Canadian Quebecois workers general strike for higher wages and job equality, 1972

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Although the strikes did not begin until late March, the leaders began the campaign with declarations of their demands on March 9.
March 9,
1972
to
May 20,
1972
Location and Goals
Country: 
Canada
Location City/State/Province: 
Quebec
Goals: 
Workers demanded an 8% raise to match inflation, $100 per week minimum wage, equality for men and women and rural workers, and greater job security
 

At its height, the Quebec General Strike in the spring of 1972 was the largest strike in North America’s history. The strike, which involved over 250,000 public and private service workers, was a very important moment in Quebecers’ self-determination and struggle for rights. Planning of the strike had been in motion since 1970, when Quebec’s three main union federations held joint meetings to discuss ways in which they could work together to address common struggles. At the time, many of Quebec’s working class felt disenchanted with and ignored by the government. One public service worker voiced popular opinion by stating that the government represented “Bay Street, St. James Street, [the two main financial districts] but not us.” Also, a long and bitter strike in 1971 by workers at the daily newspaper, La Presse, angered workers in all sectors and helped spark the action.

The alliance of the three union federations, which was called the Common Front, included the Quebec Teachers’ Corporation, the Quebec Federation of Labor, and the Confederation of National Trade Unions. On March 9th of 1972, just a few weeks after the La Presse strike ended, a huge majority of public employees voted to give the leaders of the Common Front a free hand in calling strikes and bargaining with the government. Three men—Yves Charbonneau, head of the teachers’ corporation, Louis Laberge, head of the federation of labor, and Marcel Pepin, leader of the trade unions—brought their demands to the government. Workers demanded that the government guarantee a $100 weekly minimum wage, an 8 percent pay raise to match inflation, greater job security, and equal treatment of men, women, and rural workers.

By the end of March, the government still refused to consider the Common Front’s demands. In response, the three leaders called for a 24 hr protest strike of the 210,000 employees. The strike was clearly disruptive and a show of force to the government, but the government still did not respond. On April 11th, the Common Front leaders called for an indefinite strike of public sector workers. Hospital workers, teachers, construction workers and others walked off the job. Almost immediately, the government placed injunctions on strikes for workers in ‘essential services’. Employees ignored the injunctions, and hospitals and other areas stayed empty. By April 19th, thirteen hospital workers had been jailed, and many received heavy fines. The government then passed Bill 19, which essentially outlawed strikes by any employee in the public sector. It also gave the government the power to impose a settlement on workers in the public sector if no agreement between the unions and the government had been reached within two months.

Following the government’s announcement, chaos reigned among unionists. The leaders called a hurried vote to determine whether employees should return to work. The vote result showed 60 percent of unionists in favor of continuing the strike, but less than half of unionists had voted amidst the confusion. Leaders worsened the confusion by telling workers to continue striking before the vote, and then telling them to go back to work after the vote occurred. Although a few ardent pockets of strikers remained, the Common Front strike ended. The government thought that it had won a victory.

Things changed, however, when the government arrested and jailed the M. Laberge, M. Charbonneau, and M. Pepin, giving them a year’s sentence each. On May 9th, the leaders turned themselves over to police amid a crowd of thousands of supporters. Workers were furious. Later on that day, 2,000 longshoremen began a general strike by walking off the job at ports across the province. Public and private sector employees began walking off the job, and a new strike had begun. For the next nine days, workers participated in a spontaneous province-wide general strike. Employees picketed the courthouse, and held large protest meetings. They wanted their leaders to be released, and for the government to resume negotiations without the two month limit. Campaigner violence did occur, as street fights broke out between police and workers. A few striking workers firebombed the houses of government officials. Protesters also burned police cars and spread nails on major routes during rush hour, bursting tires and bringing traffic to a standstill. Some small towns were completely under the control of striking workers, who took advantage of the local radio stations and other media to spread news of the strike.

By May 20th, the government agreed to release the Common Front leaders and the other jailed unionists. They also agreed to re-negotiate with the unions without the two-month limit. The newly freed leaders called a truce and sent employees back to work. Eventually, all sectors except the teachers’ union reached an agreement with the government, but every union had to make huge compromises. Unions did get their $100 minimum wage, but instead of an 8 percent pay increase, they received a 5.5 percent increase or less. Greater job security and equality among workers was not discussed in the agreements at all.

Many blame the failure of the strike to achieve more of its goals on the disorganization of the three leaders of the union federations. After workers spontaneously started walking out and the leaders were released, the strike faded out. Critics of the three leaders believe that they should have taken advantage of the huge level of energy among strikers to encourage them to insist that the government meet the specific wage and equal rights demands made at the beginning of the campaign. Instead, once they were released, the three leaders let the protest decline. Furthermore, the strikers’ violence lost them the support of many moderates and media sources. Instead of speaking out against violence, the leaders seemed to support it. Yves Charbonneau, the leader of the teachers’ union, stated that, “The day may come when we will have to drop our pencils and chalk. This government won’t compromise except in the face of arms,” leaving workers to intuit that that day had come.

Although strikers failed to achieve many of their demands, they did succeed in showing the government their true strength. This show of force caused the government to release they union leaders and to agree to re-negotiate, eventually leading to the fulfillment of some of the campaign’s demands. Also, the strike inspired workers across the nation, and eventually led to the 1976 Canada wide general strike of 1.2 million workers. Workers continued their struggle for rights, or, as Quebecers’ would say, “ La lutte continue!”

Research Notes
Influences: 

La Presse newspaper workers' strikes (1). 1976 Canadian General Strike (2).

Sources: 
Borders, William. “Thousands Join Quebec Strike Against Jailing of Union Aides.” The New York Times. 12 May 1972, Print.

Dickinson, John Alexander. Short History of Quebec. McGill- Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Canada. 2002. Print.

Gandall, Marv. “Quebec Workers win gains in mass strike”. The Guardian. 31 May 1972, Print.

The Guardian Editorial, “La Presse Strike Ends”. The Guardian. 8 March 1972, Print.

The Guardian Editorial, “Quebec Workers Strike”. The Guardian. 10 May 1972, Print.

The New York Times Editorial, “Hospitals in Quebec Hard Hit by Strike of Service Workers.” The New York Times. 14 April 1972, Print.

Solidaire. “General strike hurled Quebec struggle ahead”. The Guardian. 28 February 1973, Print.

Spartacist Canada. “Lessons of the 1972 General Strike”. International Communist League. October 2005. http://www.icl-fi.org/english/spc/146/quebec.html

Sweetman, George. “1972: The Quebec general Strike.” Libcom.org. 10 September 2006. http://libcom.org/history/1972-the-quebec-general-strike

The Washington Post Editorial. “Quebec Strike.” The Washington Post. 20 May 1972, Print.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (12/04/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Arielle Bernhardt 11/02/2010