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The Quebec General Strike of 1972: “We can only count on ourselves”

Chantal Sundaram

May 12, 2022
Fifty years ago, Quebec saw a short but massive revolutionary uprising of workers’ power: it was the second general strike in Canada after Winnipeg 1919, and the largest in all of North America up to that time.
It went past striking to workers’ control: nine towns were taken over by strikers for a short period, including radio stations and newspapers. In fact, in some places, like Saint-Jérôme North of Montreal, the strike committee was invited by unionized workers at the CKJL radio station to take over and start broadcasting revolutionary music and union statements.
The immediate spark for the wildcat general strike of May was the jailing of Quebec’s top three union leaders for defiance of injunctions against picketing.
But the lead-up was a Common Front of public and broader public sector unions demanding a minimum wage of $100 per week for all. At the time, 19% of the 210,000 workers represented by the Common Front earned less than $70 per week and more than half of this number earned less than $50. The amount of $100 for a minimum wage was based on reports from the Senate Committee on Poverty and the Castonguay Commission on Health and Social Services, both of which considered it to be the poverty line for a family with two children. 
Even when the Common Front offered to substantially reduce demands for the highest paid workers to finance the $100 a week minimum wage, Liberal Finance Minister Garneau admitted to newspaper Le Devoir that the fundamental reason for refusing the minimum wage was that the government could not upset the supply and demand state of the labour market.
But on May 9, the government overplayed its hand by jailing the Common Front leaders. 
Michel Chartrand, then leader of the regional Montreal Central Council of the CSN trade union federation told the crowd: “The government thinks it can scare workers by throwing their leaders in jail, they think it’s going to shut the workers up…well they set a wildfire which is going to spread everywhere, mobilizing thousands of workers in the private sector as well as the public sector.” 
The Common Front 
Public sector negotiations in 1968-1970 with the Quebec government had made it clear that a united strategy was necessary: the government’s strategy was to draw out negotiations at the sectoral tables of the strongest groups so that the weakest groups of workers were forced to sign agreements first and set the pattern for all. 
It was at the end of January 1970 that CSN president Marcel Pepin was given a mandate to convene the representatives of the federations and unions of the public sector and broader public sector to talk about setting up a Common Front. 
Then, the armed occupation of Quebec by the federal Canadian state in October 1970played a role in pushing the need for unity between unions. Ottawa had invoked the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties, supposedly in response to the kidnapping of two political officials by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). But in fact, thousands of ordinary Quebecois were surveilled and arrested, and union activists and leftists were especially targeted.
Meanwhile, throughout 1970 and 1971, the union rank and file membership was extremely active: not only strikes but street blockades, riots and demonstrations were everywhere in Quebec in 1970-71.
A key moment came on October 29, 1971: there was a violent confrontation at the newspaper La Presse, where the employer wanted to modernize and cut the workforce and had locked out their workers. There was huge support for the La Presse workers across Quebec and at a demonstration organized by the three main union federations, Michèle Gauthier, a student at the Cégep du Vieux Montréal, suffocated to death when the police fired tear gas into the crowd.
The mass demonstration that resulted in the death of Michèle Gauthier was followed by a huge rally at the Montreal Forum the next month: this showed not only the growing militancy of the rank and file but also the growing support of the broader community for union struggles.
The union manifestos
The union leadership was being pushed by the increasing militancy of its own ranks and began to respond ideologically, and all three union centrals came out with radical, anti-capitalist manifestos in 1971-72. The most famous was the one adopted by the CSN membership, “Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens” (“We can only count on ourselves”).
These manifestos all critiqued the dead-end of the market system for Quebec and for all workers: the hopelessness of learning English and getting an education and still remaining poor; the uselessness of Keynesian economics and any kind of state intervention practiced by capitalist governments in an era of multinationals – and not only in Quebec, but everywhere in the world.
In one of the CSN manifestos there is also a paragraph that asserts that “if we follow classic capitalist economic laws, with free-trade, international market competition, humanity will die from pollution… any effort that aims at getting businesses to absorb the cost of pollution is doomed to failure in advance, because competition will destroy those who do – but, economists who defend the system will have a final pleasure before we all die in proclaiming that business productivity was protected to the very end of humanity!”
While the Common Front might have been born from salary negotiations, the context was a radicalizing one about society as a whole. These manifestos, and the smaller common fronts happening in a number of workplaces, fed the unity of the big Common Front and its ability to overcome inter-union rivalry and also the old tradition of “business unionism.”
And even though the manifestos, and the inter-union Common Front itself, came from the top leadership, it opened up the possibility for the development of a fighting rank and file under a common inter-union tent that included more than 210,000 workers.
The events of March-April 1972
The stagnation in negotiations with the government led all three main union centrals to call a strike vote on March 9, 1972, for a 24-hour strike to start on March 28.
