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Chapter 2

The Crisis of Union Representation: New Forms of
               Social Integration and Autonomy-Construction

Ana María Catalano 


The new and changing scenario (social, productive, technical and political) of mature capitalism, puts in question the future of the trade union as the privileged representative of the waged worker. 

The centrality of capital-labour conflict under capitalism creates the systematic need of means for the negotiation of discipline and control. But do these means continue, today, to have the unions as a primary actor? Do not current social, productive and technical transformations legitimise new forms of worker representation? Will it be possible to rebuild the social legitimacy of union representation in a situation of 1) increasingly fragmented and dispersed social relations, and 2) of the decentralisation of negotiations? 

The purpose of this paper is to analyse these issues as follows: by 1) identifying the historic functions and meanings of the union as a form of worker representation; 2) sketching the social, institutional and productive changes that lead this - and other forms of collective representation - to a crisis of legitimacy; 3) speculating on the possible forms unions could adopt as new organs of social identity and solidarity. 

I. The functions and meanings of union representation

Throughout the 20th century, unions, as the historical form of worker representation, have developed a variety of social functions. Such functions have varied from representing the aspirations and claims of a relatively homogeneous social group - creating its identity, framing its solidarity and integrating its members into a society which excluded them - to contributing to the system's social regulation by transforming individual interests into collective ones and the latter into suitable proposals for collective bargaining. The social and productive transformations of the last decades have affected not only workers' relations with society in general but also the unions in the above-indicated functions. 

1. Union representation, social integration and the construction of social and occupational identity

At the beginning of the 20th century, trade union representation primarily expressed the collective construction of the social identity of waged-earners - a central category of capitalist society. Within each trade workers were relatively homogeneous: they participated in the same subculture, they based their daily practices on similar rules and values. And the sharing of a general common worldview facilitated the interpretative capacity of the first forms of collective organisation. 

A social identity is built when a group recognises itself as different, distinct from another, when it recognises that it plays roles (through the adoption of distinct rules, values and emotions), when it frames a common group worldview, distinct from others. Identity -as a process of the social construction and learning of roles, of collective forms of interpretation and attribution of meanings - gives rise to a process of autonomy-construction enabling action (accumulated and recognised as a historic memory by these first forms of collective organisation). 

Trade unions thus institutionalised a form of representation which fulfilled a double mission: 1) the social construction of worker identity and autonomy according to their occupational involement in the productive system (the job); and 2) to contribute - on the basis of this differentiation from and even confrontation with employers - to worker integration into the capitalist social system. 

There has been much discussion about the characteristics of this form of representation, especially about the loss over time of union capacity to build autonomous worker identity-forms. Such a loss is usually attributed to bureaucratisation, seen as depriving these organisations of `direct contact with the class'. This is an essentialist interpretation of the union-worker or union-class relations. Social group representation, here, does not mean the capacity to interpret interests and values guiding the group but to in some way reflect a class essence (Rosanvallon, 1988). 

The essentialist concept of representation is that working-class identity comes, naturally and directly, from the identical interests of each occupational group and that, as such, it is something given and immutable. From this point of view, the unions of the early period appear as a natural reflection of this essence. The construction of working-class autonomy is the natural consequence of this direct and homogeneous representation. Representation is, in this understanding, a reflection of the `needs' of a social class or class sector. 

Essentialism hardly helps us decode the problem of legitimacy faced by collective representation in terms of the social construction of interpretative capacity. Essentialism minimises the necessity of developing workers' capacity to construct, interpret and identify themselves as occupational and social subjects. 

This understanding devalues unions. Their representative capacity results, in reality, not only from their class origin. It comes primarily from their capacity to express, communicate and represent a collective-identity and social-integration project for a group of workers discriminated by the society of the particular time (Rosanvallon, 1988). 

2. Trade union representation and instrumental rationality

The relative homogeneity preserved by groups of workers belonging to the same trade has been broken by a new rationality invading the productive sphere. The homongeneity consisted of occupational knowledge, a concept of life, forms of family learning (transmitted as secrets from generation to generation), values concerning the occupation, the craft and the product. Under the Taylorist/Fordist socio-technical mode, work is devalued as an occupation and re-signified as a means for earning a wage. The individual job is no longer considered a specialised part of the global division of social labour. As a means of earning a living, it merely allows broad sectors of the population access to the distribution of goods, which is carried out through the market. 

