Accueil » 23-4 ( 1968) » Opinions syndicales sur les structures syndicales

Opinions syndicales sur les structures syndicales

S. T. Payne


Les structures du Congrès du travail du Canada, le cas du Québec et les valeurs du syndicalisme américain sont autant de sujets que l'auteur traite dans cet article.


Union Views on Union Structure


People who still believe that the problem of Canadian unity is strictly a political issue must have had some serious second thoughts after reading reports from the Canadian Labour Congress Convention held in Toronto this year as well as those from the Confederation of National Trade Unions convention held in Montreal in 1966.

The C.L.C. report showed that the problems of the Canadian Labour Congress or as it prefers to be called « Canada's House of Labour » bear an amazing resemblance to those of our own Federal Government.

Many of Quebec's delegates attending the C.L.C. convention, although having no intention of breaking away from that organization did insist that they should enjoy a kind of special status within the C.L.C. which would enable them to enter into an agreement with the Confederation of National Trade Unions for the purpose of regulating inter-union raiding and whereby speculative raiding would be eliminated, but at the same time the fundamental principle of freedom of association would be respected in any changes in allegiance. The C.L.C. position was that « Jurisdictional matters are the prerogative of the Canadian Labour Congress rather than Provincial Federations ». Why were they making this request ? There are many interesting answers.

Over the past few years, the C.N.T.U. has made spectacular gains in Quebec mostly among non-unionized workers such as the Civil Servants of the Provincial Government, Hospital employees and several hundred Engineers who joined the ranks of the C.N.T.U. In addition to these newly acquired members, the C.N.T.U. also welcomed into its ranks thousands of workers who transferred their allegiance from Q.F.L. affiliates. The C.B.C. and C.P.R. cases are well known because they provoked the controversal Bill C-186, still before the House, affecting national vs regional bargaining units in large public corporations. But there are many other instances that are just as important, even if they are less well known, involving transport workers in Montreal's metropolitan area, groups of the Montreal Harbor employees, etc.

Certain Q.F.L. officers have indicated that such losses were due to the fact that the structures of the Canadian Congress were too rigid, that they did not allow the Quebec Federation of Labour enough freedom of movement to compete successfully with the C.N.T.U.

When the Winnipeg convention in 1965, turned down their request for special status, which really meant more flexibility to adapt themselves to Quebec's differences, many expressed the opinion that the C.L.C. Executive would one day, regret not having taken their demands more seriously.

They were probably right, as a matter of fact, both the Federal Government and the C.L.C. are at grips with the same desire for self-assertion on the part of Quebecers with the major difference however, that Canada's Constitution is much more flexible than that of the Canadian Labour Congress and grants much more power and autonomy to the provinces than the C.L.C. does to its provincial federations. The latter, for instance, in the past were not even empowered to force C.L.C. affiliates on their territory to come into their own ranks. Many international union affiliates to the C.L.C. openly snub the Quebec Federation of Labour by refusing to join. And there is nothing the Q.F.L. could do about it.


Nevertheless, the difficulties of C.L.C. affiliates in Quebec are by no means due to that single cause and cannot be ascribed to Quebec nationalism or C.L.C. centralizing views.

There are definitely larger issues involved. One must realize that the C.L.C.'s position appears rather precarious as this huge Canadian body sits astride two horses. There are the so called « international unions » on the one hand, or the Canadian subsidiaries of American unions, and Canadian national unions on the other. The plain fact is that the C.L.C. impressive as it may appear with the great number of its affiliates, has very little authority over the vast majority of them. The real control and power still rests with head offices in Pittsburg, Detroit or Washington, D.C., and the C.L.C. officers in Ottawa are constantly by-passed by orders which the unions receive from their American headquarters.

Such a fact accounts for certain "Big Labour" practices which severely curtail labour democracy at the local level. What attracts workers to national unions is primarily the advantage they have of making their own decisions and controlling their own affairs, at the local level while the very remoteness of headquarters in American unions leaves them with the feeling that they are being manoeuvred by people who know nothing about them or their economic, social and political problems. In that perspective, one might predict that Quebecers will not always be alone in their restlessness. In a not too distant future, they might very well share that feeling with thousands of other Canadian workers in other provinces.

