L'auteur évoque les principaux changements qu'ont connus les syndicats ouvriers au cours de leurs cent ans d'histoire, comment leurs objectifs, leurs structures, leurs membres et leurs méthodes d'action ont évolue au gré des périodes et de l'environnement social. Il s'interroge sur les caractéristiques actuelles du mouvement, sur le bien-fondé aujourd'hui des privilèges qui leur ont été accordés au cours des années et sur leur statut présent: sont-ils des organismes prives, publics ou semi-publics?
The trade union movement in Canada has influenced and has been influenced by the Canadian society as a whole. From a movement, young and dynamic, with noble objectives and a minimal structure, trade unions have become highly sophisticated organizations, bureaucratie and self-reproducing.
Four periods can be identified, corresponding tothe following approximate dates:
1. a period of illegality because of their activities in restraint of trade (1825-1875),
2. a period of foundation-building (1875-1935),
3. a period of growth and development, because of major legal privilèges (1935-1975), and
4. a period of uncertainties (since 1975).
Legal context is of crucial importance in the history of trade unions in Canada. With the Trade Union Act of 1872, no union could be sued anymore for acting in restraint of trade. The Industrial Disputes Investigation Act of 1907 imposed a conciliatory intervention by a governmental third party in certain disputes before strike action could be resorted to. The major and definitive development came as a result of the adoption of the Wagner Act in the U.S.A., in 1935, and of P.C. 1003 in Canada in 1944. Legislation instituting collective bargaining in the public sector gave a second spring to the unions in the 1960s. Since the 1970s, most legislation regarding unions has been rather restrictive.
Trade unions in Canada first developed on the British type or model, around 1825, among trades people, like typographers and shoemakers. Since 1850, some union locals were organized on the American model. All these first unions in Canada had a local or regional character. The first lasting efforts to bring together trade unions in Canada came with the foundation of the Trades and Labour Congress in 1883. Development was slow until the 1930s. Besides legislation, the major factor for unionization at that period was the establishment, in 1934, of the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938, in the U.S.A.), and the foundation of the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), in Canada, in 1940. Growth and development was spectacular from 1940 to around 1956, when the Trades and Labour Congress and the Canadian Congress of Labour merged to form the present Canadian Labour Congress.
Besides the unionization of public sector employees, the major event of the 1960s and the 1970s was the movement by Canadian locals of international unions to form separate unions, like the Canadian Paperworkers and the Canadian Automobile Workers. Around 1960, about 75% of the union members in Canada belonged to an international or North-American union; 15 years later, the proportion was down to 40%. Another important feature of the present situation is the multiplicity of central bodies and the great number of unaffiliated groups, this last category representing 20% of all the union membership in Canada.
Currently, certification is limited mostly to small professional or semiprofessional groups. In a sense, this is a return to the craft union situation of yesteryears.
The continued growth of the degree of unionization in Canada since 1960, as opposed to the American situation, is a direct result of Canadian legislation on collective bargaining for public sector employees. The total degree of unionization has now reached a plateau, a little below 40Vo. This stability implies a levelling-off and even a decline in union membership in the private sector of the economy, since the beginning of the 1960s; it now stands at around 25 Wo.The trade union movement has grown in Canada through direct efforts of organizing the workers at the base level, by signing union cards, since its beginnings until World War II. From that time on, with the legislation on certification and the duty to bargain, coupled with stringent union security clauses in the collective agreements, the shift in emphasis has moved from organizing the employees to organizing the employers: unions expanded their position by widening the base of collective bargaining. To obtain and to keep representation of government employees, efforts moved towards «organizing governments» in the last decades.
Partly because of this evolution, trade unions have become less and less a movement and more and more an organization. Ideologies and goals of the trade union movement have changed over time, but not in a simple and direct line. The only element of continuity is the permanent dominating-presence of business unionism, especially since the Gompers era and the beginnings of the American Federation of Labor. Radical and marxist unionism has always existed, but with different degrees of importance and influence, according to times and regions.
The trade union movement has always been involved to some extent in politics and political activities, but was never really successful in that field.
