Accueil » 23-1 ( 1968) » La distribution des pouvoirs à la Confédération des syndicats nationaux

La distribution des pouvoirs à la Confédération des syndicats nationaux

Mathieu Vaillancourt


Caractérisée à ses débuts par l'autonomie des syndicats locaux et plus tard par l’importance du rôle des conseils centraux et surtout des fédérations, la Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux s'est transformée graduellement en une vaste union multi-industrielle. A l’aube d'une nouvelle révolution industrielle au Québec, à l'heure de la révolution tranquille et des problèmes causés par l’automation et face à ses responsabilités nouvelles dans le contexte québécois, la C.S.N. a commencé à effectuer de profonds changements dans ses structures et ses services.


The Distribution of Powers at the CTNU

Since a few years, one can observe more and more that union leaders speak with insurance in the name of their members. But there has been among all those interventions from union leaders many abuses of administrative authority especially regarding political statements. We are thus interested in the present paper in the phenomena of the concentration of powers in union centrals and their consequences on union democracy.

Because of the many difficulties brought by such a study, I have prefered to consider the distribution of powers in a Quebec union central, the Confederation of the National Trade Union.


One can find in the sociological literature many different definitions of the word structure. We can state for example those of Durkeim, Maclver, Page, Radcliffe-Brown, Willems, Hart, etc.

But to our knowledge it is Siegfried Frederick Nadel who has presented the most complete one :

« ... in studying 'structure' we study essentially the interrelation or arrangements of 'parts in some total entity or whole'. »

It would be useful to mention that in the following lines, the use of the word structure will refer to the structure of powers i.e. the distribution of powers between the different parties involved within the CNTU.

Let us now state the different factors influencing a structure :

a) The nature of the group, its aims and roles (temporary or permanent).

b) The personnality of the leaders.

c) The communications.

The unions have a structure exactly in the same sense as other groups. If one considers the structure of an union central such as the CNTU, he will have to study the arrangement of its different parts such as the local union, the trades council, the industrial federation, etc., in the total entity of the union organisation.

We cannot allow ourself to try to outline a general model of a structure of powers in union organizations. In fact the distribution of powers changes considerably from one union to the other. In order to simplify things, I will present a simplified typology which will serve as landmarks in the study of the distribution of powers at the CNTU.

The structure of powers in an union organization can take two extreme forms : decentralization and centralization.

The powers can thus be distributed according to two principles and this as well in a union organization as in any other kind of organization. A labor movement could have a decentralized structure of powers i.e. based upon the principles of exclusive jurisdiction and autonomy of the parties, of their right to organize committees in order to negotiate collective agreements without the intervention of superior members. This was the picture of the UAW a few years after its foundation.

However one can observe in an organization a concentration of powers at the top. This concentration tends to reduce the importance of the role of the composants and to annihilate any kind of initiative. It was the case of the- United Steelworkers under Phillip Murray.

Usually, when established, the labor organizations have a decentralized structure of powers. But the more it grows, the more powers pass from the hand of the members to the full time specialists employed by the union.


Let us say at the beginning that there are many principles of organizations or combinations of many principles ; the trade unions, the industrial unions, the general union, the associated trades, the semi-industrial unions and the multi-industrial unions.

We will however consider only the three main principles of organization : territorial, professional and industrial. Those three forms of organization seem to have succeeded one another throughout the history of the labor movement.

Because of those differences in organization, it is not surprising to see major differences taking place between the leaders and the permanent employees of each of those types of organization.

Let us summarize in a few words the thoughts of Friedman & Naville of this subject : the permanent employees of territorial union are little specialized while those of professional unions rapidly become key men. At last, the presence of bureaucracy in industrial union lead to give responsability to the superiors and promotion following competence.

Because of the emergence of bureaucracy, it would be interesting to study one of the crucial problems that it brought up : The concentration of powers and the factors favorising it.


The concentration of powers is a general phenomena in our Society and unionism cannot escape from it. However there are a few fundamental factors at the basis of this centralization in any kind of union central :

a) The enlargement of markets.

b) The dimensions of modem firms.

c) The nature of the organization.

d) Complexity and experts.

e) The first structural form.

f) The increasing role of intermediate bodies.


1st step : 1921-1936

According to article III of the Constitution and By-laws of the CCCL (1921), the CCCL left autonomy to its composant groups.

It is to be noted that local unions must be members of a central group in order to be affiliated to the CCCL. If there is no such group existing, they can be affiliated directly but only on a provisory manner.

In this three level structure, the Confederal Congress held the greatest powers. The Constitution of 1921 does not say a word about the powers given to central organizations such as the federations and the central councils. However a resolution of the General Meeting of 1929 notes the role of the federation in the negotiation of collective agreements. The proceedings of the general meeting of 1935 gave the central councils the right to organize local unions.

It took a long time to central organization to react to this decentralization of powers and services at the level of local unions. The local unions often did not affiliate to federations, often went on strike without any authorization from the Confederal Bureau and neglected to pay their per capita to the Confederation and central organizations.

2nd step : 1937-1960

The Constitution was revised at the general meeting of 1937. It was decided that only union federations, district unions, central councils and trades council were allowed to be affiliated directly to the Confederation.

The administrative power was given to the Confederal Bureau now formed by the executive of the CCCL, the directors representing the federations, district unions and central councils. The executive power stayed in the hands of the executive while the legislative power was in the hands of the general assembly.

The general meeting of 1939 decided that local unions were to present any resolution to their central council or federation.

After the Second World War, it appeared to the leaders that since the revision of the Constitution in 1937, the central organizations have done whatever they have wanted : this has led to a lack of coordination in the organization work.

The general meetings of 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1950 took little by little autonomy away from the federations and central councils.

It thus seems that during this twenty four years period has been characterized by a growing importance of the intermediate bodies, professional and territorial, by an autonomy drive from local unions, by the inaction of the Confederal Bureau and by more administrative routine work at the level of the executive. An attempt has been made by the end of this period to increase the importance of the CCCL role. But it will only be in 1961 that we will assist to a real edification of the central as the main responsible of decisions.

3rd step : 1961-1967

The special general meeting of 1961 gave the central its actual orientation. It abandoned the name of the Catholic and Canadian Confederation of Labor for the Confederation of National Trade-Unions. A very important decision was taken. Still admitting the existence of the central bodies, the general meeting decided to take all their powers away by centralizing the services.


There are a few factors explaining the ascension of powers from the local union to the federation and finally to the central itself :

1.—the increase in membership ;

2.—complexity and efficiency ;

3.—unionism in a socialized context ;

4.—inter union rivalry ;

5.—other factors :

a ) the coming of industrial and multi-industrial unionism ;

b ) the merger of the other Canadian labor union centrals ;

c) the concentration of membership on an homogeneous territory.


In its beginning the CCCL was characterized by the autonomy of its local unions and later by the important role of it central councils. But the CNTU has changed step by step to become a vast multi-industrial union. The tensions at the level of the doubleheaded direction of the CNTU and the quarrels between the intellectuals and those coming from the rank and file have kept the reform from being total. It seems however that the CNTU will be over with it in a few years.