials in Zambia

exhibit oligarchic tendencies. It will start by defining some terms and then give a detailed
account of the behaviour of trade union officials in Zambia in relation to the iron law of
oligarchy and finally ends with a conlusion. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the
term oligarchy as a small group of people having contol of a country or an organisation such
as a political party, a trade union and so on. Janoski et al. (2005, p. 276) states that an
oligarchy result when a small coalition exercises power under complete institutionalisation.
According to Borgatta and Montgomery, the iron law of oligarchy was Robert
Michels’conclusion regarding the necessity of elite rule in modern societies (Vol. 3, p,. 2643).
In essence, the iron law of oligarchy postulates that any complex organisation self-generate
its own elite that has disproportional influence on the decisions made in the organisation.
According to Michels such an elite is autonomous from the rank and file members and is little
affected by by elections (1915, p. 368)
Cole defines trade unions as associations of workers in one or more proefessions carried on
mainly for the purpose of protecting and advancing the members’collective action, the
economic and social status in connection with their daily work (Cited in Sinha 2009, p. 67).
Monappa sees the primary role of trade unions as to protect the workers and to chanelise their
efforts into more rational directions so that the viability of the organisation can be enhanced
(2007, p. 51).
In Zambia there are currently 25 trade unions according to the Commonwealth of Nations
with the two major groupings being the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the
Federation of Free Trade Union in Zambia. The officials managing the day to day operations
of these trade unions constitute a small group of people or elite in comparison with the entire
followership of that union. This arrangement, according to Michels, constitute an iron law of
oligarchy because all organisations including those committed to democratic ideals and
practices will inevitably succumb to the rule by an elite few or oligarchy (1915, p. 364).
According to the iron law of oligarchy there is always a small number of persons in an
organisation who actually make decisions despite authority seemingly being vested in in the
body of the membership. Thus the iron law of oligarcy stands in stark opposition to pluralism
and suggests that participatory democracy is a utopian idea and that democracy is always
limited to very narrow strata of existing oligarchy.


Once elected into office these promises are rarely fulfilled as the these union officials become relaxed especially with the passage of time. These factors include: a). formal organizations.e.” There is also a tendency of some trade union officials in Zambia to be at the helm of the union longer than would be necessary. This is because these organisations are usually run by a few individuals who make most decisions resulting into them ultimately developing into oligarchies. 362). Michels’ further laments “Who says organization says oligarchy. Borgatta and Montgomery (Vol. According to him. During the end of tenure of office. 2643) attributes the prolonged stay in power to some union officials having resources available to them and these resources give them numerous advantages in maintaining their power over the unorganised rank and file or ordinary members of a group. like all forms of formal organizations are subject to an ‘iron law of oligarchy‘ (1915. and even how approachable they will be to their members. p. The oligarchic tendencies of the officials in Zambian trade unions can be traced to a numder reasons. 3. This been reinforced by Borgatta and Montgomery (Ibid. accomodation and transport allowances. c). the fact that general participation in trade union affairs by the vast majority of the people is practically impossible. rigid and non-democratic. 2644) who have observed that over time the leaders who have been co-opted into the trade union develop similar intererst and intra-elite attachments that reflect their elevated positions and they end up separating themselves from the members they are suppose to represent. Trade union officials in Zambia have always been finding ways to increase their overall membership. such as trade unions or political parties. the natural human desire or avarice for power. Michels (1915) has identified a number of reasons for the tendency towards oligarchic control. the need for an efficient and expert decision making structure or system. One would say the larger the union body the more the leaders will be detached 2 . some would be officials usually make numerous promises to the electorates such as trade unions reforms. workers’ better coditions of service i. During campaigns enroute to trade union elections. p. those who have plans to challenge the incumbent may not find it easy to be co-opted because the existing union officials keep on recontesting the elections.Michels argues by stating that the structural pattern of trade union organization is essentially bureaucratic. p. which is never usually the case. b).