Comments and observations
The basic objective of the trade union movement has always been to obtain better working conditions for the working people. The historical word of Gompers, «More», summarizes this objective. But it should be noted that the trade union movement efforts to get more have always been concentrated on its own members; and its members have always been among the better-off categories of the working people: the tradesmen of the XIXth century, the mass production employees of the mid-XXth century, and now the public sector employees and a good number of professionals.
One of the basic tenets of the trade union movement has been the right and freedom of association. In principle, it has had great success in that field, since most if not all Labour Relations Acts of this country begin with a statement along the following lines: «Every employee has the right to belong to the association of employees of his choice, and to participate in the formation, activities and management of such association.» But in practice this has come to mean all employees hired in a firm where there is a union and a collective agreement are compelled to join that union, or at least to pay the union dues. The right to belong to the association of one's own choice has been replaced by an obligation. It will be fascinating to follow the discussion in how this situation conforms or not with the basic rights and freedoms enshrined in the various Charters of rights.
North American labour relations are said to be moulded in an adversary System, where there are two groups of people, management on one side and those who carry out the orders on the other side. This has not prevented a good many experiments in labour-management cooperation. The concession bargaining episode of the early 1980s has done a lot in that direction. The current question is what about the future?
Most recent events have confirmed the view that this period of important labour management cooperation might have been an exception to the general rule rather than a new rule; we have seen confrontation back into the collective bargaining scene, especially in the public sector.
Since 1965, some provinces, and the federal government, have enacted legislation to impose a certain measure of democracy in the life of union locals, for instance, the obligation to take ratification votes and strike votes. The problem is not with the provision but with its application. The decision to hold such a vote and its timing are left entirely to the union itself through its business agent or its elected representatives.
As time has passed, the trade union movement has become one of the most if not the most conservative group in our society. Any change in its current position is almost impossible to achieve, except in dramatic cases likely to spur public opinion to support the government that would dare limit its privileges. In fact, the trade unions movement has received many privileges and advantages over the years, to protect its growth and survival, in its role to defend the underdog.
Among these privileges, there are a number of immunities or special protection from the law. The first was introduced when it was decided that trade unions could not be sued for acting in restraint of trade. More recently, through practice rather than by law, trade unions have become almost immune from any criminal accusation for actions done during a labour conflict. It has become so common-place to sign a return-to-work protocol including the withdrawal of any legal action that labour conflicts can be considered in practice as free from any responsibility regarding any action during such conflicts.
Different provisions have shifted the burden of proof from the employee or the union onto the employer in many cases, for instance following union organization activities by an employee, or on his return to work after an accident or a complaint to the Employment Standards Agency. This shift of the burden of proof creates a very special situation for the litigants. In dealing with certification and the definition of the bargaining units, the local union is declared (with the employer, recently) the only interested party, excluding all the employees concerned who many not be heard by the Board before the decision is made. All these provisions, together with those pertaining to the so-called successor rights, have contributed to put the unions in a very special and privileged situation. They have contributed significantly to push their change from a movement to an institution or organization.
Most if not all these problems point to one basic question: is a trade union local or a trade union federation, a private, a public, or a semi-public body? The question is not merely theoretical; it has a lot of very practical implications. If a union is a private organization, it should have the freedom to develop as it wishes; but it cannot claim at the same time privileges that other groups do not have. If it is a public body, these privileges may be justified, but the union will have corresponding obligations towards society, among others the obligation to submit to a greater surveillance and to accept specific limitations on certain types of activities.
To give but one example: a public of semi-public body cannot enter into direct or even indirect political activities, like supporting a political party, nor can it promote a particular ideologial System. A group cannot play on different levels and win on all at the same time.
The trade union movement has the right to obtain justice, corresponding to it current and real status, not to its former activities, the same as any other organization of the same category or type. Eminently, society must see to it that all working people and ail citizens are granted the same rights and share the same responsibilities, and that the basic rights of ail citizens are equally respected and protected. There should be no second-class citizens before the law, perhaps no first-class either.
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