This 24-hour strike ended up being a test for the combativity of the rank and file and indicated what the government’s immediate reactions to increasing militancy would be. 
Then on April 11, an unlimited general strike began. The majority of workers in hospitals, against whom a court injunction had been invoked, ignored the injunction and set up picket lines. Support staff in the Montreal school board did as well, and their lines were respected by more than half of teachers.  
The enforcement of the anti-picket injunctions by the courts was severe: fines of up to $50,000 and individual union leaders got fines up to $1000 and jail terms of up to 6 months. 
And then, on April 20, the government and judiciary responded to the April 11 general strike with Special Law 19, which completely suspended the right to strike for the public and broader public sectors as of midnight on April 22, with fines of up to $50,000 for all unions that defied it and for individual workers a daily fine of $50 to $250 – and for individuals who incited striking it could be $4000 to $50,000. 
Law 19 also said if there were no negotiated deal by June 1st, the government would set by decree working conditions that would be in place for the next 2 years.
The Coordination Council of the Common Front met the day Law 19 was tabled and decided not to respect it. They organized for a mass consultation of public and broader public sector union members to take place the next day. 
But the night before, the Executive of the CSN stabbed the Common Front in the back: they adopted a position saying the CSN could not assure unions that disobeyed the law that it would pay the fines and wage losses incurred, and recommended they respect the law.  
On April 21, CSN President Marcel Pepin, held a press conference where he revealed the position of the CSN Executive but also dissociated himself from it and declared his solidarity with the Coordination Council of the Common Front.
The referendum took place, but with low voter-turnout in all sectors: a majority of those who voted did declare themselves against Law 19, but the percentage was weak.
The Common Front Coordination Council met that night, an hour before Law 19 was to come into force: in light of the weak vote, the Board voted almost unanimously to respect the law. Another complication is that the law would have come into effect on a Saturday morning, leaving it up to hospital workers to set up picket lines alone.
The return to work on Monday, April 24 was bitter, with many tearing up their union cards and accusing their leaders of treason. 
This could have been the end of the struggle, but then, the government went after the three presidents of the three big union centrals: Marcel Pepin of the CSN, Louis Laberge of the FTQ, and Yvon Charbonneau of the CEQ. Not for defying Law 19, but for the previous defiance of the injunctions against picketing. This sparked the wildcat stage of the Quebec general strike. 
The events of May: la grève sauvage
On May 4, a crowd of union members gathered outside the Quebec City courthouse where the three leaders had to appear to face the charge of contempt of court. On May 8, the judge sentenced the three to a year in jail. 
Working class history is full of moments where the ruling class does stupid things, and the jailing of the three leaders was seen by the rank and file as a direct attack against the labour movement as a whole.
May 9, the day when the three presidents had to turn themselves in to police, became the start of the May wildcat general strike, “la grève sauvage.” 
First, dock workers went out in Montreal, Quebec City, and Trois Rivieres, demanding the immediate release of the union leaders – and took advantage of the opportunity to also demand that their employer negotiate job security. They had never even been active before in the Common Front.
This first walkout was typical of all the activity that came to characterize the May strike as a whole: it was started by workers themselves, with no official call to strike, but it was the unionized part of the working class that gave the lead to non-union supporters.
The very next day after the jailing, May 10, it was the turn of FTQ construction workers. They shut down construction routes almost everywhere across Quebec and paid a visit to public and private businesses, encouraging union members to join the strike movement. It is thanks to the organizing role played by FTQ Construction Trades that the wildcat was generalized and consolidated.
This initiative by the rank and file in the construction sector gave a kickstart to the strike in many Quebec regions, and then little by little it was the spontaneous aspect that took over and many unions adopted the strike movement that had come from the outside in their own general assemblies.
This was no longer about the public and broader public sectors who had been fighting for an agreement for themselves: this was about workers in the private sector deciding to strike illegally and violate their own hard-won contracts.
Spontaneous gatherings and occupations occurred throughout Quebec in May: after less than a week of strike, the movement had spread all over the province, and the cops were increasingly powerless when faced with the spread. Any repression of one sector would only lead to a reaction from the whole movement and would bring new layers into the strike.
Across Quebec, the strike united sections of workers previously separate: blue collar, white collar, and those previously considered “petit-bourgeois” like teachers. It spread despite being illegal, and occupied towns, terrifying the local ruling class.  
The shutdowns were blamed on a “small minority” of revolutionary agitators. But the majority of walkouts took place after mass meetings and votes. In many cases, work stoppages were the result of other strikers visiting work sites and convincing others to join them. 
In Chibougamau the general shutdown was provoked by an angry group of women, some of them teachers and hospital workers who marched to one of the mines and pulled their husbands off the job.
There were lots of instances of workers locking out management, like at the Albert Prevost Institute, a mental hospital in Montreal, where workers took over and ran the place themselves, proclaiming “North America’s first liberated hospital.” 