The social integration of industrial workers and the development of work systems which destroy trades (as a professional nucleus from which material life is produced in massive form) brings about a historical transformation of the basis of union representativity. 

Collective representation no longer relies on an `occupationally' but on a `socially' homogeneous group - workers - who have developed an instrumental understanding of their occupational role and productive activity. In the course of the 20th century, relations with the material world have become organised in a utilitarian manner. Social relations constructed in the employment situation tend to isolate and devalue occupational skills and to restrict genuine interaction between workers. A merely utilitarian relationship with labour requires weak occupational identities and the exercise of roles in which the capacity for autonomy is low. 

Work loses the element of professionalism. Collective representation loses its capacity to interpret the worker's work and social worldview - to respond to the instrumental logic imposed by the new relations of labour. Collective representation, rather than being an interpretation of the worker's life-world (Habermas 1984), becomes an interpretation of the instrumental rationality of the world of labour. The loss of capacity to interpret and construct the worker's labour and social worldview implies, for unions, the beginning of a loss of capacity to generate identity and autonomy amongst workers and a consequent crisis of legitimacy. 

Along with the full development and institutionalisation of collective representations, there takes place the social integration of workers. Society recognises, accepts and negotiates the terms of their social and political participation. Union representation no longer implies an opposition reinforcing identity and providing membership to a group discriminated against by the existing power. Trade unions now reinterpret the social and working interests of their members in an instrumental way, forgetting issues of identity and autonomy. Negotiations take place around wages and working conditions - almost solely when they affect worker health or performance. Rarely dealt with are issues of skill, methods of work organisation, new production methods, and the control of society or production. 

Instrumental rationality is extended from work to representation. Just as there is no construction of a social and labour identity, neither is there the construction of union membership as an expression of identity. The union runs the risk of becoming less a social institution than another service-rendering one and, finally, a market institution. 

Instrumental rationality ends up with workers distancing themselves from their representatives. Union legitimacy is now measured in terms of their capacity to find solutions and obtain wage rises, job security and social-security benefits. Unions become, in fact, advice bureaus concerned with labour rights and duties, and social-security agencies, facilitating access to the consumption of basic health, education, entertainment services, etc. This movement from collective representation to instrumental rationality turns the union into an agent of regulation for the social system. 

3. Trade union representation and systemic rationality

Advanced capitalist societies, in the second half of the 20th century, incorporate a range of institutions within their main system-regulation mechanisms (Habermas 1976). 

The trade union as an institution is no longer the expression of a collective social representation but a separate political actor in their members' lifeworld. This transformation of the union into a political actor has very serious consequences. Not only does the union become an instrument for obtaining social-security benefits complementary to those offered by the welfare state, but also a political actor which, in contradiction, is articulated with the systemic mechanisms for the social regulation of the same. 

Union integration into social self-regulation has been interpreted as the `bureaucratisation' of the political leadership of such organisations. Bureaucratisation represents forms of power and a logic inherent to a group in power. Social and political analysts used to think that privileging relations with `the class' would prevent unions being so instrumentalised and integrated. Such an interpretation fails to recognise that the logic of the system is permanently oriented towards the systemic integration of the institutions which compose it, at the expense of the social integration of their members. 

Nevertheless, in modern societies, this separating and distancing of the institutions from their members ends up by creating a feeling of their illegitimacy and an increasing threat to the social integration of their members. The primacy of systemic rationality lies no more in the actor's identity and autonomy but in the identity and autonomy of the system itself (Habermas 1976). 

Social production today depends on knowledge and decision-taking spheres about which unions know too little to be able to intervene, advise or negotiate. Unions restricted to the sphere of macroeconomic decision-taking have little to say about production processes. Here, where worker participation and involvement policies affect their identity, solidarity and autonomy construction, one needs concrete knowlede and technical-productive information. 

II. Crisis and transformation in society and production

The deep changes taking place at the level of society converge with the separation of collective representation, reinforcing the crisis of legitimacy and system-control. The dilemma for the institutional representativity of social movements is the creation of conditions allowing for the autonomous interaction of actors at the very moment that new system-control conditions are being created. 

