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L'intérêt public dans l'aménagement des relations du travail

Gérard Dion


L'intérêt public dans l'aménagement des relations du travail

Dans cette étude, l'auteur montre comment l'intérêt public est engagé dans les relations du travail. Il expose dabord ce que l'on entend par « intérêt public ». Ensuite, il envisage comment doit se comporter le gouvernement dans les questions d'intérêt public.


Public Interest in Labour Relations

Public interest is at stake in labour-management relations. Government intervention, which has been denied by the upholders of « laissez-faire » economy, is commonly accepted in all countries. However, what is meant by « public interest », and the degree and the form of government intervention lead to discussions.


Society as a whole is concerned with the establishment of labour-management relations in compliance with the fundamental rights of production agents and in the maintenance of public peace on one hand, and in the assurance of continuity in producing goods and services on the other. Public interest covers those two aspects at the same time. The first one consists in the existence and functioning of a convenient system of labour relations; the second one, in the possibility of satisfying the needs of the population.

At the society level, the needs for goods and services do not have the same importance ; therefore, they do not concern public interest in the same degree. Certain needs can only be satisfied by government initiative ; the satisfaction of others being taken care of by private initiative. In a country, as ours, where everything is not nationalized, the proper services provided by the State are a very function of general interest, and it is presumed that those assumed by the State also concern very much public interest. However, we must remember that other services, although exploited by private enterprise, also affect public interest : this is the reason why they have been usually called « public services ». Therefore, in any attempt to saveguard public interest, it is not so much the quality of the employer in labour relations which is important but the character of the service which is exploited.

In our labour-management relations system, collective bargaining is considered by all as being the most desirable means; it is an essential part of an economic system based on free enterprise, freedom of work, and freedom of association. Right at the beginning, it is admitted that divergent interests and viewpoints may exist, which are legitimate and may become conflictual. When the dispute cannot be solved through discussion, recourse is given to strike or lock-out in order to put a pressure on the other party. But a strike and lock-out lead to a stoppage in the production of a good or a service. The population or one part thereof is forced for a time to do away without that good or that service.

Any production stoppage involves some drawbacks for a third party. In what situation and at what time does a strike really affect public interest? When is common good really in danger ? Is it possible to determine it in advance, without taking into account all concrete circumstances ?

Public interest is a very difficult concept to define, as the concept of « good morals », « public order ». We have an insight of it, but to give a universally valuable and objective meaning is impossible. Public interest concept is essentially relative to time, places, to the state of civilization which a population is going through.

Public interest is without a shadow of doubt the interest of public at large, but there are many publics and their interests are sometimes incongruent or do not always command the same degree of importance. What is the proper scope of public interest is very limited. It is what is called « an emergency case », for instances, when public health or security is threatened, when the welfare of a population risks of undergoing serious and irreparable damage.

We are inclined to inflate the consequences of strikes and to call for immediate and radical governmental action, even when it is proven that those consequences do not present a threat to security and to the economy. Unconscious prejudices against strike utilization are easily hidden behind « reasons of common good », this one being not engaged as often as it is believed. Cyrus Ching, a man of experience, said : « A good case can be made for the statement that the nation has never really suffered seriously from a strike... There have been few, if any, real national emergencies resulting from labour-management conflicts... I can say, looking back on my own experience, pressure of that kind led me to refer matters to the President and we in the Federal Mediation Service proceeded on the basis that it was a national emergency. I confess that in regard to some of the instances there now is serious doubt in my mind as to the correctness of the label ».


The legislative branch must at first establish behavior frameworks which will enable the parties involved in the field of labour relations to come to an understanding and bring their disputes to an end.

The government cannot take an attitude of non-intervention when facing disputes in essential services and vital industries at the very critical moment when common good is really threatened. In those cases of general emergency situation, the decisions rendered by production agents are so intimately related to normal living conditions that they see their character changed into one of a political nature. Consequently, they fall into the scope of State action.

Any kind of external intervention which can be relied on and anticipated by either party leads to hamstring and even to destroy collective bargaining, since an unavoidable tendency exists for the party which feels weaker at the dispute to seek support and help from government. A series of well-defined procedures on the part of government will tend to entice either party to evaluate the cost of the terms of a voluntary agreement in line with what it would probably get if it did not come to an understanding or if the government interfered.

In labour relations, no panacea exists and it is impossible to get rid of all evils. Certain drawbacks must be accepted beforehand, which are the ransom of democracy and freedom. Totalitarian regimes undergo other evils that are worse.

To withstand a work stoppage must be the opportunity for third parties to consider the constant benefits they draw from the usual collaboration between workers and management.