from their members. the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions existed as a sole mother body to which all the unions where affiliated to. Nyirenda and Shikwe (2003. Monappa (2007. These splinter trade unions later formed a federation known as the Federation of Free Trade Unions of Zambia (FFTUZ). political interference and selfishness among trade union officials.) the formation of this federation was as a result of the differences among the trade union officials after the quadrennial congress. 366) observed. For instance. p. This has led to trade unions splitting resulting in the formation of new unions. p. The existence of a large number of unions has also led to inefficient efforts to change or introduce new legislation so as to improve the welfare of workers.). as the organization becomes larger. 18) contends that before 1991 the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions enjoyed the monopoly of being the sole trade union federation with the legal framework prescribing it to exist as such. According to Nyirenda and Shikwe (Ibid. there are now currently 25 trade unions according to the Commonwealth of Nations. recruitment into the leadership structure of trade unions as formal organizations is drawn from the rank of those with experience and expertise in union matters. This meant that one official was the overall head of these sub unions. Nyirenda and Shikwe further add that breakaway unions from ZCTU have joined the FFTUZ due to among other things dissatisfaction with the services provided by the original unions. One major issue or challenge for trade unions in Zambia is their structural rigidity and lack of internal democracy. for example. p. 51) argues that the existence of a large number of unions has led to the diffusion of union power at the top and therefore damages political leverage of trade union officials and this is an act of oligarchy. the smaller the controlling elite becomes. In Zambia. there are a number of trade unions representing workers in the teaching profession in Zambia each with its own leaders. In their paper. As Michels (1915. which could have been possible if there was one cohesive body (Ibid. Also. For example. The lack of internal democracy in Zambian trade unions has been witnessed by the creation of more unions in the recent past. 18) states that Zambia had 19 trade unions before the ratification of ILO Convention 87 and the subsequent amendment of the Zambian Industrial Relations and Labour Unions Act of 1997 which gave birth to other trade unions. p. Nyirenda and Shikwe (2003. Thus it is difficult for these different unions to unite over a common cause of demands of their members as their different ideologies make 3 . members campaigning for positions usually put emphasis on their past experience in union matters.

The immediate consequence of lack of democracy is the development of inter-personal or inter-group conflicts within the unions. According to this thesis of Max Weber. according to C. those elected are usually the products of the present leaders and or ex-leaders of the unions. This inexorably leads to oligarchic control by small elite. powerless and moulded by mass culture dictated by the 4 .e. This attitude of the union officials is thus seen to be oligarchic. may stay longer in power due to lack of challengers among the rank and file members. general workers. However. mass apathy and acquiescence among the rank and file members. Weber has further observed that trade unions as bureaucratic organizations are affected by this structural malaise. 1956). usually with some decent level of education. leadership succession is usually governed by grooming and a period of tutelage (Mills. Officials in these unions. 365) observed. especially those of the ordinary rank and file. Wright Mills who contends that the structure of any trade union organization is no doubt democratic as the officers of the unions are elected. Wright Mills. The estrangement that occurs leaves the masses of workers sullenly ignorant. This according to Mills (1956) makes it easy for the masses to be easily manipulated and exploited by the ruling elites who rule in their own interest. Furthermore. The rigid structure of power and its tendency towards oligarchic control of trade unions often leads to alienation. p. leadership has become increasingly professionalized and this has led to power being concentrated in bureaucracies. The obvious reason is that the leadership of most of the unions had become aristocratic and oligarchic. large-scale organisations no matter how democratic its official ideology is. the stability of bureaucratic organizations is also bedevilled by intransigent and unanswerable elite of power holders. Some trade unions membership in Zambia may constitute people with minimal education i. requires a division of labour between expert officials and rank and file members. states that with the modernization of society. The selection of trade union leadership in Zambia may sometimes present a facade of democratic process but in reality. Weber (1947). the unions are not immune from the effects of modernization on the larger society where rationalization of thought is increasingly gaining ground. As Michels (1915. The foregoing has been echoed by C. Some of the decisions taken by the elitist leaders do not usually reflect majority impossible to take a united stance with each union’s officials seeking to gain more leverage from a bargaining process.