As a matter of fact, the new production models tend to exclude unions both from worker representation and from system regulation. Given the exclusion of workers, what can unions possibly do? Let us now consider in more detail the possible changes in scenarios and functions. 

1. Social changes

The development of mature forms of mass society has tended to multiply points of points of social reference. Identity systems begin to be built on the basis of the quasi-simultaneous exercise of multiple roles. These social practices have a strongly differentiating effect on actors' interests and worldviews. Plural membership, in diverse groups, with distinct objectives and roles, makes the construction of collective identities more complex. 

Social movements are now unable to construct real social identities, relying instead on temporary identifications, directed toward well-defined and utilitarian objectives. Membership of social movements or institutions is no longer considered by actors as a totalising fact. Representation on a more-permanent basis is questioned. It is difficult for institutions to extend the involvement of their members over time. 

The collapse of collective identity has a profound effect on unions. As has already been stated, paid work has lost the capacity of providing the focal point, and moral value, of life activity (Offe 1985). This process has become more significant with the transformation of the labour process and company organisation in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The notion of work is today increasingly abstract. It has no reference to an occupation with a specific content or social position. Work situations appear more and more subordinate to public social and labour policies and to company human-resource strategies. The sphere of work is shaped heteronomously by public and business policy (Offe 1985). In collective bargaining, vital conflicts and experiences appear overdetermined by social events outside the work situation (religion, community, social and economic policies). Skill, in the worker lifeworld, has been isolated and banalised in order to reinforce worker control and discipline. But this banalisation has affected labour creativity and quality. And this undoubtedly represents a new dilemma for the productivity of work systems. 

Under contemporary capitalism, the nature of work says little about workers' interests, about their view of the world, their life style, their skill. Company-specific subcultures, created on the basis of new forms of work organisation, reduce the impact of global social and employment influence on identity, recognition and membership processes. Admission requirements, qualifications demanded, social recognition, the content of work and the autonomy established, become more and more individualised. Workers are not always selected for their previous experience. Experience is considered rather a source of conflict or insubordination than of professionalism. Control and discipline, rather than one's own professionalism, prevail. This fact - rather than the worldview created by a specific job - continues to inform the contradiction established by waged work. 

The development of the tertiary sector, on the one hand, and of personal services on the other, also changes the nature of work. The `customer' philosophy imposed by the new productive logic mixes work forms `of production' with those of `service provision'. Here the relation of the producer to work becomes concrete not in respect of the product, or of a specific skill, but in respect of the `satisfaction of customer needs' - of the service provided. This relationship reveals a new logic of work organisation and `professionalisation'. Here the technical production function becomes more uncertain, the response to unforeseen circumstances more permanent, the `service provision' more personalised and less standardised. This is why some authors refer to the formation of a post-industrial service society (Offe 1985). 

The `service-offering' nature of work - whether there exists a legal labour contract or not - implies a new kind of skill, with different technical elements and extensive communicational and relational ones. These features tend to peripheralise the technical requirements inherent to the trade or profession - and to establish conditions closer to that of citizenship than that of labour. Here, identity with work as a life experience changes radically and - consequently - the bases on which unions might contribute to the building of new social and occupational identities. 

The reduction in the importance of work to the formation of social and occupational identities is not, however, limited solely to the change in output from `product' to `service provider'. It is also related to a new institutionality: tasks are carried out without contract stability, without accumulation of occupational experience over time, without involvement in collective bargaining (e.g. homework, telework, etc.), without a previously defined job- description, without anticipation of unexpected situations, without a defined working day or definite contract, and without a specific workload. This new `institutionalisation' of work obviously separates it from a kind capable of providing identity and autonomy - of making the worker an `individual'. The new form of work makes it today a systemic imperative of survival, rather than a social duty (the purpose of which is to integrate the worker, both morally and autonomously, into society) (Offe 1985). 

The social changes deeply affect individual identities. Within such a context, in which reference systems are both focused and disaggregated in time, and in which both the fact and notion of work are in crisis, what can unions do to rebuild social and occupational identities and valid reference systems? 

2. Changes in the meaning and function of collective representation

The largest social movements and even the typical forms of collective organisation tend today to acquire customer-type relations with the members represented. Representation no longer implies member identity but a consideration for something else. The member pays a certain fee for a specific service. 

