Morley Gunderson and Andrew Sharpe, eds. Forging Business-Labour Partnerships: The Emergence of Sector Councils in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 336pp. 19.95 paper.

This ambitious collection of essays by twelve authors (plus contributions by the editors) renews the question, first posed over twenty years ago, whether this is still the century of corporatism. Although originally raised by European social theorists, this query has had a special resonance with Canadian social scientists, given the long history of ambiguous and failed corporatist initiatives in this country. Forging-Business-Labour Partnerships examines the latest iteration of corporatist experimentation, the establishment of joint industry sectoral councils that organize cooperative participation by labour and business in training and industrial adjustment programs. The councils are formed on an industry basis and have included 25 different industry groups with either functioning councils or plans for such. To date practically every private sector union in Canada has had some experience in a sectoral council, thereby making them important objects of study (Hayes). Most notable are the ones which are analyzed in a number of papers in this collection, including joint training and adjustment protocols in the steel (Verma et al.), electric and electronics (Wolfe and Martin) and auto parts industries. Other papers by Haddad and Atkinson and Pervin provide useful comparative analysis of the councils in these three sectors.

We are informed in historical narrative accounts by Fletcher and Smith that such councils came about more by accident than design. In part they have been spurred on by the massive economic changes of the 1980s and 90s, and by the perceived inadequacies of neo-liberal labour market policies in certain provincial governments (the PQ in Quebec [Charest] and the NDP in Ontario [Bradford] and BC). Emerging intellectual fashions such as the industry sector studies within the federal departments of Human Resource Development and Employment and Immigration also played a role in the foundation of the new bipartite training bodies.

The first such council was cobbled together to deal with the ‘downside adjustments’ in the Canadian steel industry. The Canadian Steel Trade and Employment Congress (CSTEC) came together to present a common front between the union (USWA) and the major employers over trade grievances with the United States. As part of a quid pro quo, adjustment issues associated with massive downsizing were also placed on the agenda.We are told in papers by Haddad and Verma et al. that large majorities (75 to 80%) of those who took retraining courses through CSTEC found new jobs, although more detailed information, which certainly would have been useful, is not provided. These developments were followed in 1992 by the federal Sectoral Partnerships Initiative, which provided short term funding for the creation of new industrial sectoral councils. The aim was to enhance the competitive potential of the economy through ‘upside adjustments’ which would supply the new skills that form the basis of competitive advantage in particular industrial clusters (Wolfe and Martin, Charest, Bradford).

It is safe to say that all of the contributors to this volume view the experience of sectoral councils in a positive light. For some they are associated not only with the skill enhancement that is said to accompany the new technologies, but with a ‘worker driven training model’ that can be contrasted with management’s preferred ideal of narrow competency based training, (Wolfe and Martin). By placing training under the auspices of a co-determinative model new opportunities are opened up for both workers and their unions. Individuals can access more generalized and portable forms of knowledge that are not necessarily tied to specific work sites. Unions, for the first time, can gain decision-making input into the content and funding of training, thereby making inroads into areas that have traditionally been reserved as managerial rights. In the process they can acquire greater visiibility and legitimacy. In turn, this may have spillover effects into other areas of joint concern. Here the hope is that cooperative jointness in the realm of training will flow on to other areas of union/managerial concern and that an industrial relations climate that has traditionally been characterized by adversarialism will give way to a climate of greater trust, side-by-side problem solving and interest as opposed to positional bargaining, (Verma et al., Atkinson and Pervin, Chaykowski, Gunderson and Sharpe). Two papers by Cutcher-Gershenfeld and Haddad add a cautionary note to this scenario, observing that some features of contemporary HR such as just-in-time management systems and lean production are in fact incompatible with co-determination. In particular, Haddad provides an insightful description of struggles around curriculum development and modes of delivery in the three councils mentioned above.

Apart from this though, the major omission that runs throughout the collection is the absence of a more critical voice. The need for workers and unions to conform/adjust to a radically market- driven and globally competitive system of production is taken as a given in most of the papers (‘allocative efficiency’ - Gunderson and Sharpe). That this system is conducive to skill enhancement also has the status of a truism, as the concept of skill is left unproblematised. Finallly, that union locals can begin to think about merging aspects of their identity in the greater group consciousness of jointness (Verma, Lamertz and Warrian) without endangering their presence in the workplace seems quite naive in an era of high unemployment and globalized capital.

A number of the authors in this volume, including spokespersons for both business (Finlayson) and the CLC (Hayes) recognize that in the current climate new and even limited ‘meso’ experiments in corporatism are dubious ventures. To the extent that this denies the less powerful a voice at the table in favour of unilateralist neo-liberal agendas, it is regrettable. To the extent that it forfeits buy-in to a ‘new golden era’ of joint problem solving and the submerging of contested identities, perhaps it is less so.

Bob Russell
Departments of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Saskatchewan

January 1999
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