Weber (1947) in a similar vein argues that the concentration of power in the hands of a bureaucratic elite puts enormous amount of human. respected and consulted either as patrons or ex-officio members of the unions. nurses at the 5 . p. Michels (1915. Gordon has further stated “A system is oligarchic if policies are determined by a small group of leaders and there is no mechanism which ensures that these policies correspond in any way with the wishes of the members. Trade union officials have failed to have these workers reinstated despite them making financial contributions on a monthly basis.) Sometimes workers have lost their jobs due to what employers have described as illegal strike. but succession is usually determined by the fact that new leaders of trade unions are drawn from those that have in the union for a relatively longer period. material and intellectual resources under its firm and rigid control. In this case. their views or opinion may be regarded or seen as sacrosanct and highly respected. The workers may not be happpy but union officials usually defy their anger and nevertheless remain in power as was the case with the nurses at the Unversity Teaching Hospital. Gordon (1971.” A case in time is where the union members suggest to their officials that they should negotiate for a minimum of thirty percent and the union officials only only manage twelve percent. they are deemed an oligarchy. These opinion shapers are usually made up of former leaders of the unions who have become referential. about two years ago. Michels further conteds that in times of strike. This leads to the entrenchment of power in the hands of the elite at the top of the hierarchical ladder of control. Elections in Zambian trade unions are usually held in accordance with democratic norms of political parties in general elections. p. the trade union members are often sulky but they never rebel for they do not have the ability to punish the treachery of the the union officials (Ibid. For example.ruling oligarchy. This is usually done without the consulting the rank and file members of the union. 157) asserts that the iron law of oligarchy is just a new name for the central elitist principle that trade union is infact leadership by a few. 158) gives an example of the miners of the Ruhr basin in 1905 who were enraged with their leaders when they had taken it upon themselves to declare the great miners’ strike over. Because trade union officials in Zambia constitute a minority compared with the members. Consequently. Trade Union officials in Zambia sometimes will beseech their members to go back to work despite having taken longer than necessary in their negotiations with respective employers.

Trade unions have a tendency. This view is aslo echoed by Duverger (1963) who acknowledged that all systems of governannce are necessarily oligarchic in the sense that it is virtually impossible for everyone to equally participate in decision making. p. 51) has observed that multiple trade unions leads to union officials squabbling among themselves for dominance thus depriving their members of the wages they are expected to receive after negotiations. Due to non compliance to the government’s directive the nurses were fired. The government ordered them to return to work despite their demands not having been met. This observation has been echoed by critics of trade union democracy (Lipset 1961. p. a defeat usually means having to return to a relatively low-status. 6) who agues that union democracy is one of the causes of irresponsible bargaining demands and unnecessary strikes. p. Monappa (2007. of becoming highly bureaucratised resulting in rank and file union members inevitably being controlled by a tiny minority in process thwarting democratic aspirations within the union structures (Burgmann and Burgmann 1998. failed to have them reinstated but the union officials remained in office despite that development. According to Lipset (1961. the country’s largest referral hospital have been dismissed with immediate effect for participating in what government is calling a wild-cat strike. During union elections. 63). 6 . Part of a story carried out in the Zambia Daily Nation Newspaper dated 30th November 2013 read as follows: “All striking nurses and midwifes at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH). low-paying occupation.” The trade union officials at Civil Servants and Allied Workers Union of Zambia (CSAWUZ). Furthermore. 12) most union officials have risen from the ranks of industrial workers to prestigious positions allowing them to enjoy many middle class comforts.University Teaching Hospital and other government hospitals went on strike. Lipset sees many union officials. Zambia inclusive. as being led by self-interest to circumvent efforts at greater membership control and democratic rights in order to remain in office (Ibid. The iron law of oligarcy among Zambian trade union officials is also exhibited by the multiplicity of the unions. as Robert Michels cautioned. p. the union which the nurses are affiliated to. the full time union functionary is powerfully motivated to maintain himself in office.). those union leaders who face the possibility of desposition in a succeeding election seek to justify their incumbency by a show of extreme militancy in advocating major improvements in the management of union affairs. In this case.

The multiplicity of unions within one profession. Also. trade union officials in Zambia have a challenge on how to consult their members to come up with a collective agreement. for example teaching. implies that they are usually internal wrangles within these unions. Some trade union officials have made office bearing like full-time employment. they turn into oligarchies with power concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.In conclusion it has been seen that trade union officials in Zambia exhibit the iron law of oligarchy. internal democracy is practiced in these unions but a common trend is that same individuals are returned into office over and over on the premise that they have experience in union affairs. despite these organizations having been formed to fight for greater internal democracy and improved welfare of their employees. 7 . One would be tempted to conclude that these union internal wrangles among officials are due to various benefits accrued to them by virtue of their positions. Thus. Usually.

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