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Les transformations technologiques et le rôle de la Recherche en relations industrielles

Félix Quinet


Les transformations technologiques et le rôle de la Recherche en relations industrielles

L'auteur analyse la portée des transformations technologiques sur les techniques de négociations collectives et de relations industrielles de même que sur le contenu des conventions collectives. A ce sujet, il décrit quelques règlements patronaux-ouvriers d'importance. Puis il traite de l'évolution de la politique gouvernementale en ce qu'elle affecte les relations industrielles, décrivant en particulier le nouveau Service consultatif de la main-d'oeuvre, au Ministère fédéral du Travail. Il conclut en parlant des transformations technologiques et notre régime de relations industrielles.


Implications of Technological Change for the Role of Research in Industrial Relations


Although there is a great variety of opinions as to what the term « technological change » specifically means, there seems to be general agreement on at least two basic points: first, it is that the kinds of technological change we have experienced in the last decade have been introduced at a more rapid rate than those introduced in earlier years; second, it is that current technological change has far-reaching effects on industry's manpower requirements. In more concrete terms, the introduction of technological change in industry is generally associated with a substantial increase in the number of skilled, technical and professional occupations, and a slower growth rate for the semi-skilled and unskilled occupational groups.

If technological change, rapidly introduced, means that many workers, young and old, with little or much seniority, in good or poor health, with much or little potential, may rapidly become useless, how can the parties to collective bargaining design ways in which the effects of technological change on the labour force can be cushioned? Also, to what extent and in what ways are collective agreements today responding to technological change?


The first question involves both the techniques of collective bargaining and industrial relations, and the substance of collective agreements as well. In a context of technological change, the techniques of collective bargaining are bound to be subject to significant changes. For it is one thing to negotiate a short-term objective at the bargaining table, such as a wage increase, a higher overtime premium rate, or a more generous cost-of-living allowance. But it is an entirely different matter for labour and management to discuss and negotiate about the long-term employment effects that the introduction of technological change will have in a given plant or company. During the negotiation involving short-term goals, such as wage increases or more generous cost-of-living allowances, the parties to collective bargaining usually use statistics as weapons designed to support predetermined positions, and research in these cases, is directed at bringing together these statistics which will support those rigid positions. There is in these situations, very little, if any, problem-solving research.

On the other hand, negotiations and discussions with regard to long-term problems such as those associated with the introduction of technological changes, obviously cannot be solved by the strategic and superficial use of statistics. It is quite obvious that basic and important questions, such as training or retraining programs, or policies designed to ensure the mobility of those employees no longer needed in a given firm, call for more than short and usually tense bargaining sessions — if these questions are to be usefully examined. They require new techniques and new channels for labour-management consultation, as distinct from labour-management bargaining.

Because some current and important labour-management issues call for consultation rather than bargaining in the traditional sense, there might, of course, be a temptation to believe that objective labour-management consultation should gradually replace collective bargaining as a way of determining working conditions. A word of caution against such an over-simplified expectation is perhaps in order. Indeed, in our industrial relations system operating in an essentially private enterprise economy and in a context of free decision-making, tough-minded bargaining will always have a role to play. There will always be issues which, by their very nature, call for bargaining in the truest sense of the word rather than rational consultation. Furthermore, the process of collective bargaining, with its pressures, its tensions and its threats of possible conflicts, can inject a lot of realism in certain labour-management situations, and can induce people to act, people who otherwise would not move. It does not seem unrealistic for me to state that, even in some cases, the very principle of labour-management consultation and co-operation — and the principle of mutual respect which it implies — can be brought about as a result of a tense bargaining situation or even a work stoppage.

For example, in March of last year, after a seven-month long work stoppage, the Quebec Iron and Titanium Company and the National Metal Trades' Federation embodied the principle of labour-management consultation in their agreement by setting up a joint Human Relations Committee which would study and recommend solutions to mutual problems arising out of technological change. This example is merely used to illustrate the fact that in certain situations taking place within our industrial relations context, labour-management consultation and collective bargaining in the traditional sense can usefully play supplementary roles.


Turning now to the impact that technological change can have on the substance of collective agreements, let us quote what two prominent observers and analysts of the Canadian labour scene had to say in this respect:

« … It does not seem to us too great an over-simplification to assert that one of the key effects of technological change in the immediate future will be to focus the attention of the parties, to a far greater extent than in the recent past, on questions of work practices and job and worker security. We are now entering a third phase of bargaining, in so far as the content of agreement is concerned, and that phase will see the growth in relative importance of the so-called non-wage portions of the agreement: items dealing with pensions, supplementary unemployment benefits, work practices, work rules, training, seniority systems, and the like. These issues will rise as changes in production techniques destroy established job categories, radically modify job descriptions, and create entirely new occupational groups. They are issues that are much more effectively handled on an industry-wide or market-wide basis. » 1

It is obvious that many of the issues listed in the above statement will be effectively dealt with through labour-management consultation and research rather than tense bargaining sessions. For example, the widening of the seniority unit which, in cases of technological change, might enable displaced workers to transfer their seniority — related rights to other departments and plants, is a typical development that calls for more than an exchange of statistics at the bargaining table! In fact, it requires the joint labour-management examination of how seniority provisions are applied in the industrial establishments involved. Furthermore, if the widened seniority unit is to cover several plants or firms, its effective functioning may very well call for inter-company and inter-union consultation, a procedure which might, to a certain extent, dislocate the traditionnally plant-wide bargaining relationship.


