Accueil » 42-4 ( 1987) » Changements technologiques et modes régulateurs des relations du travail

Changements technologiques et modes régulateurs des relations du travail

Gilles Laflamme et Guylaine Vallée


Envisageant le changement comme enjeu des rapports du travail plutôt que comme source d'impacts, les auteurs adaptent l'approche stratégique à l'étude des relations du travail et du contrôle syndical du changement.


Most studies dealing with technological change, in spite of their diversity, have a point in common. They attempt to establish the effects of technological change on different aspects of the workplace: volume of work, working conditions, occupational health and safety, work control, etc. The present authors look at change as a factor in workplace relationships rather than as a source of impact. Moreover, they have opted for a strategic approach — as used in organizational sociology — in order to study industrial relations and union control of change.

The Strategic Approach

The strategic approach is an approach based on organizational sociology. It puts the accent on power relationships and control practices among the organizational actors to understand the real functioning of the organization. According to the strategic approach, each organization must be examined according to its concrete System of activity. The dynamics of the System is composed of the power relationships which guide alliances and the conflicts which characterize a given organization, making it evolve in one sense rather than another. The strategic approach postulates the existence of a formal organization based on both formal rules defined by the organization (organization chart, internai rules, hierarchical structure) and on a System of concrete action. The dynamics of the latter is not based on written rules or the hierarchical structure but on power relationships, which are formed between various bodies within the organization, and can be understood by the use of power.

The strategic approach to the organization has thus been applied according to the postulates examined above, to the study of industrial relations in the context of change. This has been done with the focus on control practices — particularly union control — revealed with regard to change in labour relations. Basing their work on case studies effected in unionized Quebec firms, the authors conclude that three parallel means of regulation monitor situations involving technological change and in turn run parallel to conventional judicial regulation. They include: bypassing the collective agreement, the decentralized «semi-conventional» process, and the negotiation of memoranda of understanding.

• Reference to the article on technological change in the collective agreement

Bypassing the collective agreement is the least frequent of the parallel means of regulation described. It consists of bypassing the relevant article on technological change and substituting for it an implantation procedure, including information as well as decentralized and informal consultation.

• The Decentralized «semi conventional» process

Usually, bypassing negotiated change articles is less precise and what appears is a decentralized «semi-conventional» process. In this case, either the specific practices are added to rights and obligations included in the collective agreement, or the stipulations of the collective agreement are used by the union on the strategic level to increase the control over change.

• Negociation of memoranda of understanding

The third means of regulation is the most frequent by far. Even firms using the other two moved toward this third means of regulation. In this case, negotiation of written memoranda of understanding is concluded and registered with the Department of Labour, giving them the same legal impact as the collective agreement. Two types of memoranda can be found: those negotiated during the duration of the collective agreement, and those signed at the moment of the signing of the collective agreement. The former relate to modifications unforeseeable at the time of negotiations, and establish specific measures with regard to the change in question. The latter deal with questions of particular interest which do not necessitate a specific article in the collective agreement.


Two characteristics permit the authors to define the System of concrète action of industrial relations with regard to technological change. They are first, the means of regulation parallel to the collective agreement which occupy an important place and second, the rules derived from these parallel means of control. The latter have a tendency to put aside seniority in order to manage the reduction of the workforce subsequent to changes. Although the limited number of firms studied does not permit generalization of results, it is nevertheless clear that our conclusions and the results of other existing research will allow us to formulate more general questions in future.

Certain studies indicate that the European System of collective negotiations, in recent years, has gone through a diversification of levels of negotiation, decentralization of negotiations, and new practices reducing the impact of negotiations in establishing working conditions. In the United States, Kochan also finds a tendency toward decentralization of negotiations where they were traditionnaly centralized, the appearance of concession bargaining, the appearance of new means of regulation challenging the collective agreement and relocating decision centres toward operational and strategic levels of the firm, and finally the appearance of non-unionized firms using these same practices of decision making.

The results obtained here tend to dovetail with tendencies observed by such other studies. They also, however, accentuate one point: unions are involved perhaps in spite of themselves, in the establishment of new means of regulation. They also reveal that unions can consider favourable other frameworks than the collective agreement in such a context and accordingly ajust their practice.