Confederation of National Trade Unions | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Confederation of National Trade Unions

The Catholic unions were reorganized at the end of WWI, stressing protection of members' rights and interests as workers. Anxious to unite their forces, they jointly formed the Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labour in 1921 with about 17 600 members.
Marchand, Jean
Labour leader Jean Marchand (right) supporting striking workers at Gaspé Copper Co, Murdochville, Québec, August 1957 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-163000).

Confederation of National Trade Unions

Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU, or Confédération des syndicats nationaux, CSN) was called the Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labour (CCCL) from its beginnings in 1921 until 1960, when the organization abandoned its religious identity. It was founded by members of the clergy who feared the socialist and anticlerical ideas of the international unions. Confined only to Catholic members but open as well to English-speaking Canadians, the Catholic unions arose in many dioceses in Québec before WWI. They promoted the ideal of good understanding and co-operation between management and workers. However, this was quickly seen to be a utopian dream and some of these new unions witnessed a dramatic decline in membership.

The Catholic unions were reorganized at the end of WWI, stressing protection of members' rights and interests as workers. Anxious to unite their forces, they jointly formed the Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labour in 1921 with about 17 600 members. Membership declined during the 1920s but increased again after 1934, especially after WWII (62 690 members in 1946). Support came primarily from the construction, leatherworking, textile and garment industry workers.

After WWII the CCCL's ideology gradually lost its religious nature. A new leadership emerged that rejected corporatism and wanted the union to become more activist in nature. Major strikes during the 1950s (ASBESTOS STRIKE, 1949; Louiseville, 1952; Dupuis, 1952) and opposition from the government of Maurice DUPLESSIS increased union militancy. In 1960 the confederation dropped "Catholic" from its title (it became the Confederation of National Trade Unions) and dropped references to the SOCIAL DOCTRINE of the church from its statement of principles.

The CNTU became radicalized after 1964 by the influx of workers in the public and para-public sectors (see PUBLIC-SERVICE UNIONS) who shared the high expectations for social changes raised by the QUIET REVOLUTION. Convinced that the bourgeoisie dominated the state and that workers were inevitably in conflict with this economic power, the leaders argued for the replacement of capitalism by democratic socialism. This ideological swing caused much turmoil within the CNTU.

During the 1972 COMMON FRONT STRIKES, some leaders, including 3 members of the executive committee, left the CNTU to form the Central of Democratic Trade Unions (CDTU). Some 30 000 CNTU members, especially in the clothing, textiles, leather and mining industries, joined the breakaway organization.

Since 1964 the CNTU, with its many members in the civil service, hospitals and some education positions, has been at the centre of public sector employees' struggles for better working conditions. In 1972 the CNTU persuaded the Québec Teachers Corporation and the public sector workers of the Québec Federation of Labour to join it in a common front for negotiations with government. Then and in 1976 and 1979, the common front approach won valuable gains in minimum salary, job security and pensions.

In 1982-83 the government imposed decrees that included wage roll-backs and severe legal constraints. Since then public and para-public sector workers have seen their wages and working conditions improving more slowly than in the private sector. Under the threat of a cutback of 6% in salary, unions agreed in 1997 to an incentive policy for the retirement of 15 000 employees.

In the mid-1980s, the CNTU gave up its global condemnation of the capitalist system and began promoting co-operation and "conflicting concertation" with management to achieve greater efficiency and competitiveness. As with the rest of the union movement, the level of strikes among its members declined sharply in the 1990s. On the nationalist front, the central advocated greater autonomy from the provincial government in the 1960s. But later on, it evolved towards greater support for the political independence of Québec, suggesting to its members that they vote "yes" in the 1980 REFERENDUM. The central was even more eagerly at the forefront of the campaign for the separatist cause in the 1995 Referendum. In 1996 the CNTU consisted of 2178 local unions, divided into 9 sectoral federations and 13 regional central councils with a total membership of 230 205.


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