Accueil » 20-1 ( 1965) » Les transformations technologiques et conventions collectives de travail

Les transformations technologiques et conventions collectives de travail

Félix Quinet


L'auteur démontre, au moyen de clauses significatives, que la seule lecture du texte des conventions collectives ne permet pas de connaître toute la portée des transformations technologiques sur les relations de travail. Une recherche menée sur le terrain s'avère nécessaire à cette fin. L'auteur étudie également le rôle des clauses d'ancienneté en cas de transformations technologiques.


Technological Change and Collective Agreement


The following remarks are intended to show, by way of examples, that to provide a useful assessment of the impact of technological change on collective agreements, the statistical analysis or the mere reading of collective agreement provisions is insufficient ; this analysis and reading must be supplemented by field research conducted at the place of employment. It is our belief that such research is necessary to determine : (a) to what extent do collective agreements protect workers whose jobs are affected by technological changes; (b) to what extent are collective agreements facilitating the adaptation of industrial firms to technological changes.


Let us illustrate the above statement by recalling here that during the preparation of the study onCollective Agreement Provisions in Major Manufacturing Establishments (1963),1 it has discovered that the problems resulting from technological changes and automation where too vast and too complex to be examined meaningfully on the basis of an analysis of collective agreements alone. It would indeed appear that technological change can, in fact, lead to the formulation of numerous agreement provision that will not necessarily make an open and obvious reference to the problems with which they deal.

For example, there could be in collective agreements notices of lay-off that can be granted in cases of « changes in methods of production ». When one reads such provisions, one is bound to ask certain questions : What kind of changes in methods of production are dealt with in such provisions ? Are these changes of a technological nature, or are they of a general nature ? For example, do these changes refer to the closing of a department of the plant, or to the installation of new equipment which would result in an increase in the volume of production while resulting at the same time in a decrease of personnel ? It can easily be seen that the collective agreement itself does not generally contain the answers to those questions. It is rather in the establishment where the agreement applies that such information will be found.

Incidentally, certain collective agreements might also contain special provisions dealing with the employment of older workers, provisions that could very well be the direct result of technological change without containing any reference to these changes.

The two observations that have just been made indicate that it is not only by reading collective agreements that research workers will always be in a position to determine whether the establishments in which these agreements apply have been subject to changes in technology. But another observation ought to be made. Even when collective agreements do contain specific provisions concerning problems resulting from automation or technological change, the mere reading of such provisions will not always provide sufficient information as to the effect that these provisions might have.

For example, a provision such as the one which follows is of great interest in today's context of technological change. However, the mere reading of this provision cannot satisfy research workers anxious to know what kind of impact it has. Here is the provision in question : « In the event of technological changes which affect the employees, management will inform local officials of such changes. The company will consider present employees for new jobs arising out of such technological changes before hiring from outside. — Present employees who are offered and accept such a job created by technological change and who require training in order to perform the new job effectively will be provided with such training by the company. It is understood that employees selected far such training must be willing to take the required aptitude test ».

Another example. When a collective agreement clearly and specifically provides that employees will receive straight time pay for time spent in a vocational school of recognized standing for the purpose of learning new industrial techniques, techniques which are the result of changes in technology, it can be expected that those who read such provisions wish to know how it is applied. Which are the workers who benefit from it ? How are these workers selected ? Which are the reactions of workers who are requested or who decide to take the courses ? Which are the teaching methods followed in these schools ? Finally, what kind of impact and benefits do these provisions have on the qualifications of the work force in a given establishment? Here again, it must be pointed out that collective agreements do not generally contain the answers to these questions.


By way of new examples, let us now have a brief look at recent collective agreements in Canada, agreements which have been obviously affected by technological changes or, at least, by the expectation of such changes. A brief reference to some of these agreements follows.

Example A : In a large firm in Western Canada, management has agreed to provide the union with as much advance notice as possible of any intention to introduce automation, new equipment or new procedures which might result in the displacement of personnel. Under the terms of this agreement, employees becoming redundant due to automation, new equipment, or new office procedures, shall be eligible for training to equip them either for the operation of new equipment or for qualifying in new positions. General retraining shall also be made available to such redundant personnel who are able to qualify for other vacancies available in the firm.

Example B : Still in Western Canada, a press agency has recently concluded a three-year agreement. It includes a clause ensuring that during the life of the agreement, there will be no lay-offs for economy reasons, or as a result of new automated processes or if a publication is sold or discontinued. Under the agreement, provision was also made for a joint standing committee to study the effects of automation in the company and to make recommendations for possible relocation and retraining of employees affected by new processes ; the company will provide the money for retraining employees.

