1972: The Quebec general strike

Demonstrators clash with police during the la Presse strike, 1971
Demonstrators clash with police during the la Presse strike, 1971

The story of one of the largest working class rebellions in American history. 300,000 workers participated in North America's largest general strike to that date, radio stations were seized, factories were occupied, and entire towns were brought under workers' control, and it won important gains

Submitted by Steven. on September 10, 2006

since the days of the Industrial Workers of the World, since the days of Joe
and the battle for the eight-hour day, has a North American union movement
been so dedicated to the tradition of revolutionary syndicalism."
Marcel Pepin (jailed President of the Confederation of National Trade
Unions, 1972)

What made the rebellion possible was not only an explosive mix of
economic exploitation, national oppression, and government repression, but
was also a strong, young, and radicalised rank and file of the Quebec trade
union movement.

La Presse

While the workers' uprising occurred in May 1972, it is
necessary to go back to 1971 to find the catalyst: a strike at the newspaper
La Presse. The paper had recently been bought out by Paul Desmarais, who wanted
to transform it into a federalist and capitalist propaganda machine and fire
the journalists who didn't agree with his ideology. Typographical workers
were locked out in an attempt to provoke an illegal strike from the unionised
and socialist journalists who were struggling against the editorial clampdown
and for more worker control over what was published.

"I don't think they were after us," explained
Alan Hetitage of the international typographers union, "they wanted the
journalists. If we had put up a picket line we would have been dead because
the journalists would have respected it and lost their jobs."

On October 29th, 1971, after five months of being locked
out, the union movement held a mass demonstration in support of the locked
out La Presse workers. The company and the Montreal police seized upon this
as an opportunity to attack. The company ceased publishing, fortified the
building, and pronounced that the unionists were responsible for "waves
of violence.”

In fact, the most 'violent' act the workers held on the
picket line was one of holding a meeting at a nearby church, creating a vehicle
blockade around the building when they parked their cars. For this the government
banned more than eight workers from gathering near the building.

The next day Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, in consultation
with Premier Bourassa passed his anti-demonstration bylaw. A no-protest zone
of fifty blocks around the La Presse building was declared.

Over 15,000 workers showed up to march. The Police charged,
brutally clubbing anyone they could. Street-fighting flared between workers
and police, even continuing at the hospital that both sides brought their
injured to. Hundreds were injured and one woman, a young college student and
left-wing activist named Michèle Gauthier, lay dead.

Critically, the strike at La Presse created a working
model of a "Common Front" between usually competitive and divisive
union centrals that represented workers at La Presse during the strike. The
common front model combined with the radicalisation in the La Presse strike
foreshadowed a far greater possibility, that of a common front representing
hundreds of thousands of public service workers against their employer –
the state.

The Common Front

Founded in late 1971 and cemented by the shared experience
of the La Presse police riot, a common front between the three largest union
organisations was formed to negotiate with the provincial government over
the upcoming contract of Quebec's public service workers. The Common Front
represented 210,000 workers out of a total of 250,000 public employees.

The Front's demands centred around an eight percent raise
to match inflation, job security, a say in working conditions in order to
bring public services closer to the people, a $100 per week minimum wage,
and equal pay for equal work regardless of region, sector, or sex.

The April 11th general strike

On April 11, over 210,000 public sector workers struck
against the government, and Quebec grounded to a halt.

The state chose to target the hospital workers, placing
injunctions on 61 union hospitals. However, hospital workers defied the injunctions,
stating that management was capable of providing essential services. The corporate
media whipped up stories of patients being forced to sleep in their own urine.

"They could write stories like that about general
hospital conditions without a strike." one unfazed striker commented.
"The government doesn't represent us," said one court clerk, "It
represents Bay Street, St. James Street, Wall Street, but not us. Our union
is the only thing that represents us."


On April 19, nine days into the general strike, 13 low-paid
hospital workers were jailed 6 months and fined $5000 (about a year's pay)
for ignoring the injunctions. Their union was fined $70,600. A total 103 workers
would be sentenced a total of 24 years and fined $500,000 in the course of
a few days.

Yvon Charbonneau, the teachers' leader, was furious, "The
union movement may have to go into the resistance in the historic sense of
the word. 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, maybe there's
a lesson to be learned,"

Back to work

On April 21, the government passed Bill 19 into law, forcing
the unionised workers back to work, and banned fundamental trade union rights
for a period of two years.

After an initial pledge of civil disobedience, and a hurried
vote that over half of the workers didn't participate in, the trade union
leadership of the common front recommended that their members return to work.
The general strike was over.


"We'll go to the court and I'll plead guilty with
pride." - Louis Labarge, president of the Fédération des
travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ).

The fact that bill 19 had defeated the general strike
and made union action all but illegal wasn't enough for the state, they wanted
revenge and to make an example of the trade union leadership.