In the towns under workers control, local Common Front committees decided which merchants would be allowed to remain open. Large food stores were ordered closed in favour of coops or small family-owned stores who were ordered not to take advantage of the situation and a strict price-freeze was enforced.
Workers power in Sept-Iles
It was in Sept-Iles, a remote North Shore community of just 25,000, where it went the farthest. There was a local Common Front in Sept-Iles that had proven its solidarity during the April general strike with daily strike meetings.
On the evening of May 9, a few hundred workers gathered for a protest outside the local court-house. Police tried to break it up, and a battle ensued. It was the spark that started the revolt – a steelworker in Sept-Iles told a reporter: “They put Louis in jail. They can’t do this. If we let them, they can put us all in jail, anyone of us.” 
Over the next two days the Sept-Iles workers organized several meetings and voted massively to strike, and within a matter of hours, thousands of unionized workers brought the iron ore port to a standstill. Then the strike committee proceeded to take control of the town and seized the radio station.
In a town of 25,000, up to 4000 gathered in the town arena for discussion and debate. The strikers had won the allegiance of the majority of the working population. But ideas were wide-ranging: one minute someone would argue that they need to form a City Council of workers in Sept-Iles, then the next speaker would argue they had to negotiate with the existing City Council.
The May 18 editorial of the local paper, L’Avenir, declared: “Henceforth, the history of Sept-Iles will be about the events of before May 10, 1972 and the events after May 10, 1972.”
L’Avenir was owned by Conrad Black, then a young millionaire who owned several Quebec papers. He was awakened one morning by a panicked phone call from his publisher in Sept-Iles. “They’re taking over the paper, they’re seizing control!” Black had just been celebrating how smoothly the government had put down the unions with Law 19. Suddenly, a new voice came on the line informing him that his anti-union paper was about to be dismantled. “Comrade, be reasonable,” Black shouted into the phone, desperately negotiating, while in the background his publisher shouted: “Don’t give in, we still hold half the building.” Finally, the workers’ committee agreed not to dismantle the plant. 
Repression and conciliation
Across Quebec police were forced to adopt a policy of non-intervention because their power was too thinly spread. But there were responses of reaction beyond police. In Sept-Iles on May 12 a “Committee of Citizens Respectful of Law and Order” of business people and professionals formed take on the unions.
In fact, a secret telex message was intercepted from the president of the Liberal Party to its 108 riding presidents ordering local Liberal associations to set up vigilante committees. It suggested pressuring local authorities to swear in party stalwarts as “special constables.” In Baie Comeau and Haute Rive, over 200 civilians were sworn in.
The Liberals also organized some anti-strike meetings, like one of construction workers at a Montreal south shore arena – it was later revealed that it was not a real union meeting and the arena had been paid for by the Montreal Association of General Contractors, who had given non-union personnel and unionized workers who had refused to the strike the day off to attend the meeting and later disrupt an official union meeting.
But the government also used negotiation. Before long, the new public service minister got in touch with the three jailed leaders and said he was prepared to negotiate “a true settlement.” The Common Front announced a truce and called for an end to all work stoppages; it was understood that the three leaders would be released on probation. 
However, the cabinet was divided and Justice Minister Choquette moved to stamp out all efforts at conciliation. Despite the fact that the Common Front had lived up to its part of the bargain, the three leaders remained in jail.
Eventually, Pepin, Laberge, and Charbonneau opted to appeal their sentences and were released on May 23 – but only after the work stoppages were called off.
While the events of April-May 1972 left behind a deep radicalization and politicization in the Quebec working class, it only raised the question of what workers’ power could achieve. As labour historian Jean-Marc Piotte wrote in 1975:
“By its silence, the bourgeoisie of Sept-Iles wants to forget the May strike and the great fear that it felt at that moment. It wants to repress this nightmare and try to ignore that it lives on a powder keg that could explode again. It would like for this event to disappear from the collective memory of workers: they should only remember long periods of submission…the workers of Sept-Iles unfortunately answer this bourgeois silence with their own silence. But for opposite reasons. The conclusion of the movement of May is felt by them as a defeat: they had to return to work with Law 19 still in place and without the release of the union leaders from jail. They are currently digesting this bitter disappointment, and the danger that the bourgeoisie will succeed at erasing May 1972 from the memory of the workers of Sept-Iles remains. But maybe the militants of Sept-Iles will react to this silence by defending everything positive that was revealed in May 1972.”
There is huge value in ensuring that the memory of this heroic and spontaneous uprising of workers’ power is not forgotten fifty years later.
It reminds us that, in the course of a week, the impossible can become possible in the hearts and minds of thousands. It also demonstrates that, in the words of the CSN Manifesto, as working people “we can only count on ourselves.” No matter the outcome of this one battle, that lesson matters for the future.
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