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Yonatan Reshef
School of Business
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

Original article

With the advent of the legal requirement for a trade union to possess representative status, first introduced in France in 1936 as a criterion of the capacity to conclude collective agreements that may be extended (see extension of collective agreements) and subsequently widened to include large areas of union activity, representativeness has become not so much a sociological quality as a legal capacity. It now constitutes a trade union's legal capacity to represent the interests of a particular occupation in dealings with the public authorities and the employers. The concept of a group and its agent has been supplanted by formal recognition of a representative by third parties.

The legal concept of union representativeness implies a process of selection within the trade union movement; only certain unions that meet certain criteria are deemed capable of representation. This leaves the question of defining the logic on which this selection is based. The weight of legal doctrine in France has been towards basing it on a union's authenticity as an established counterweight to the employers, which means that priority is given to tradition and a strongly established presence. A different logic might have given priority to recognition of the representative by the social group itself.

The legal system governing representativeness adopts standard solutions applicable to all the circumstances in which representative status is a requirement (negotiation and conclusion of a collective agreement, formation of a union branch within the enterprise, workplace elections, organization of strikes in the public services and, sometimes, representativeness before the courts). It establishes two routes for attributing representative status: a representativeness which, if contested, can be proven principally on the basis of historical criteria (independence from employers, length of existence, experience, patriotic attitude during the Occupation) and secondarily on the basis of criteria concerning membership numbers and electoral support; and a legal presumption of representativeness by reason of a union's affiliation to one of the five trade union confederations. This latter method of attributing representative status on the basis of affiliation established the supremacy of the five confederations and, at the same time, the structural division of French trade unionism. It may be judged that this division produced a fragmentation of representation which, in turn, contributed to the weakness of the trade union movement and its integration into the political system.

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