Bellemare, Guy

Gosselin, Éric

Harisson, Denis
Laplante, Normand
Paquet, Renaud
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Renaud Paquet

The degree of autonomy of Canadian local unions of national and international unions.

Diane Veilleux & Renaud Paquet

The author studied the degree of autonomy of Canadian locals chartered by national and international unions. In the North American context, the local constitutes a basic cell, but also the hard core of union organization. In fact, member recruitment is done through the local for purposes of certification that gives it the right to impose the collective bargaining of employees' working conditions on an employer. Once certification is achieved, the members of the local, as well as other employees who are not members of the local but are included in the certified bargaining unit, are subject to a compulsory check-off of union dues and must count on the local for all matters concerning negotiation and the administration of the collective agreement. Consequently, in the eyes of the bargaining unit employees, whether or not they are members of the local, it plays a role of paramount importance in protecting their professional interests. However, the autonomy of the local with regard to the national or international union which created it is not necessarily proportional to the major role that the local is required to play in local collective bargaining. In fact, national and international unions, in particular those in industrial sectors, have adopted centralizing collective bargaining practices, furthering union solidarity in order to increase their bargaining power. Although collective bargaining prevails on a local basis, that is employer by employer, the industrial unions have succeeded, with the collective bargaining pattern, in imposing similar working conditions in major industrial sectors. This centralizing approach to collective bargaining translates into control, to varying degrees, over the locals of national and international unions.

Our purpose was to examine the degree of autonomy of the locals of national and international unions because we consider this subject an important issue in the present socio-economic context, and one that requires unions to rethink their whole operating structures. The question of decentralization of union structures is the subject of considerable discussion in the North American and European literature, although the details of the issue differ from one continent to the other. In the North American context, the degree of autonomy granted to locals by national or international unions is one of the important elements that must be taken into account in the debate concerning the reorganization of union structures. It would be preferable for locals to exercise greater decision-making power in matters directly concerning them in order to deal with new local questions, for instance renewed militancy and member solidarity, or flexibility in the organization of labour. Do the bylaws of international unions providing for the existing formal structures give locals the right to redefine their roles in the union's structure, or do they maintain the control of the national or international unions in this area? Determining the degree of autonomy of locals, as provided in unions' bylaws, offers some clues.

Consequently, we have proposed a categorization of national and international unions according to the degree of autonomy they grant to their locals. This categorization is based on various indicators that we do not claim to be exhaustive. These indicators are significant factors, nevertheless, whether in the protection of professional interests or in internal management. This categorization shows that locals' autonomy does not automatically depend on whether they are chartered by a national or an international union, except for nationally certified unions in the federal public service. Although the national and international unions in industrial sectors have a reputation of centralizing control, our categorization tends to prove that this reputation is not necessarily founded in every case. Most of the unions in this study could be classified as industrial unions. Some are very decentralized, others not at all.

As the results demonstrate, the nationally certified unions (PSAC, CUPW, PIPS) in the federal public service are at one end of the spectrum. Overall, they give very little autonomy to their locals, which essentially constitute administrative divisions of the unions that created them. In this way, the certified national unions can maintain a permanent and direct link at the local level, without granting any significant decision-making power at this level. At the other end of the spectrum, some national and international unions (SEIU, CUPE) give great autonomy to their locals. These unions, in the services sector, constitute a good example of what we referred to before as 'franchisees' of the parent union. These locals cannot be considered only administrative divisions of the parent unions. According to the bylaws, at least, they have their own identity. The degree of autonomy of other locals falls somewhere between these two extremes. However, some major industrial unions (USWA, CAW) grant their locals a degree of autonomy that leads us to consider the latter to be basically administrative divisions rather than 'franchisees' of the parent union.

Is it better for a national or international union to go with a decentralized structure? Our aim was not to answer this question, but rather to demonstrate that some locals are in a better position to handle this question themselves than others, depending on the bylaws governing their links with the national or international unions. Whether locals actually want decentralization and how that could be achieved while preserving union solidarity remains to be seen.

PAQUET, Renaud et Diane VEILLEUX (1997), " The Degree of Autonomy of Canadian Union Locals ", dans M. Sverke, The Future of Trade Unionism : International Perspectives on Emerging Union Structures, Aldershot, U. K., Ashgate Publishing, pages 149-160.

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