Accueil » 9-1 ( 1953) » Rôle du syndicalisme dans la vie politique

Rôle du syndicalisme dans la vie politique

Émile Gosselin


L'action politique des syndicats ouvriers est souvent mal comprise. L'auteur décrit les formes qu'elle peut prendre dans notre système démocratique et en admet deux: l'orientation et l'action directe non-partisane. Il rejette l'action directe partisane.


Unions and Politics

Politics has as object the settling of relations between the government and the governed in order to realize the common good. In democratic countries the citizens are the final authority in the State and they may as of right and in fact, elect the government of their choice and insist that it legislate and administrate in the way desired by the majority.

In order to play an enlightened role, the citizen must form an accurate opinion on society's problems. It is also necessary that he may, by appropriate ways, act on his government either to guide it or to control its actions. May the union enlighten the citizen on political problems? May it influence the government in favour of the workers and in what way? In order to reply to these questions, it is necessary to place the union in the life of the nation and analyze the merits of the techniques of the following political action:

  1. Political orientation;

  2. Direct partisan action;

  3. Direct non-partisan action.


A union has not only the right but also the duty to use all legitimate means that will allow it to ensure the study, defense and promotion of the professional, economic and social interests of its members as long as the resort to any means, even honest, does not divert it from its objective.

Traditionally, unions had devoted all their energies to the organization of the profession and to the negotiation of collective agreements, using occasionally their right to strike. These traditional means of action are still essential to the survival of unionism and to the promotion of the members' welfare. Hut they are not enough, if the predominant effect of politics on the life of the worker and of his union is taken into effect. Government action constantly affects unions and their members in matters beyond the scope of the collective agreement and which can only be studied on their true merits in the political sphere.

In a true democracy, a government could not keep in power if, by its actions it no longer represented the will of the majority. The role of government is to reconcile the interests of all individuals and all groups, and not to impose programmes which do not truly represent popular needs. In so far as individuals and movements will be ready to finally come to the necessary compromise in order to realize the common good, it is essential that they be at liberty to express their demands and even their dissatisfaction. It is then, in so far as each movement or individual does not try to restrict or hinder similar liberty of otheT movements or individuals, that our laws will truly reflect the popular will. There is, therefore, no valid principle which might prevent unions from influencing the government in a way that is in conformity to their real interests and to demand their just share in national politics.

First technique of political action : INDIRECT ACTIONOR POLITICAL ORIENTATION

A union carries out indirect political action, or political orientation, when it does not try to use the government or the machinery of government, to control or to influence relations of a political nature. If it limits itself to political orientation, the union only makes known to its members or to the public, its legislative demands and requests them either to take them into account when voting or to support them in regard to the government. It does not take any official position on the subject of candidates, parties or political programmes. It does not indicate how or for whom to vote. This technique has therefore no other aim than the civic education of members and citizens.

A labour movement that is really responsible must accept its true role in the life of the nation. It must b e integrated in the nation, establish its programme of action and make it known to all those who are affected by the labour movement: government, employers and others. All workers are certainly not union members, but it would be against the spirit of democracy to ignore the well-deserved demands of union leaders. One of the main functions of parties and governments is to reconcile the divergence of interests in the country. It is therefore not only useful but essential that individuals or groups make known their needs. Thus union political orientation cannot prove an obstacle in the real task of democratic parties or governments.

Union political orientation is necessary, as the unions must be heard by the government just the same as any other group of citizens. This is a fundamental right of unionism in the modern state. This right should be encouraged and developed, as otherwise the machinery of government, of which the task is precisely to reconcile different programmes or demands coming from different environments, in order to make its acts conform to the common good, may be put out of line.


A union carries out non-partisan direct action if it limits itself to influencing the government or the representatives of the people, by manoeuvering, controlling or influencing one or several elements in the government machinery, but without desiring to exercise power itself or take the responsibility for the administration. A non-partisan union expects to remain independent in spite of the support that it feels it must grant either to a programme or to candidates or to a party favourable to the union. In other words, by refusing to identify itself with political parties or candidates, it prevents them from interfering in its own business.

In taking sides for a candidate or a party, the union does not intend to suppress all opposition to the political programme that it proposes. It only wishes that government ac'ion encourage true harmony between employers and workers and not be influenced only by groups that are hostile or indifferent to the welfare of the workers. With this aim in view but without affiliating itself, the movement will support the candidates or the party which voluntarily accepts the legislation proposed as being in 'he best interests of the nation. But this political action does not in any way force a member to become affiliated to a party or even to vote one way or another.

No doubt non-partisan political action offers some danger for the worker's movement. In a country like ours where several organizations are preferred to a single labour movement, it would be possible to see various movements supporting candidates belonging to opposite sides. A lack of foresight and carefulness, untimely gestures could bring about serious devisions within a movement. No doub , more experience will permit the unions to get around the dangers inherent in all direct political action. It is normal for the unions to constantly inform their members, as much on the probable effect of the political programmes on unionism, as on the character, honesty and capaci'ies of those who desire to be in power, if the members decide that such a non-partisan political action is honest and appropriate to the desired aims of the union, and the union movement will not be diver'ed from its objectives, they must decide themselves on the risks of this action and its intensity.


By direct and partisan union political action, is meant all political action of the union of which the aim would be to ultimately secure power and exercise it, either alone or with other powerful associations federated in a party. Here we are using the term partisan in its most restric'ed sense. A union is partisan not because it gives some kind of support to a party but because as a union, it identifies itself with a party and becomes a part of it and as such, tries to exercise the power.

The great majority of Canadian workers grouped in unions refuse to accept the formula of direct partisan action. Logically a union could then only exercise power by delegating members to the party itself. In parliamentary rule, where a strong party discipline is necessary, a union could not keep all its liberty of action without risking to break with the party itself. The effect would be a weakening if not the downfall of a government which must be stable for the length of its mandate. In a short time, it would be the ruin of democracy. By following partisan action, affiliating itself with a party, the union would rapidly become a pure and simple instrument of government. With the undoubtedly rapid interference of Candida'es or parties in the internal affairs of the union, there would be the danger that the political affiliation of the member becomes a condition of admittance to the union. This consequence would go against a condition of true unionism which is the admittance of a member without question as to his legitimate political affiliation. Otherwise, it would only be party considerations which would regulate the relations within a union.


Political nction, even if it remains at the political orientation s'age, is a necessity in any labour movement, in view of the complexity and the interdependence of modern life. Direct and non-partisan action is possible provided that the union remains truly independent of all political connections. The extent of this non-partisan action still remains a question for the members to decide, at the same time using much care in such a delicate and explosive matter.

We believe, however, that the policy of direct affiliation (direct partisan action), will not suit the true needs of unionism. In view of the present political situation in the country, the state of mind of the electors and the majority of union members, such a policy of direct partisan action would be, in our opinion, to the great disadvantage of our unions.