Example C : Another important company located in Canada has recently signed a collective agreement containing a clause providing that employees with ten or more years of service will not be demoted by more than one labour grade by reason of technological change.

Example D : In a large plant located in Eastern Canada, there is a collective agreement containing a retraining provision. The following information could be obtained concerning the application of the provision in question :

a ) The plan was developed jointly by the plant management and the union over a period of eight to ten months, away from the bargaining table;

b) According to one company official, the intent of the plan is to upgrade workers so that they could hold their jobs as technological changes and the resulting changes in job content went forward ;

c) In addition to on-the-job training, maintenance workers may take related courses in the evenings at the local vocational schools. The company pays tuition fees and half the cost of textbooks, and shift workers enrolling in these courses are assigned to day work during the school term ;

d) In 1963, 88 employees took the courses, and only three dropped out. (It might be noted here that for many years, similar arrangements had been made for apprentice as well. )

It would indeed be superfluous to ask again with respect to the provisions that have just been briefly described, the questions that were asked at the beginning of this paper concerning other labour management arrangements.


Before concluding, let us consider briefly the role played by seniority provisions — provisions which are closely related to job security — under conditions of technological change. It will be recalled that seniority provisions on lay-off were found in almost all of the establishments covered by the study to which reference was made earlier in this article. Some of these provisions were formulated in this manner : « In the event of reduction of staff and rehiring of employees, seniority shall apply, provided the employee with the greater amount of seniority can satisfactorily perform the job he is assigned to, or can learn the job within a reasonable time ». This type of clause was, of course, classified as one which provides that the senior employees will be retained provided their qualifications (or ability) to perform available jobs are sufficient. However, one might wonder what is the real impact or meaning of such a provision in a context of technological change ? What would be management and union policies followed in applying the seniority provision in cases of technological change ? And,in the provision itself, what would « reasonable time » really mean ? Would « reasonable time » be defined by management alone ? Or by both union and management ? Also, in cases of changing occupational requirements, would it be the policy of management to give an advance notice to the employees who may become affected by these changes so as to give these workers « reasonable time » to learn the new jobs to which they would be assigned ? One can immediately realize that these questions, as vitally important as they are, cannot be usefully answered on the basis of an analysis of collective agreements only. It is only through an analysis of agreements supplemented byfield research that meaningful information could be supplied.


In the preceding paragraphs, we have attempted to show, with a degree of insistence, that to assess in a useful manner the impact of technological changes on collective agreements, and vice versa, an analysis of collective agreements — as important as this analysis is — must be supplemented by field research. It might, of course, be asked at this point : Why this insistence ? Personally, we are convinced that the reasons why research in the field of labour-management relations should now be intensified or even reoriented in part, are very important indeed. For unions, industrial firms and for public services, it is certainly useful to know of the existence of agreement provisions which are intended to protect workers under conditions of changes in technology, or are intended to facilitate the adaptation of industrial firms facing automation. But it might also be useful to unions, industrial firms and public services to know which are thepractical lessons that can be drawn from the application of some of those provisions. In more concrete terms, it would seem that a company and a union which are about to develop a joint program for the retraining or readaptation of employees, would have nothing to lose by learning how similar programs are working out in other firms. This company and this union might also benefit from learning what kinds of obstacles have to be overcome ; which are the training or retraining methods that are most successfully applied ; which are the kinds of training officers that are most appreciated by the workers subjected to these retraining or readaptation programs, etc., etc. It is also our belief that the knowledge of such detailed information might save time, efforts and money. This example, selected from among many others, shows clearly that research work conducted with respect to specific and concrete situations in which labour and management have jointly faced technological change and automation through their collective agreements, can be extremely useful indeed to industry in general. It is also our belief that such research is important not only to discover the ways in which automation can be met in a positive manner, but also to determine what kind of changes could be brought to our industrial relations system so that technological change and automation can really be a source of economic expansion and increased human welfare.


By way of conclusion, it will be mentioned here that the Economics and Research Branch of the Federal Department of Labour is now engaged in a detailed study of the effects of technological change on industrial relations ; this study is covering certain aspects of railway operations. We are told by the author of the study, Mr. John Millons, that the study is not only based on a careful analysis of collective agreements but also on carefully planned field work which, it is expected, will provide a general description of the adaptation of the industrial relations framework to conditions of technological change. The study will also illustrate, by way of practical examples, the ways in which specific agreement provisions have affected the work histories of men displaced through technological changes. The nature of the methods followed to prepare this study is, we believe, a significant development in the field of industrial relations research in Canada. For the good of our economy, it is to be hoped that this study will be followed by others.

Note 1: Collective Agreement Provisions in Major Manufacturing Establishments (1963) Economies and Research Branch, Department of Labour, Canada, pp 31.