Accueil » 25-1 ( 1970) » La C.S.N. et la société de consommation

La C.S.N. et la société de consommation

Jean Sexton


L'auteur présente le modèle de recherche utilisé lors de l'étude sur la Confédération des syndicats nationaux et la société de consommation, expose les difficultés rencontrées lors de la réalisation de ce travail et insiste sur les principales indications que l'on peut en retirer et les hypothèses que l’on est en droit de formuler.


The C.N.T.U. and the Affluent Society


The title "Unionism, Consumption and the Affluent Society" describes the intended scope of this research. Our first goal was to describe the problem, its background, the general shape of the question, the stages of its progress, and to try and go beyond the daily activities and official positions, to the broader but less immediately obvious concerns, which were significant in restating the position and ideology of the CNTU as a trade union confederation. The primary motive of this study was also to study the behavior of the union member as a consumer.

In the course of the inquiry we had to revise our objectives and view the question from a broader base, to take into account the fact that the Confederation of National Trade Unions was only one of many organizations interested in this type of problem. Some of the groups, independent of the union movementper se include the Fédération des caisses d'économie du Québec, the Fédération des magasins CO-OP du Québec, and the Fédération des associations coopératives d'économie familiale.

The first part of the study is a general introduction regarding the objectives, actions and relations of the CNTU with the other cooperative groups in the field of consumption.

The second part is devoted to a study .of the scope of the CNTU initial experience as such, i.e. the activity of its Family Finance Service (Service du Budget Familial) which does provide assistance to members in debt, directs the education of the union member as a consumer, and provides the training of CNTU officials.

The third part discusses the relations, objectives, attitudes, and activities of the CNTU and its adjunct cooperative organizations.

The behavior of the union members as consumers has not been studiedper se. Our initial hope to obtain a large amount of precise information for this study was partially satisfied. The only scientific and very interesting work available on this topic was M-A. Tremblay's and G. Fortin'sLes comportements économiques de la famille salariée du Québec1. There was at that time no comprehensive study by a union on this subject in spite of the extensive work done by the CNTU in this general area.

Our method was simple, descriptive, empirical and based on the available material complemented by a series of interviews.


We cannot say that we met with major difficulties in the conduct of our research. Much of the documentation and the interviews were obtained with the collaboration of the director of the Family Finance Service of the CNTU.

However, two slight difficulties must be noted:

a) The material provided by the union was incomplete, lacked precision, was un-dated and unsigned ;

b) Other problems arose with the rapid expansion of activity in this field. In the time between the start of this study and the elaboration of the final report, the president of the CNTU among others made a series of statements relating to this problem. In addition, other « caisses d'économie », consumer cooperatives and other family cooperative associations were begun which could not be considered in this report.


Instead of a formal conclusion, we grouped the results of our research around three main themes :

a) The emergence of an awareness by wage-earners as consumers ;

b) The extension in the field of union interest and activity ;

c) The necessity of enlarging the field of research in industrial relations.

The Emergence of An Awareness by Wage-Earners As Consumers

1. -In the first place, the actions taken by the CNTU in the field of consumption were not a planned part of union policy, but a specific response to the needs of union members as consumers. In other words, this experience is not the result of an initiative taken by the CNTU but the consequence of an awareness by the union members as consumers.

This new awareness was tied to actual situations and distress : indebtedness and its consequences to the daily family life, the threat of seizure of their possessions, and the fear of judicial procedures.

2. - It shall be noted that this awareness is not the expression of an intellectual or ideological development. It does not lead spontaneously to the reevaluation of this affluent society into which each and every wage-earner, unionized or not, seems to be integrated by sharing its value system which, in f act, influences his needs as a consumer.

There seems however to be a certain continuity between the improvement of the wage level and working conditions asked for at the bargaining table on the one hand, and, on the other hand, rising expectations to consume more and more in accordance with economic growth and development. The motives for union demand and personal indebtment are often identical : a certain number of goods not necessarily usefulper se but important to possess in this "keep up with the Jones" society.

The CNTU's and the ACEF's effort of education does not contest this continuity. They do not ask their students to give up their hopes in the field of consumption but they propose means of reaching these goals at the lowest cost possible for each and every individual insolved in the experience by balancing the family budget, by using credit unions, and by purchasing goods at cooperative stores. In addition to this, both organizations invite their members to distinguish between two levels of consumption, individual and collective, and propose to ex-tend the field of preoccupation regarding the latter to social security, health insurance and cooperative housing. The basic philosophy of all this movement presents an affluent society free of speculation and usury and where profit would not be a synonym of exploitation.

3.-This awareness has led the union member to turn spontaneously to the union organization to help him resolve his problems even if they are personal. The union becomes the organization one can "count on" and "have confidence in". This marked interest for the union in such a case is a spontaneous reaction and not the result of a serious tought bringing forward a precise definition of the union organization, its role and its functions.

b)The Extension of The Field of Union Interest and Activity

There is no doubt that the experience undertaken by the CNTU in the field of consumption constitutes a sign of an extension in the field of interest of this union organization.

