À partir d’une revue de la littérature anglo-saxonne, l’article offre une synthèse des principaux écrits sur les théories du syndicalisme. Il présente la première vague théorique où le syndicalisme est considéré soit comme un agent de la révolution, de transformation ou d’accommodement du capitalisme. Dans la seconde vague théorique, le syndicalisme est plutôt considéré comme un acteur interagissant avec l’employeur. C’est donc en regard de l’existence ou non d’un conflit fondamental d’intérêts entre les employeurs et les travailleurs que les théories s’articuleront. La pertinence contemporaine des diverses contributions théoriques est également analysée. Les auteurs concluent que, parmi les approches de la première vague, la théorie du syndicalisme d’affaires demeure la plus éclairante bien que cette forme de syndicalisme comporte aujourd’hui une dimension d’engagement social dépassant les milieux de travail. Mais la régulation des conditions de travail par la négociation collective demeure cependant la fonction première de l’activité syndicale.
This article begins with an overview of the foremost texts dealing with the main theories of trade unionism, based upon a review of the Anglo-Saxon literature on the subject. Secondly, the authors discuss the relevance of these various theoretical contributions to an understanding of labour in its present form. The authors conclude that the theory of business unionism, as developed by Commons and Perlman, has indeed passed the test of time, with the nuance that this form of trade unionism today involves a social activist dimension, which goes beyond the workplace narrowly defined, even though the joint regulation of working conditions via collective bargaining remains at the heart of trade union activity.
A review of Anglo-Saxon scientific literature (Poole 1981; Perlman 1958; Hyman 1989; Larson and Nissen 1987) enables us to distinguish two very distinct periods within the theoretical work examining trade unionism. The first period extends from the end of the 19th century up to 1930s. Development of the theoretical corpus and the overwhelming majority of theories of trade unionism date from this period. Since then, with few exceptions, analyses and theories have tended to study labour relations in a broader analytical framework, and have not tackled trade unionism, as such, as their core theme of investigation.
Poole (1981) attributes this change in direction to Dunlop’s introduction of the systemic approach to industrial relations. Indeed, Dunlop (1958) makes his contribution at a time when empiricism was the dominant intellectual force in the academic community. In this connection, his model provided numerous possibilities and all the more so, since at first glance, it appeared to be ideologically and politically “neutral”. The absence of major theoretical developments during the second half of the twentieth century is also due to the institutionalization of collective bargaining relationships in North America. The US Wagner Act and its Canadian counterparts would come to settle the questions regarding the status, the role, the function and the goals of trade unionism. From this point on, the challenges and issues characterizing trade unionism become more focused upon the workplace and finally culminate in the decentralized negotiation of better working conditions for employees within the confines of business unionism.
Our presentation of the various theoretical contributions draws upon the typology initially developed by Perlman (1958) and basically reworked by Poole (1981) and Larsen and Nissen (1987). The authors have classified all the theories into five currents that primarily differ according to the social and economic functions each posits for trade unionism. An ideology or vision vis-à-vis the structures of capitalist society is thus either implicitly or explicitly present in each one of these five theoretical groupings.
Even though Marx formulated a theory on the history of capitalist development and not on trade unionism as such, the fact remains that each theoretical grouping is influenced by his writings, either by fully or partially incorporating Marx’s political thinking, or else by being explicitly designed to dismiss it. Accordingly, the Catholic approach, Commons’ American school and Veblen’s psychological paradigm hypothesize that workers accept capitalism’s form of production and power arrangements and that workers form unions in order to counteract the perverse effects of the latter or to gain a greater share of the surplus value. In the opposite corner, where trade unionism is seen as a social movement, it draws upon Marx’s thinking to ascertain a conflict and a struggle between two classes, each having primarily antagonistic interests, who interact under the capitalist system. This notion, pushed to an extreme, culminates in the revolutionary school, which associates the trade union movement with class struggle. Finally, Webb’s welfarism anticipates the non-violent step-by-step emergence of a social democracy, where the State ensures that a certain degree of equity is reached between classes.
The writings of the second theoretical wave focus more upon the effects of trade unionism or upon its interactions with capital. The socio-political context of the period after the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War and finally the “glorious 30 years” will push researchers away from the Marxist-capitalist dialectic, which had characterized the first wave. From that point onwards, theorists will favour a functional analysis within the established system, without in any way neglecting its ideological bases. There will hence be discussions inspired by unitaristic, pluralistic and radical approaches, where the subject matter will be respectively the effect of lobbies, the actor’s role in the production of work rules and collective bargaining or then again, the articulation of industrial conflict.
The authors’ discussion attempts to position contemporary trade unionism vis-à-vis the theories that have been identified. The empirical observation of Canadian and Quebec trade union organizations leads us to believe that generally speaking, there exists today only one form of trade unionism, to which one might append some subtypes depending upon the presence or absence of social activism. Overall, Quebec and Canadian trade unionism is of a social-democratic or pluralistic nature. Indeed, it acknowledges the divergence between the interests of its members and those of their employers. It accepts this divergence and undertakes to make improvements to the workplace and to society at large, by means of collective bargaining, social policy demands and political action. Its political involvement will be directly related to the precedence it gives to representing the social interests of its members.
Canadian and Quebec trade unionism is fundamentally guided by a collective bargaining approach that is simultaneously concerned with the injustices in the society that surrounds it. This type of trade unionism does take on different forms that are related to the emphasis placed upon community issues and challenges, in other words, to its degree of social activism. For example, some unions favour a more cooperative approach with their employers and will limit their social action to professional matters. On the other side of the coin, there are the unions affiliated with the central labour bodies such as the CSN, the QFL or CLC and the CSQ who become involved in the overwhelming majority of the social issues of the day, such as the nationalist issue, social housing, unemployment, access to daycare or political democracy. Finally, even within the same central labour body, distinctions must be made. For example, the Teamsters and CUPE do not necessarily practise the same kind of trade unionism. However, there’s no doubt in our minds that regardless of the union, its foremost activity is collective bargaining and all its closely related pursuits. The balance is secondary to this principal activity of negotiating and enforcing collective agreements.
Marx’s scenario has not materialized and capitalism’s hegemony can no longer be called into question. But the actualization of Simons or Friedman’s theses is certainly not right around the corner either, at least not in our little corner of America.
A partir de un estudio de la literatura anglo-saxona, el articulo ofrece una síntesis de los principales escritos sobre las teorías del sindicalismo. Se presenta la primera ola teórica en que el sindicalismo es considerado sea como agente de la revolución, de transformación o de acomodación respecto al capitalismo. En la segunda ola teórica, el sindicalismo es más bien considerado como un actor que interactúa con el empleador. Es entonces con respecto a la existencia o no de un conflicto fundamental de intereses entre los empleadores y los trabajadores que las teorías se articulan. La pertinencia contemporánea de diversas contribuciones teóricas es analizada igualmente. Los autores concluyen que, dentro de los enfoques de la primera ola, la teoría del sindicalismo de negocio sigue siendo la mas clara aunque esta forma de sindicalismo comporta hoy una dimensión de compromiso social que depasa el medio laboral. Sin embargo, la regulación de condiciones de trabajo por la negociación colectiva sigue siendo la función primera de la creciente actividad sindical.
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