Under this instrumental rationality the idea of representation itself undergoes fundamental transformation. It no longer expresses a capacity for construction of collective identity but an instrument of mediation and a means for obtaining equivalents. Representation, as a means of mediation, can be applied to any group with common interests. Such a concept of representation can be applied to both heterogeneous and homogeneous groups since it simply implies the taking of concrete and specific action under more or less conflictive conditions. Social representation has become banal, stretching from unions to consumer protection or neighbourhood associations. The symbolic equivalence of all kinds of representation ends up by unifying and obscuring social relations, and banalising the relation which workers should have with unions as an expression of their interests and worldview. 

The social representation typical of democratic systems usually implies a corporatist style which, due to its similar appearance, relates also to trade union representation. We should not, however, be confused by this appearance of similarity. The institutional forms of democratic systems tend to an instrumental rationality, facilitating social negotiation when market mechanisms are inadequate. These allow the mutation of ephemeral interests and express themselves as groups exerting pressure in certain areas of power. 

Trade unions, in spite of their integration within system regulation, are a bearer of multiple contradictions and ambiguities, even in a context of deep crisis and the reconstruction of labour relations. Thus, even at a moment of extreme weakness of their representativity, we cannot disregard their base in central contradictions of capitalist society and increasing asymmetries of power. Their roots in individual social and occupational identity constitutes their strength, in terms of a capacity for workers to create autonomous identity-forms. 

3. Production changes

Productive transformations have given rise to profound mutations within companies. The control of productive systems is no longer understood as a process of adjustment amongst collective actors - as the `Fordist settlement' provided - but is re-signified as the control of information flows both within the company and between the company and its environment. 

The company increasingly appears as an interactive system of information, of communication, of decentralised and self-regulated economic, social and technical decisions. Within this company model, associations of employers recognise the necessity of new forms of social management. Such management will no longer depend on macro-social collective bargaining, entered into by more-or-less centralised representatives of the actors concerned. Social management within these new organisation models depends on the introduction of forms of communication, interaction, and the heteronomous involvement of workers, allowing for integration with systemic company regulation networks. As opposed to the Taylorist/Fordist model, in which participation was excluded and/or suspected by company management - and only institutionalised and centralised consensus forms between the representations were permissible - the new work systems rely, quite explicitly, on heteronomous forms of participation. These forms become part of company management systems. 

The new forms of work organisation revalue, for capital, the site at which data originates, at which information and productive knowledge are built. In the new work systems, the centrality of information and communication contains, has as its opposite, the fear and risk of autonomy - of discussion by workers about the systemic integration proposed by the company. 

A critical view of the rationale of company information and communication systems could lead to the proposal of a decentralised representational architecture, providing both for systemic regulation and social interaction. These new forms of representation should be capable of creating, for workers, autonomous reference systems and cultural models, alternative to those proposed by companies. 

Such a critical position would allow workers to challenge the current hegemony of company management over the creation and expression of the new production culture. Reappropriation of this culture by workers, during a phase of profound technological, organisational and social change, would be central to the generation of an alternative counterpower. 

III. Union representation as communicative action

Instrumental rationality has entered the lifeworld, leading individuals to organise their relations with the environment, and with other individuals, in a utilitarian manner. Companies, and the institutions and organisations of collective representation, have been influenced by this rationality. 

Most of the the knowledge produced in contempory society is rational-intentional: that is to say that it is a collection of technical information permitting the relatively efficient handling of the material world, and of decisions on the organisation of people, for utilitarian purposes. This rational-intentional knowledge does not, however, take account of the `intersubjective relation frame' on the basis of which consensus is built, values are incorporated, collective goals articulated, an effective interaction and real social integration are achieved (Wuthnow 1988). When representative institutions forget about the construction of these intersubjective relation frames, their legitimacy is endangered. 

Rational-intentional knowledge facilitates the short-term operation of social systems, at the same time that it encourages a legitimacy dependent on social segmentation, demotivating and disarticulating their members. This kind of rationality results in a `civil privatisation' effect (Wuthnow et. al. 1988), that is to say, a lack of interest, of will, and of participation in the public sphere. This civil privatisation facilitates forms of manipulation within macro-politics, and heteronomous participation forms controlled by private power. 