1.-In other respects, the action of the CNTU seems to us relevant to a certain type of leadership and illustrates in a more general way, the evolution of the notion of union democracy.

In order to respond to the expectations and needs of the union members in the field of consumption, in the absence of clearly defined "policy and orientation", the Executive of the CNTU improvised, not without earlier success, and hired a director for its Family Finance Service. In addition to his freedom of action with-in the organization this director will have to report to the executive board if not to the president alone. He will definitely influence the policy of this confederation in the area of consumption.

These decisions and practices illustrate the evolution of the role of the union agents in labor organizations, their real influence and power and the evolution of union democracy. The CNTU is not unique in this area, but one finds this to differing degrees in other union organizations, as much in North America as in Europe.

The power and influence of these agents seem considerable in the same proportion that their work touches a new field in which the elected union leaders coming from the rank and file are not particularly competent.

This is but one particular aspect of a general trend to concentrate the position and power within the union organization in the hands of the administrative machinery. This movement cannot be explained only in terms of efficiency. To a certain extent, it is a reaction to the emergence of new problems located at a higher level and for which necessary solutions require a more global action by the labor movement at the political level and require the setting of agreement with other organizations.

In these conditions, union democracy is less and less a democracy of direct participation where the union members themselves state the policy and orientations of their organizations, but more and more an indirect democracy where the members are called on by their elected representatives to approve or disapprove the policies and orientations decided by the executive and the technical advisers.

This type of democracy is not without influence upon the behavior of the union agents ; they must administer and pay great attention to the desires and wishes expressed by the union members, often expressed in a confused manner. For certain permanent employees, paid by the union and aware of the influence they exercise on the definition of policies of the movement, the temptation is strong to solicit an electoral mandate ; but doing this they risk a confrontation with the leaders coming from the rank and file whose past experience is prestigeous in the eyes of the union members.

2.-The impact of the information and education effort undertaken by the Family Finance Service of the CNTU on the orientations of this central union is an-other important topic on which some comments are to be made.

There is no doubt that the effort of information and education tends towards the realization of practical objectives. Immediate usefulness is one of the major preoccupations of the CNTU. But this leads to a certain number of fundamental investigations on the affluent society and the correctives this organization can offer it. We have underlined the evolution of themes and content of the information and education effort ; from an initial moralising like approach the CNTU progressively gets to a more economic and political stage. Exploitation of the consumer becomes the correlation of exploitation of the producer. To put an end to this exploitation,the CNTU advocates a growing intervention of the legislator2, the formation of a vast cooperative sector where the decision making power shall be exercised by the workers themselves.

It would be convenient to distinguish various levels of analysis : we stress the important role of the director of the Family Finance Service of the CNTU. Its ideas have been accepted by the executive congress, but in a less radical form, which would denote the existence of a certain gap between the preoccupations of the one responsible for the Family Finance Service and those of the directors of the CNTU.

At the level of the rank and file, it is hard to gauge the interest aroused by these positions. A choice exists between two hypotheses : in the first case, they would above all be interested in the practical aspects of experience and their immediate benefits ; in the second case, they add to those practical propositions, a real desire to work for the realization of more profound social reforms. It is still too soon to contrast profitably these hypotheses.

3. - Beyond the specific experience undertaken by the CNTU in the field of consumption, it seems that this union organization has changed its orientation to advance towards a new multifunctional and renewed conception of union action.

Strictly economic and professional union activities at the firm level would not be out of date but would be complemented by other actions undertaken this time on the political level in response to more general objectives : the upholding of purchasing power, development and economic growth, the reduction of unemployment, etc.

This reevaluation of unionism is less the consequence of a voluntary and fundamental ideological reorientation than the consequence of the necessary adaptation of a society on the road to rapid socialization where the centres of decision making have shifted and the working of the system requires greater cooperation on all levels.

The Necessity of Expanding the Field of Research in Industrial Relations

The institutionalization of labor-management relations and the relative stability engendered may lead one to consider industrial relations as a closed system but this is an underestimation of society in a rapid evolution with dynamic consequences.

The weak point of this study was not being able to express clearly the behavior, aspirations, and hopes of unionists. The unionist is simultaneously producer, consumer and citizen and it is here one must seek the explanation of the CNTU policy in the field of consumption.

* It shall be noted that this research was directed by Mr. Bernard Solasse, assistant-professor, Department of Industrial Relations, Laval University.

1 . TREMBLAY, M.A. and FORTIN, G.,Les comportements économiques de la famille salariée du Québec, Québec, P.U.L., 1964, 405 pp.

2. SEXTON, Jean,La CTCC, CSN:du corporatisme à la réforme de l'entreprise, M.A. Thesis, Department of Industrial Relations, Laval University, Québec, 1969, 178 pp.