Admettant que le syndicalisme et la coopération ont une origine commune, du moins en Europe, et qu'ils privilégient tous les deux un fonctionnement démocratique, on peut se demander pourquoi les relations du travail y sont apparemment si conflictuelles? Pour répondre à cette question, l'auteur s'arrête d'abord sur la spécificité coopérative pour montrer comment cette forme d'entreprise est plus complexe que les autres en raison du double rapport de sociétariat et d'activité et comment l'évolution de ce double rapport peut jouer sur l'intensité des conflits du travail. Ensuite, il tente d'illustrer cette problématique à partir d'une étude exploratoire des relations du travail dans les caisses populaires Desjardins.
If we assume that unionism and cooperativism have a common origin, we can well wonder why labour relations are sometimes more conflict-ridden in cooperatives than in other forms of enterprise. This article will attempt to answer the question, beginning with a theoretical reflection on the nature of the cooperative and then, with a survey of ten «Caisses populaires» or credit unions, belonging to the Mouvement Desjardins.
Social relations seem much more complex in cooperatives than in other forms of business. The cooperative can be defined as the «combination of a grouping of persons and an enterprise reciprocally linked through activities and through partnership. » In other words, besides the employer-employee work relations found in any business enterprise, the cooperative is also characterized by its dual relationship with the users or members, based both on partnership and on activities. These relations are codified in what are known as the cooperative's rules or by-laws (such as one member, one vote).
From this perspective, labour relations in these institutions are marked by changes in the relationship between the institution and its members and by the diverse forms cooperatives may take as associations involved in economie activity. The institutions experience periods of relative stability when the form of labour relations is in harmony with the institution's dual relationship with its members. In contrast, crises occur when the dual relationship with the members and labour relations are no longer in harmony. In this respect, we have identified three stages in the history of the Caisses.
A first stage, which we call the cooperative compromise, lasted from the origins of the cooperatives until the 1960's, and was characterized by employees acknowledging the cooperative nature of the Caisses. This compromise was made up of a kind of alliance between employees, members and management. It was based on the fact that that the Caisse populaire offers services almost exclusively to members of the parish community and on the fact that the principal aims of the Caisse were to improve living conditions for all citizens of the community, including the most underprivileged. Cooperative culture, based on traditional and religious values, was strong and shared by members and employees alike.
We call a second phase, from 1970-1980, the Fordist compromise. Following the breakdown of the alliance between employees, members and management, management and union agreed on new rules to live by, similar to those prevalent in capitalist enterprises. This new compromise was struck when the relationship with members ceased to be a relationship with an identified community, and became instead a relationship with clients of a financial institution. The Caisses had adopted new objectives, such as helping to build a strong Quebec economy. This was followed by increased centralization, and the rise of a new class of managers more sensitive to the needs of Quebec businesses than to immediate social problems. The rationalization of the labour force which began in this period served to substantiate the union view that the Caisses were business enterprises no different from any other.
Finally, after the 1981 recession, the Mouvement Desjardins was obliged to redefine its human resources policy. Its salary budget represented 54% of total costs, and competition was becoming tougher with the deregulation of financial services and the opening up of markets. Thus the rules were upset once again and conflicts (strikes) become harder fought and more numerous. Union strategy (the CNTU and the QFL mainly) focused on the demand for multi-workplace bargaining, whereby bargaining takes place at the same time in all the Caisses in a given region and follows one pattern. This strategy contributed to reinforcing the Fordist compromise. Strategy on the management side, though not as homogeneous, was directed at decentralizing bargaining and valorizing human resources in accordance with a philosophy of humanizing labour relations. With this aim in mind, management, particularly the Federation of Montreal and West of Montreal, decided to compete with the unions on their own terrain, namely wages and working conditions.
Management would bypass and even surpass the unions, with improvements in the work atmosphere and other areas not directly covered by the collective agreement. This strategy, based on individual participation and on management heavily investing into the corporate culture, is related to Philippe Messine's «California model».
Our investigative study not only analyzed management and union strategies, but also examined ten local Caisse branches. They varied in size, origin, types of service offered, etc. Some of them were unionized and others not. The most significant differences in labour relations appeared to be in the modes of management of the various local administrations. We were able to identify two main modes of management — the traditional and the so-called «new wave» style. The former is characterized by a certain degree of paternalism with a dose of arbitrariness and favourtism that varied from one branch to the other but was always significant.
Cooperative values represented a kind of religion for these managers. The latter management style was less prevalent (identified in only 10 to 15% of branches) but much more important than the former because it is based on a new management philosophy which forms the basis for current debates. Training courses aimed to generalize the style have been organized.
For the employees we interviewed, these experiences are too recent for them to make a true assessment yet. The employees do recognize, however, that this type of management has had tangible effects on the institutions involved, including a more harmonious work atmosphere and increased productivity. In Caisses which are unionized, the unions were judged as necessary for insurance purposes, but do not seem to be involved in the experiments. Unionized employees also expressed some dissatisfaction with their local unions and their central labour bodies. They seemed unhappy about the confrontational unionism they practised, which rejects the idea that the union itself should make proposais on the work environment. The employers, i.e. the cooperative institutions, for their part seem to have the wind in their salls in the area of human resources, while clearly the union side is on the defensive. The unions in these work environments risk losing ground instead of advancing unless they can update their practices.
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