Due to the privileged relation they still have with the workers and citizens, unions could have a lot to say about 1) worldviews, 2) the reinterpretation of complex or contradictory situations, 3) the reconstruction of a group social and occupational identity (wage workers) and 4) the reconstruction of social solidarity within a development model presently excluding a large part of the population. 

1. I and we: the reconstruction of identity and solidarity

Under the current Taylorist/Fordist model, instrumental rationality produces productive and social practices permitting (with certain ambiguities) opposing forms of collective social identity (employees vs. employers), based on social relations, rather than those arising from concrete work systems. In this sense, the Taylorist-Fordist work organisation model created, among workers, worldviews, interests, relatively unified values in the occupational sphere (simple, unskilled, specialised work). Social identity was based on the social relations typical of capitalism, and solidarity seemed to be built through the mechanical addition of individual identities. Solidarity was constructed through resemblance, affinities, coexistence in a world of shared values. The trade union was a mere recipient, the gatherer of mechanically added solidarity. Its duty was to convert this into rights to be exercised by other members of the same occupation, as well as by other workers. 

Labour relations today reveal a segmented world of labour, full of oppositions and exclusions. Labour markets have changed their rules. Their governing institutions create different situations around the same job, position or function. Instrumental rationality is extended to all company levels: it is applied in the technical and social areas as well as in internal and external communication policies. Interactive communication projects company-integration forms as a system. Companes show little interest in contributing to the creation of an autonomous employee identity. Participation forms necessary for the management of the company as a communication system may be expressed in individual involvement devices, oriented neither to the formation of collective identity nor to solidarity. Such individual involvement has cost-benefit calculation as rationale. Benefits are obtained by the individual and, as such, represent personal advantages which are not extended to the collective nor to society. Instrumental rationality is a major obstacle to the surpassing of individualism and the acquiring of a collective and solidarity behaviour. 

Within the new context of production, solidarity arises neither from daily practice nor from co-operative organisational principles. Solidarity, under these conditions, has to be formed, to be agreed upon. The `we' concept does not, in reality, prevail as a constraint on individual ambition. 

The new forms of production organisation and labour revalue, for capital, the informative capacity of productive systems, which presents itself as a capacity to control natural and social processes. The capacity of the systems to create informative networks, however, does not manage to include social interactions. These occur spontaneously, in non-reflexive manner. It is on these that much productive knowledge is based, providing answers to unforeseen conditions and conflictive situations. The control of systems operating in highly uncertain environments is based on a capacity to establish forms of supervision and control over these spontaneous interactions and forms of regulation (Habermas 1986). 

The future of the unions, in this struggle, rests on control over productive knowledge and communicative processes. This control of knowledge is not, however, merely a matter of control over the sources of information but over the means of interpretation, the means of consensus-creation, of a common worldview, values and sentiments. In this sense, the `value' of the union is no longer as an advice bureau or a social security agency, or in its capacity to create system-governing rules, but in terms of communicative action (McCarthy 1978). Here the most important thing is the reconstruction of social-interaction forms leading to solidarity and to the preservation of employee autonomy. These forms of interaction are focused on the development of effective and critical means of reflection and communication. Communicative action is not confined to the act of understanding a fact or event, nor to mere interpretation. It implies a co-operative interpretation process allowing for agreed and co-ordinated action. The rationality immanent in daily practice refers, then, to argument, to criticism, to the possibility of identifying and correcting mistakes, to that of examinining the veracity of statements, the rectitude of actions and rules and the authenticity of expressive statements (McCarthy 1987). Solidarity, in future, will no longer be defined in terms of group sociology, of group identity, but in those of ethical action (Rosanvallon 1988). 

2. Trade union representation and communicative action

Trade unions, as the privileged form of employee representation, are confronted by radical changes in their social and occupational settings, in their historical functions, in the kind of links and interactions they have with those they represent, as well as in the forms of power which - as a new type of communication process - they build up with both employees and society. 

Within a context of worker disarticulation and social fragmentation, unions could become a useful form for the arbitration of diverse and conflicting claims. They would no longer be resticted to the automatic and quasi-reflective representation of a homogeneous social group. Instead, they would take on an eminently communicative nature as interpreters and constructors of standards for the distribution of resources among social groups. Communicative action provides a basis for those collective representations, worldviews and feelings which unify, in both values and action, those social sectors that the current production pattern opposes, divides and excludes. 