After announcing that the hospital workers shouldn't have
to be the only ones to face jail, Louis Labarge, Marcel Pepin, and Yvon Charbonneau,
the leaders of the three unions confederations that formed the common front,
were sentenced to a year in jail, as they had all urged them to disobey the

"That's the justice of the system," said Labarge,
"while big corporations are fined $75 or $500 for polluting our rivers,
killing people or breaking the law, we - the criminals - must go to jail for
exercising a right - the right to strike."


Within hours of the beginning of jail time for the 'big
three', workers spontaneously started downing their tools and organising their
fellow workers in what became a full-fledged revolt by the working class.

The longshore workers were the first to walk off the job
in Montreal, Quebec City and Trois-Rivieres, joined an hour later by 5000
teachers in Joliette, the Gaspe, Chicoutimi, I'Estrie, Sorel, Mont Laurier
and the Mille Iles. CUPE maintenance workers set up picket lines, nurses and
other hospital workers joined them on the picket lines.

That night in the town of Sept-Iles, on Quebec's isolated
north shore, police tried to break up a workers' protest in front of the local
courthouse and a fierce battle ensued - the revolt had begun.

One 52-year-old Sept-Iles steelworker had tears in his
eyes as he 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."

Mass meetings were held late in the night and early in
the morning, the workers' of Sept-Iles called a general strike idling all
industry in the iron-ore port, taking control of the town, and seizing the
local radio station.

"For years, the ideas came from Montreal, but the
most radical actions came from outside the metropolis: Cabano, Mont Laurier,
and now the massive walkouts of Sept-Iles, St. Jerome, and Sorel. In Montreal,
it's so big and anonymous, it's difficult to have co-ordinated action. But
in the little towns, the workers understand fast, they know themselves and
they act."

In St. Jerome, an industrial area north of Montreal, 400
textile workers walked off the job and soon found themselves joined by bus
drivers, metal plant workers, teachers, and white-collar workers. At the request
of workers at the CKJL radio station, the strike committee seized the airwaves
and broadcast union statements and revolutionary music.

Jean Labelle, a 28 year-old factory worker in St. Jerome
offered a New York Times reporter a simple explanation: "What's our complaint?
I guess the answer is that we're tired of being pushed around, and now, finally,
we're pushing back. If we can show them, we're capable of anything."

By the next day 80,000 building trades workers were on
strike; Mines at Thetford Mines, Asbestos, and Black Lake were struck; Workers
shut down factories all across the province, including 23 at the St. Jerome
Industrial Park alone.

The popularity of the strike, and the speed at which it
spread without any union organisation shows the vital importance of a combative
rank and file, the same rank and file that was pushing the union leadership
found itself in the driver's seat as the union officials found themselves
being 'passed on the left' by a confident and angry working class. At the
height of the week-long strike it was estimated that over 300,000 workers
were participating.

The general strikes were spontaneous and self-organised.
For example, the strike at the Thetford mine started when a small group of
workers walked off the job. Word spread through the mine and within two hours
the strike was total.

In Chibougamau an angry group of women, some of them teachers
and hospital workers, marched to one of the mines and pulled their husbands
off the job.

At the General Motors plant in Ste. Therese, autoworkers
asked a few dozen workers from St. Jerome to set up picket lines at the plant
during lunch hour. When they returned they refused to cross the St. Jerome
pickets and never went back to work.

Workers seized control of 22 radio stations across the
province while forcing the anti-union capitalist newspapers to stop publishing.
The battle for control of information was important, and the workers showed
astuteness, creativity and militancy. As the news from the striking workers
spread, so did the strike itself.

Over 300,000 rank and file workers had self-organised
the largest general strike in North American history. The revolt was so widespread
that the Quebec police knew they could not contain or repress it, and took
a position of non-intervention in order not to provoke a decisive clash that
they predicted they would lose.

In the end the Government negotiated a truce by releasing
the jailed trade unionists and in return the three trade union centres agreed
to tell their members to return to work.

However, just because they returned to work doesn't mean
that the workers considered themselves defeated. Clement Godbout a Spet-Illes
steelworker summed it up, "The future? I see it as all right, because
the workers have decided to stop fighting just for more money and have decided
to fight for a new society."

La lutte continue

The 1972 May revolt was a turning point in the workers'
movement, not only in Quebec but one that was felt throughout Canada, that
continues to echo to this day.

Quebec workers were the force behind the largest general
strike in North America's history, the 1976 Canada wide general strike against
wage controls by the federal government. Over 1.2 million workers from across
Canada participated in the 1976 general strike putting to rest nationalist
claims that workers in Quebec and English Canada could not join forces due
to Anglo-chauvinism.

Today the labour movement in Quebec is in a familiar situation.
If there is hope for an effective fight-back today it will start with rank
and file Quebec workers taking control of their union movement and pushing
it to general strikes once again.

When we are able to spread the spirit of revolt
throughout the working class in Canada and the United States we will have
the beginnings of a true revolutionary movement capable of not only fighting
the state and the bosses, but indeed of getting rid of them altogether and
replacing it with the new society the workers of Quebec spoke of in '72.

By George "Mick" Sweetman (NEFAC), edited by libcom