At this point our second question should be asked: to what extent and in what ways are collective agreements to-day responding to the challenge of technological change? There are, of course, unquestionable signs that in some situations the parties to collective bargaining on this continent have responded to the challenge of technological change in a positive manner. There is, for example, the Long-Range Sharing Plan that went into effect on March 1, 1963 at the Fontana, California plant on the Kaiser Steel Corporation. This plan was developed over three years as a result of research conducted by a tripartite committee composed of company, steelworkers and public representatives. The Long-Range Sharing Plan is designed to promote employment and income security for production, maintenance, clerical and technical workers affected by advance in technology. There was also the agreement reached in 1962 between the major Canadian railway companies and the unions representing their non-operating employees. This agreement provided for the establishment of a job security fund which would be used to cushion in a variety of ways the adverse effects faced by long-service employees whose jobs are eliminated by technological change.


There has also been in recent years, as a result of the impact of technological change on occupations and employment, a significant shift of government policy as it affects industrial relations. While, in the postwar period, the emphasis was on providing assistance to the parties so that they could reach agreement and settle their disputes, recent steps have been taken to bring labour and management together in order to discuss jointly their long-term problems in a broad economic context. May we draw attention here to the recently established Manpower Consultative Service in the Federal Department of Labour. There is no doubt that this Service could have a significant impact in the field of labour-management relations. Indeed, one of the key principles behind the establishment of the new Service is that apropriate steps must be taken well in advance of worker displacement resulting from industrial change. Another equally important principle is that where there is a union, a joint union-management approach should be followed with respect to research, assessment and plans for dealing with the adjustment process to industrial change. Of significance also, is the fact that the Federal Government will be prepared through this new Service to provide financial assistance to employers and unions for research on manpower development in advance of technological change. There is no doubt that the type of research involved here is of the objective kind; it is not the type of research that is geared to provide pleasing answers either to labour or to management, or to support rigid positions at the bargaining table.


It will be admitted that the various signs reviewed above of positive response to technological change, as encouraging as they are, still leave our general question largely unanswered. This question was: to what extent and in what ways are collective agreements today responding to the challenge of technological change? It is strongly suggested here that if this question is to be usefully answered, a new research approach is needed in the field of collective bargaining and industrial relations. By new research approach, it is meant a shift from an analysis of collective agreements only, to an analysis of agreements supplemented by field research. For example, in our recent study on collective agreement provisions in major manufacturing establishments, 2 provisions concerning « technological change » could not be tabulated. Indeed, it was discovered that the matters arising out of technological change were often dealt with in a variety of provisions that made no direct reference to technological change as such. What this actually means is that a major development such as changes in technology cannot b e examined in a study of collective agreements, based on documents only. However, there are many agreement provisions that raise a number of questions with respect to technological change.

For example, seniority provisions on layoff were found in almost all of the establishments covered by the study mentioned above. 3 Some of those 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, what is the true meaning of such a seniority 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 vital 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 by field study that meaningful information could be supplied.

Similarly, the mere reading of a training or retraining provision in a collective agreement does not, cannot, provide enough information as to what impact such provision has on the skills of the work-force in any particular establishment. Which are the workers who benefit from this provision? How are these workers selected? The answers to these questions are, of course, not to be found in the agreement but rather in the establishment where the agreement applies.


In this article, a great deal of attention has been devoted to technological change as a development which can have dramatic and far-reaching effects on industrial relations and on the labour force. But technological change is also a major development through which our firms and industries and, indeed, our economy as a whole can effectively meet the challenge of increasing competition from foreign countries. It is, therefore, vitally important that the proper research techniques be applied to determine not only how the hardships that can result from the introduction of technological change can be cushioned, but also what adjustments can be brought to our industrial relations system so that technological change can become an instrument for economic expansion and increased human welfare.

(1) H.D. WOOD and SYLVIA OSTRY, Labour Policy and Labour Economics in Canada, p. 498.

(2) Collective Agreement Provisions in Major Manufacturing Establishments (1963), Economics and Research Branch, Department of Labour, Canada, pp. 31.

(3) Collective Agreement Provisions in Major Manufacturing Establishments (1963), Economics and Research Branch, Department of Labour, Canada, pp. 31.