This type of solidarity cannot be built from `outside', by systemic institutions. It relies on communicative resources inherent in the lifeworld, in the basic life-experience of employees and citizens. 

The future of the unions lies in the construction of a solidarity of a new type (Rosanvallon 1988), based on the construction of consensus between differentiated groups. The construction of this kind of solidarity implies unions which, rather than being integrated with system-regulation mechanisms, are focused on society, which have sufficient capacity to rebuild the social tissue, to overcome exclusions, to establish new rules among actors. Such a mutation implies a cultural change: moving from a that of mobilisation - based on a notion of homogeneous interests and a dynamic of social conquest - to one aimed at the construction of a new type of communication process. 

The reconstruction of legitimate collective representativity depends on the validity attained by discourse between top officials and workers. Such validity brings into play three basic dimensions of communicative action: the claim - with respect to argument - of rectitude, of veracity and of coherence. These dimensions demand consideration of the relationship existing between the top officials, the workers and society. The claims of rectitude, veracity and coherence require that the theoretical and practical reasons on which moral action lies be perfectly articulated. The construction of consensus requires the setting aside of extra-argumentation co-action forms. It requires complex communication processes, based on interpretations that put in question elements of the objective world (Habermas 1987) (e.g. unemployment, dismissals, discrimination), elements of the social world (specific and particular interpersonal relations in a specific labour collective), and elements of the subjective world (worldviews, values, lifeworld experiences). 

Social systems are always formed through communication (Luhman 1984), that is to say, through multiple selection processes which anticipate actors' expectations. Communication takes place only if the selectivity of the message is understood. Nevertheless, actors may autonomously reject this choice and create a situation of conflict. The choice runs a higher risk of being rejected when it is based only on language. In every society there exist real social constructions based on the shared experiences essential for communication. Unions need to establish communication and power-construction forms allowing them to achieve referential systems for interpreting the world. They will therefore have to identify and rely on these social constructions that act as references of the objective world, of the social world and of the subjective world. The reconstruction of solidarity, of social and occupational identity, and the construction of a workers' social integration project (from an autonomous view of system integration), can only be carried out if the union is reinserted in the social world and occupational life of the worker. 

We cannot, however, forget that the unions represent power-construction forms within society. They are, consequently, organisations which must develop specialised codes and communication media beyond direct interaction and language as a general code. Power, as communication, must take into account the other party's code-selection principles, his possible actions, his strategy. It is obvious that the selectivity of both is distinct and that, in addition, this differentiation implies conflict and the risk of power loss. 

Power is exercised, basically, in the communicative dimension influencing the selection of codes, media and interpretation by the other party, influencing his acts and omissions. In general, power as communication increases the freedom of both parties, creating optional situations in which the principles and values determinining selectivity are at stake. 

Union power can be rebuilt if these organisations are capable of creating among their ordinary members, their leaders and society, special interaction codes and communication media allowing for the agreed treatment of specific issues, such as solidarity, involvement and skill. Union loss of power and legitimacy has been a loss of the capacity to communicate and construct common worlds among workers, society and system. Power, as a communication process, does not only imply an agreed manner of alloting resources under conditions of shortage or crisis but, primarily, a social means of taking possession of them for their re-creation on the basis of a collective project. 


Habermas, Jurgen. 1976. Legitimation Crisis. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Habermas, Jurgen. 1984. Theory of Communicative Action. Vol 1, Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Habermas, Jurgen. 1986. Ciencia y tecnología como ideología. Madrid: Tecnos. 

Habermas, Jurgen. 1987. Teoría de la acción comunicativa. Madrid: Taurus. 

Habermas, Jurgen. 1989. Problemas de legitimación en el capitalismo tardío. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu. 

Luhmann, Noklas. 1984. The Differentiation of Society. New York: Columbia University Press. 

McCarthy, T. 1978. The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge: MIT Press. 

Offe, Claus. 1985. Disorganized Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Rosanvallon, P. 1988. La question sindicale. Paris: Calmann-Levy. 

Wuthnow, R. et. al. 1988. Análisis Cultural. Buenos Aires: Paidós. 

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