It is no secret either that the Q.F.L. wants all international unions to establish Canadian districts, directed by Canadians and appointed by the Canadian member-ship and that union trusteeship when and where necessary should be administered by Canadian leaders.

As we all know, Canada is presently engaged in a rather painful debate about its future and at the center of this debate is the Province of Quebec, the largest of the provinces. In recent years all political parties have come out, fired up in varying degrees, to lead two revolutions. The first, strikes at the whole concept of Canadian government structure.

The second revolution inside Quebec itself, and involving more intimately organized labour is directed at lifting Quebec's lagging economy and putting the control of it in the hands of Canadians. Inspired by the successful achievements of Europe's economic planning apparatus, the means of improving provincial economy involves in the minds of our political planners a greater degree of control and intervention in our economy and a plan for the economic organization of the province with a view to the most complete utilization of its natural and human resources. It is not my intention to attribute labour militancy to the economic philosophies or statements of politicians but, perhaps for the first time in our Country's history, not only organized labour, but all levels of our social strata in Quebec are manifesting expectations that this country owes them a good living and respect for human dignity and not only just a living. Therefore, a good living can mean not only job security but higher income and respect for human values, and when this appears slow in coming even in the midst of a buoyant economy, the result is that we have considerable labour unrest.

Plausible as the political and economic philosophies of our politicians may seem and although supported by very impressive evidence as to their justification, public opinion in other provinces has not yet caught up with all the implications of this economic, social and political revolution. Its question is, how long will the present situation last and who is going to do something about it ? In addition there is that repeated question coming from some English speaking Canadians which so irritates French Canada, « What does organized labour in Quebec really want ? » If love of one's country involves knowing what the country was, what it is, and what it may become and then working towards the resulting ideal, then lack of understanding, little knowledge of labour history in Quebec, satisfaction with the status quo, sheer distance, all combined must be the reason that makes certain English speaking Canadians ask this one question which so annoys the average French Canadian.

While Quebec may want certain things from English Canada, it wants also a great deal more that it is getting from its own government. Many spokesmen from Quebec will probably answer that they want equality and will speak of constitutional reform, special status and so on, but organized labour in Quebec maintains that what is needed are changes in Quebec's own internal structure and apparatus and lay the blame for Quebec's problem where it rightly belongs, directly upon Quebec's past governments which until 1960 were reactionary and kept Quebecers out of the mainstream of modem development. Organized labour in Quebec recognizes too well that constitutional reform, special status, etc., will not educate a single child in face the modem industrial world, it will not relieve the working family of the burdens imposed by the money lenders, it will not improve housing, increase social security or lessen the burden of unemployment. It remembers how past governments utilized nationalist and autonomist protestations to devert emphasis from the need for profound and costly internal domestic reform which was within the power of any Quebec government to achieve without need to blame others for their own failure. The power was there, but it was not used.

This does not however absolve the C.L.C. from blame, and changes in attitudes are as important as the emergencies of the spirit and quest of dynamic reform itself. These changes in the C.L.C. like the reforming spirit of the C.N.T.U. must continue. The democratic union structure we seek is a spirit within individuals, giving all its members a sense of being vital elements in the Canadian society, and not economic vassals of American dominated labour unions, because as far as organized labour in Quebec is concerned, the economic, social, cultural and political welfare of Quebec workers has only been an abstraction except when it happened to coincide with the interests of American membership and leadership.

In order to analyse in part why the policies of American Unions operating in Quebec have not responded to the social, economic and political reforms so urgently in demand, it is necessary to observe the way in which American Unions have responded to and reflected the pressures resulting from the basic values of their own American Society.

The concept of American « business unionism » devoted to the self-interest of individual unions and their leaders rather than for national social reconstruction has important consequences in encouraging their leaders to view themselves as bound by the same standards as profit oriented businessmen rather than as leaders of a reformist social movement. Normally, the leaders of social movements are expected to have a « calling » to feel moved by a moral ethic toward serving certain major social values.

Much in the attitudes and the behaviour of American Unions operating in Canada can be explained by the American cultural emphasis on the norm of personal « achievement » or getting ahead financially. Although it may seem paradoxical, the strength of this « achievement » norm is closely related to another value « equality of status » regardless of the background qualities of the individual. American culture applies the norms of a completely competitive society to everyone, which places a high premium on economic affluence and social ascent. These jungle qualities of certain American controlled Unions operating in Quebec in full collaboration with American controlled Companies reflect a mode of union ethics which are unacceptable and contrary to the aspirations of Quebecers. Much of the unique character of American controlled Unions as contrasted to that of truly controlled and administered Canadian Unions may be seen as a result of, or as a consequence of, American culture, « achievement », « equality » at any price.


