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Québec trade unionism in the 20th century

By Mathieu Noël, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal


Beginnings of trade unions in Québec

Contrary to popular belief, trade unionism developed in Québec at the same time as in Ontario and the United States. During the first half of the 20th century, the main Québec unions were affiliated with U.S. organizations such as the American Federation of Labour (AFL). To counter the U.S. influence on Québec workers, the Catholic Church encouraged the establishment of Catholic trade unions. The Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada (CTCC) was founded in 1921, serving as an umbrella group for close to 80 unions. At that time, union demands focussed primarily on better conditions for workers and their families: shorter working hours, higher wages and stricter regulation of child labour.


Increased membership and organization of trade union movement

Following the Second World War, Québec experienced a new wave of industrialization and an improved standard of living coupled with full employment. This gave unions hope for greater recognition and increased membership. The union movement of the 1950s wanted to play a larger role in Québec society.

Employers, on the other hand, were opposed to the growth of trade unionism and benefited from strong support from the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959). To attract foreign companies to Québec, Duplessis wanted to ensure potential investors that they could count on a favourable, stable social environment, in addition to inexpensive natural resources and labour. This state of affairs would eventually lead to the trade union upheaval of the second half of the 20th century.


Asbestos strike

The first major confrontation occurred in Asbestos in 1949. Faced with their New York employer's refusal to raise their wages, eliminate asbestos dust and set up a system of joint management, the 5,000 miners of the Canadian Johns-Manville company voted unanimously in favour of an unlimited strike and excluded recourse to arbitration. Maurice Duplessis considered the strike to be illegal, whereas Jean Marchand (1918-1988), the strikers' spokesman and secretary-general of the CTCC, asserted that it was legitimate because arbitration was biased. From the start of the conflict, many Catholic priests, including the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau (1892-1959), lent their support to the strikers by organizing a funds and foodstuffs collection system. A number of clashes took place between strikers and the provincial police, which Premier Duplessis controlled through his influence over police chief Joseph-Paul Lamarche. The conflict, which lasted four months, was the longest labour dispute in Québec history. Ultimately, the Asbestos strike produced few benefits for the workers, who won only a slight increase in wages. Nevertheless, it represented the first major confrontation between organized labour and the Duplessis government and was an opportunity for the trade union movement to rally its forces. Another notable mining strike took place in Murdochville in 1957: it lasted seven months and the main issue was union recognition. A number of Quebeckers who distinguished themselves during these labour disputes would eventually become well-known political or trade union figures, such as Jean Marchand, Madeleine Parent (born 1918) and Michel Chartrand (born 1916).


Institutionalization of union movement

Those years also saw the institutionalization of the trade union movement, the first step being the establishment of the Québec Federation of Labour (QFL) in 1957 as a result of the amalgamation of the main Québec unions affiliated with the AFL. Later the secularization of the CTCC in 1960 led to the creation of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU). The QFL and the CNTU were the two chief Québec trade union federations of the second half of the 20th century.


Objective: Complete reform of society

When the provincial Liberals came to power in 1960, it marked the end of a government that had been fundamentally opposed to organized labour. The ideological turmoil of the 1960s fostered a radicalization of the union movement, especially its critical view of the capitalist system. In the 1960s and '70s, unions were no longer satisfied with demanding better conditions for workers; they wanted a complete overhaul of Québec society to make it more just and more democratic. They contributed to the reform effort by funding university research, presenting position papers and introducing services for the general public, such as daycare and union-sponsored investment and pension funds. In 1964 organized labour succeeded in getting the government to pass the Québec Labour Code, which extended the right to strike of unionized workers in the public and semi-public sectors and, the following year, the Civil Service Act, which granted the right to strike to provincial public servants. In the 20 years between 1960 and 1980, the main trade unions espoused positions in favour of social democracy and Québec independence.


1972 Common Front

In 1972 the three main unions -- the QFL, the CNTU and the Centrale de l'enseignement du Québec (CEQ), the teachers' union -- formed a Common Front to increase their bargaining power in negotiations with the government. As a pressure tactic, 210,000 public employees launched an unlimited general strike. The Liberal government obtained court injunctions to force some strikers to return to work, but the leaders of the three unions refused. Louis Laberge (1924-2002) of the QFL, Marcel Pépin (1926-2000) of the CNTU and Yvon Charbonneau (born 1940) of the CEQ were convicted of contempt of court and spent six months in prison, which sparked huge demonstrations. In May 1972, over half a million Quebeckers were on strike. The Common Front produced some significant gains for organized labour, including a minimum wage of $100 per week in the public sector. However, some union members were put off by the more radical trend, which led to the founding of the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques (CSD) in 1972.


1980s and 1990s: A new social reality

In 1981 and 1982, Québec was hit by the economic slowdown that affected many Western countries. The jump in unemployment and the drop in wages were seen by some as signs of the failure of organized labour. Neoliberal ideas, promoting a free market as the best way to foster renewed economic growth, gained increasing support. This was the end of radical trade unionism. The labour movement had to adapt to the fact that part of the population was beginning to question its effectiveness and relevance. The provincial government took advantage of this situation to redefine the rules governing unions and employers. In 1982 the Parti Québécois government established an essential services council, and then in 1986 the Liberals passed the controversial Bill 160 that broadened the council's powers. The purpose of these measures was to ensure the health and safety of Quebeckers during legal strikes in the public sector.


Less radical trade unionism

Trade unionism was much less radical in the 1980s and '90s. Nevertheless, this shift did not prevent it from continuing to play a role in social reform and calling for better conditions for Québec workers. When these conditions were threatened, the unions did not shy away from voicing their dissatisfaction. This was the case in 1982, for instance, when some public sector employees had their pay rolled back by 20% and then frozen. Unions also demonstrated in the late 1990s when Premier Lucien Bouchard (born 1938) made major budget cuts in the public sector in an effort to reduce Québec's deficit. A number of small independent unions were founded during this period.


Current situation

The trade union movement, far from obsolescent, is still a force to be reckoned with in Québec. Just think of the demonstrations that were held against Bill 142, when the Charest government wanted to impose collective agreements on public sector employees, or the lobbying by the unions in favour of $5-a-day public daycare.


References

Dickinson, John A., and Brian Young. A Short History of Québec, 4th ed. Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008, 464 p.

Fournier, Louis. Histoire de la FTQ, 1965-1992. Montreal: Québec-Amérique, 1994, 291 p.

Rouillard, Jacques. Le syndicalisme québécois : Deux siècles d'histoire. Montreal: Boréal, 2004, 335 p.

Roy, Jean. "La grève d'Asbestos" [video recording]. 1 DVD, 47 minutes. Les 30 journées qui ont fait le Québec (series). Montreal: Eurêka! Productions, 2000.

Société Radio-Canada. "Le Front commun" [video recording]. 1 DVD, 49 minutes. Tout le monde en parlait, season 2, 2007.

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