Will occupational health help union revitalization? A review of the “sanitization” of the playbook of trade union action

By Rémy Ponge

Several theories have tried to explain the growing visibility of psychological suffering in the workplace (stress, burnout, psychosocial risks, etc.): the “psychologization” of society, the evolution of work and occupational risks, the construction of a public problem, etc. This article looks at the possible “sanitization” of trade union action, i.e., the growing importance of the theme of work-related suffering in the discourse and practices of trade unions. It examines what this says about the current transformations of trade unionism and its role in the politicization of labor issues. We look at the French union directorates’ technical advisers in charge of working conditions since the 1990s. We show that the CGT, in particular, primarily wanted to address a highly publicized social problem. Nevertheless, their interest in this subject was also closely linked to their reconciliation with a number of social scientists on the one hand, and to the declining power of trade unions on the other hand. In a context of poor unionization and growing difficulty for collective action (strikes, work stoppages), the trade union leaderships are trying, with occupational health, to help their activists regain control over perennial questions, like the distribution of power in the workplace.

  • labor
  • trade unions
  • mental suffering
  • harassment
  • mobilization
  • politicization
  • sanitization
  • health
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