Accueil » 10-1 ( 1954) » Syndicat et État

Syndicat et État

Pietro Pavan


L'auteur, après avoir étudié dans trois articles précédents la nature et les objectifs des syndicats ainsi que ses rapports avec la religion et les partis politiques, envisage ici les relations qui existent entre le syndicat et l'Etat. Son étude se place tant sur le plan des principes que dans son évolution historique.


Trade Union and the State

Sommary Men have the right to organize by nature. Since trade union organization is merely a special application of the right of association, this right belongs to them by nature. The State cannot forbid them to form unions because it is obliged to recognize this natural right and conform to it. Morever, each time the State intervenes to forbid trade unions, it acts against itself, since it contravenes the expansion and functioning of the natural social instinct in man on which it depends for its own existence and which it is bound to respect. However, when it is evident that the unions pursue an illicit end or have degenerated into a subversive force — and only in this specific case — the State has the duty and the right to prevent their formation or bring about their dissolution.



The State should provide protection for the trade unions because it is obliged to guarantee the exercise of natural rights. In affording such protection, the State should take care to avoid intervening excessively in the internal affairs of the trade union organizations, since this would risk diminishing their effectiveness.


In the present economic and social order the existence of trade unions has been demonstrated necessary to restrain the harmful effects of competition, to defend the citizency against the threat of complete absorption by the State; relieve the State of responsibilities which are not properly its own; promote the more adequate distribution of wealth; and finally to protect the fundamental human liberties. The State which is the responsible promotor of the common good, by reason of its nature, cannot be indifferent to trade unions. It should assume a positive position and conduct itself in such a way that the trade union organization can be formed and operate in such a manner as to attain its specific end. This is particularly true in nations where democratic regimes prevail. Trade unions and democracy influence each other mutually. A genuine democracy cannot exist or develop normally if there do not exist, between the State and the citizens, economic, social and professional organizations, including trade unions, which occupy an intermediary category. In like manner, genuine trade unions cannot flourish except in a political environment which guarantees legitimate freedom of expression.


Under increasingly vigorous and urgent pressure of historical circumstance, State action in the economic field has become more extensive and has attained a permanent character. To achieve tangible results in this field, the State must have competent agencies. These agencies should be aware of the specific facts of economic and social life and the concrete situations that are posed by the particular environment. It is obvious that not mere arithmetical rule can prevail but that the problem of the source must be considered. This is a singularly difficult matter which cannot be solved a priori, in view of its relation with the particular historical situation at the moment. Two extremes are to be avoided: that of the desintegration of the structure of the State and that of the absorption by the State of the specific purposes of the trade unions.


All those who belong to a professional class do no' necessarily belong to their trade union. When a collective agreement is signed, should it be applied exclusively to the members of the union? The collective agreement would lose its effectiveness in this case because economic reality is such that labour relations cannot be effective unless worked out uniformly with relation to all who, in a given field, are in the same economic and professional situation. If non-members are to be included. State intervention is necessary. This would seem to imply a certain restriction of liberty. Should liberty be sacrificed to justice or justice to liberty? Without analysing the problem in all its face's, the following are a few suggestions to guide us in the solution of this problem regarding the relations between State authority and trade union action:

  1. The trade unions have, by their nature, a moral authority within the professional groups which have formed them. The power to enter upon collective agreements that bind their members is not a delegation of authority from the State, but is derived from their own nature as intermediary autonomous bodies.

  2. For reasons of the common good, the State can assume the authority of the trade unions when the latter, by virtue of inadequate organization are no longer able to carry out the obligations of social justice on the basis of professional groups.

  3. In such an event, the State should apply the principle of subsidiarity. It intervenes in so far as it is necessary to assist the trade unions in carrying out their proper activity and in attaining their specific objectives.

  4. It is impossible a priori to fix the limits of such intervention since trade union organization is in a state of constant flux. As gradually within the enterprise the relations between workers, those responsible for the direction of the enterprise and investors are modified, so too are the relations on the production level between trade unions and employers associations modified.


Historically the trade unions have not been formed under pressure from the public authority. It was the workers themselves who brought them into existence, who determined their character, who made them work and who established the aims they pursue. In the trade union there is an authority which establishes rules of discipline, directs, assumes responsibility, lays down rules and imposes sanctions. This authority is not derived from the State. It is based, on the contrary, on the liberty of association. The trade union is an autonomous organization in the presence of the State. One of the reasons why trade unions were created is the absence or neglect of the State in the economic and social field. The distribution of wealth, especially during the last century, was carried out, not according to the demands of justice but as a result of the free play of economic forces; that is to-ray, the competition on the market of products and of labour. The profits that accrued to each of these economic agents was proportionate to the strength at the disposal of each. Against the capitalist-entrepreneur, the isolated worker was always in the position of the weaker against the stronger. At the same time, the State, faithful to liberal principles, made every effort to avoid becoming involved in the controversy. It was then that the workers, conscious of their own rights, determined to set up a movement that would increase their strength, counterbalance that of the entrepreneurs and thus achieve a more equitable participation in wealth. The trade union appears then, fundamentally, as an instrument conceived for the purpose of establishing liberty within the limitations of justice in the economic field.


From the beginning, the trade union insisted on its autonomy regarding the State, but ended by clashing with it. Two basic reasons explain this result:

  1. Dominated by liberalism, the State assumed that it should neither permit the establishment or development of trade unions, since the relations between the agents of production should depend on the free play of economic forces. Since the trade unions interfered with this free play and modified the results, the State held that they should be repressed as conductive to violations of the laws of nature and as a dangerous social element.

  2. If in theory this attitude of the State regarding the entrepreneurs and workers seems indisputable, the reality is considerably different. In fact, the isolated workers did not have the same strength as the entrepreneurs and were forced to accept conditions of work as imposed on them. To eliminate or reduce the inequality of their position two possibilities seemed available: organization or recourse to the State. The State forbade the workers to organize and refused to-intervene in the economic field so as to not disturb the play of economic forces. The mass of workers, exploited at the hands of the capitalist, looked upon the laissez faire and liberal State as bourgeois, that is, as the peculiar creation of the employers to assure their own privileges and as the instrument for the advancement of their own interests. The workers came to believe more and more generally that the State, by its nature, was the expression of a class and a means for the fulfillment of its own aims. It seemed to them legitimate therefore to oppose the bourgeois State with a state of their own conception, the proletarian state.

The marxist thesis that one of the tragedies of history has been that the State has always been the concern of one class finds its explanation in a very specific historical situation. As always the error consists of drawing a general conclusion from a specific instance.


In its legal relations with the State, the trade union has evolved through three phases:

  1. Illegality. — This was a long period. Workers were forbidden to organize in permanent or temporary associations to the end of securing thanks to common action, some change in their conditions of work. Nevertheless workers were allowed to establish mutual aid societies.

  2. Tolerance. — Workers may form trade unions, according to their own ideas as to how they should function. They may sign collective agreements but which are not recognized by law.

  3. Legal recognition. — Certain rights are recognized as pertaining to trade unions: property, representation, sue and be sued, protect their professional interests, sign collective contracts, etc. Nevertheless, this legal recognition does not appear everywhere in the same way.


In the countries where collectivist regimes prevail, the trade union is the instrument of the State. Its purpose is not so much to defend the interests of the workers as to guarantee a greater productivity. In the authoritarian regimes the trade union is recognized in public law. In its organization, functioning and purposes, it depends on the will of the State. In democratic countries, the trade unions have a different legal status although all have in common the fact that they are the result of the free initiative of the interested parties, are vital in their operation and play an important role in the national life.