Any effort to account for the ways in which American controlled unions sometimes conduct themselves in Canada and how American unionism differs in its outlook as regards to Canada's economic, social and political aspirations must deal with this concept of « business unionism » which seems to be the dominant ideology of the American labour movement, and which may be closely related also to pressures created by racial discrimination, violence, and other basic values which are an outgrowth of the American political system.

Congressional investigations and journalistic exposes in recent years dealing with the behavior of certain American labour leaders have made manifest that these leaders received higher salaries, were more wont to engage in practices which violate conventional morality and showed a lesser regard for the mechanisms of democratic procedure than the leaders of the truly Canadian or European Trade Union movement. These leaders did not regard their office as a sacred trust or way of life. Their high incomes represented their adoption to the norm of getting ahead.

No doubt in the early days of American unionism, union leaders did adhere to an ideology which did prescribe certain standards of ethical behavior, of income and style of life, but as they shifted from social or socialist unionism to « business unionism », they also changed their values and standards of comparisons.

To the extent that union office has changed from a « calling » to a « career », their social ideology has declined to that same extent. Their leaders have also lost all restrictions about comporting themselves with businessmen or widening the gap between their salaries and those of their members.

The requirements attached to high union office in the United States, of « achievement » and « equality » with big businessman, may also account for the fact that certain American union leaders have formally institutionalized dictatorial mechanisms which prevent the possibility of their being defeated for re-election. Although many Canadian union leaders have achieved a great deal by moving up from the shop to union office, this shift has nowhere meant as much in terms of money and consequent style of life as in the United States. This may mean that they are under considerable pressure to find means to protect their source of status. Thus the greater the gap between that of union leadership and that from which the leader came and to which he might return on defeat, the greater the pressure to eliminate democratic rights within their union.

The greater authority and power centered in the lands of American International presidents as compared with Canadian leaders as well as the American union emphasis on the « cult of personality » are undoubtedly related to some of the same value patterns which foster explicit dictatorial practices in American unionism.


It may be noted that this aspect of American Unionism may be viewed also as an outgrowth of the American political system. The United States system adopted two distinct institutions, the presidential and the federal systems. The principle elections in the United States at the national, state and local levels are for one man, the president, governor or mayor. Government is largely viewed as the government of the man who holds the key executive office. His cabinet is responsible to him, not his party, nor to parliamentary colleagues. Hence, there is an emphasis on « personality » and a relative de-emphasis of party or principles. These factors, which have become norms in the political sphere, undoubtedly affect the way in which many other institutions operate, including the American Labour Movement.


We have great economic, social and political problems in Canada. The contribution of a united labour movement respecting unity with diversity, to their solution could be considerable if the conditions of this collaboration could be achieved. But the C.L.C. must first transform itself. It must obtain not only jurisdictional independence from the American Labour Movement, but also financial, administrative and structural independence. It could thus reorganize itself according to the requirements of the Canadian reality.

Canada's economic position in relation to its growth and development, its competitive position in foreign trade, the extent of foreign control, unemployment, and nuclear control have been the subject of constant concern and attention of all truly Canadian Trade Unions, in its struggle to shape our economic, social and cultural policy compatible with its national needs, aspirations, and sovereignty as a nation.

The fact is, that the booming economies of the world are those which by drastic measures have adapted themselves to new conditions and new needs. This gives them a solid basis for growth. What is most distressing about the Canadian Labour scene is that no new approach is being made, in this direction. Canada's « House of Labour » still works to old patterns.

In short the labour movement in Canada must reconsider its structures and its general orientation. It is only at this condition that it will retain the confidence of its membership and the respect of the Canadian population. The time has gone for the American-type « business » trade-unionism. The labour movement must not only defend the worker as a wage earner, but also as a Canadian citizen and a human being. The old bread and butter unionism must be completed by policies of cooperation in order to create for Canada a true economic democracy which will be distinguished by efficiency, freedom and public responsibility.