Accueil » 61-4 ( 2006) » Syndicalisme critique et défi institutionnel : vers l’individualisation du militantisme ?

Syndicalisme critique et défi institutionnel : vers l’individualisation du militantisme ?

Ivan Sainsaulieu


Nous posons dans le cas d’une monographie française (les syndicats Sud) la question de la régénérescence démocratique du syndicalisme bureaucratique. Malgré des référents politiques communs, notamment le souci de rénovation « démocratique » via la recherche de proximité avec la base, le réveil de l’action revendicative met aux prises des logiques d’action et des porte-parole opposés au nom du réveil de sensibilités politiques divergentes, mais tous héritiers d’une même culture politique soixante-huitarde. Dimensions collectives et individuelles se mêlent donc à des problèmes de structure du syndicalisme, partagé entre deux conceptions contradictoires du contrôle (salarial ou social) ou de la démocratie (directe et indirecte). Le procès d’institutionnalisation contredit la réactivation des référentiels politiques du syndicalisme français, tandis que le procès d’individuation sociale accentue le rôle des individus dans un contexte de rareté de l’action collective.


Critical Unionism and Institutional Challenge

Towards the Individualization of Militancy?

The French union movement welcomed a new member into its midst during the 1990s, the Fédération des syndicats Sud (Solidaires, Unitaires and Démocratiques), a breakaway group from the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail). Members of the Fédération des syndicats Sud mostly come from a hard left tradition. They are typically a young, but otherwise diverse, group who see strike action as the principal means of achieving workplace change. Leaders of the Fédération des syndicats Sud may be described as “strike generators.”

Trade unionists who are members of the Fédération des syndicats Sud made a breakthrough in the elections following its constitution, and the union had success in recruiting members in the Public Service, especially the rail service, the hospitals, the postal service and telecoms. The approach adopted by the Fédération des syndicats Sud appears to have spawned a renewed interest in radicalism and militancy amongst members of other unions and employees generally. In particular, the Sud example is creating an impetus for organized labour leaders to renew their links with members.

The success of Sud-PTT, the first of its kind, rests on a mixture of political and union families and existing union attitudes and preoccupations. The new movement’s success appears to be due to a strategy of identifying and addressing particular worker needs. These are: the protection of salaries and working conditions (of the CGT type), the more qualitative need for the reduction of work time and of racism (of the CFDT type), and the more reformist need for career management and social causes (of the FO type) (Sainsaulieu, 1998).

This article examines the way Sud currently operates and how it is perceived 10 years after it was formed. The study uses a participative observation approach and examines, in particular, two struggles faced by paramedical hospital and non-medical workers in the Paris region. The author observed that local strikers were acting without the support of Sud militants, and the union federations, including their own Sud-Santé federation. The action of local activists was called “basist” or “localist” by their federation. The local strike was led by a non-permanent and politicized anesthesia nurse (who had hitherto refused union membership) and by a psychiatric nurse, with a similar profile in the neighboring hospital. It is concluded that these strike leaders took collective action while the federation sought unity with other unions at the regional level. This phenomena can be viewed as a tradeoff between taking strike action without the endorsement of others in the region and achieving unity amongst unions and unionists.

It is concluded that taking strike action with broad support has been a key component of Sud’s success. In particular, the Sud approach has been based on: radicalism and the influence of the masses, direct and representative democracy (in professional elections), control over workers and social control (Hyman, 1991). The hospital sector is not the only one involved, other conflicts within Sud became evident in discussions within the federation of Postal Services and Telecoms. These conflicts revolved around on the choice between general and sectoral campaigns, and between local and federal concerns.

Studies of strikes show that the “base/summit” divide (if one can use this image, given the small size of the sudiste pyramid) is carried out within a single generation. Those of the “sixty-eight” generation may be considered to possess either a responsibility ethic or a conviction ethic. Founded by radicals, Sud has moderated over the years and has divisions within its membership which would seem to separate it from the CFDT. These ideological gaps have revealed themselves in practice between partisans of direct and indirect democracy. They are also based upon the experiences of different sets of activists, some concerned with structure, and the others attached to teams and local practices, more sensitive to collective action.

The primary focus of our analysis is dual: born of and for collective action, unionism appears yet again amid contradictions, between control over workers, and social control. At the same time, the importance of the individuality of opinion leaders is reaffirmed. More militant unions typically gain their reputation from the attitudes and orientations of their leaders. Finally, we find traces of the anarcho-syndicalism militants “persuaded of the necessity of individual action and of the value of the individual, trained and educated” (Chambelland, 1999). In other words, faced with institutionalism the strong individualist dimension of collective unionism has persisted, even grown.

What then becomes of the democratic union collectivity, caught between institutionalization and individuality? Democracy is a source of legitimacy for any modern political organization. Unions in particular should remain democratic, irrespective of their degree of professionalism or centralization. In the same way, unions must be grounded in the collective work, from which they stray on more than one point. However, despite the ethical involvement of activists and occasional collectives, it seems to us that it is necessary to abandon the assimilation of unionism into a “vast movement of emancipation” (Contrepois, 2003). Its local or temporal vitality translates into action but without subverting a tendency to union supremacy for itself (Hyman, 1991). There does not seem to be any intangible safeguard, or political culture, so present in France (Clegg, 1976), nor a “militant elite” sheltered from distortions (Collinet, 1951), even if collective action requires, in effect, collective and individual resources.

Intra-organizational tensions underline the importance of individual militant energy, first for action and implantation, then as a counter weight to institutionalization. Everyone, regardless of their position in the union, can keep or preserve preoccupations outside of the union and follow higher principles, be they ethical or political.


Sindicalismo critico y desafío institucional

¿ hacia la individualización del militantismo ?

Con el caso de una monografía francesa (los sindicatos del Sur), nosotros planteamos la cuestión de la regeneración democratica del sindicalismo burocrático. A pesar de las referencias políticas comunes, en especial la preocupación de renovación « democrática » vía la búsqueda de proximidad con la base, el despertar de la acción reivindicativa enfrenta lógicas de acción y voceros opuestos en nombre del despertar de sensibilidades políticas divergentes, pero todos ellos herederos de una misma cultura política de la revuelta del 68. Las dimensiones colectivas e individuales se mezclan entonces a problemas de estructura del sindicalismo, dividido entre dos concepciones contradictorias del control (salarial o social) o de la democracia (directa o indirecta). El proceso de institucionalización contradice la reactivación de referenciales políticos del sindicalismo francés mientras que el proceso de individualización social acentúa el rol de los individuos en un contexto de escasez de acción colectiva.