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(en) North-East Amarica, NEA #9 - General strike: The 1972 Rebellion in Quebec by George "Mick" Sweertman

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Sun, 28 Nov 2004 08:11:52 +0100 (CET)


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"Not since the days of the Industrial Workers of the World, since the days
of Joe Hill 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)
Thirty-two years ago one of the largest working class rebellions in North
American history exploded in Quebec. 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. 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 radicalized 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 unionized, seperatist, 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. Carrying
placards with such slogans as "Capitalism equals
unemployment, Socialism equals work." The march was
corralled by police into a "sort of two-edged
cul-de-sac formed by police barricades.”

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.

It's often said that few things are more radicalizing
than the end of a police baton, and on Oct. 29, 1971,
the end of the baton - clearly and deliberately
wielded by the state - was felt by the entire working
class of Quebec.

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 radicalization 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 organizations
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 centered 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 March 28th General Strike

On March 28, 1972, after months of fruitless
negotiation, the Common Front held a one-day general
strike. Despite being offered an increase of 0.4
percent of the original offer by the state, the state
refused to budge on the issue of the $100 per week
minimum wage. In response the Common Front decided to
go on an all-out, unlimited general strike on April
11th.

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."

Jailed

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 half a million dollars in the course of a few
days.

"When the law is ignored and the authority of the
courts is openly defied, there is reason to fear a
situation which could degenerate into anarchy," said
the judgment

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.
Bill 19 in effect forced the unionized 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.

"St. James Street," declared one St. Jerome worker,
"wants to keep Quebec as a source of cheap labor. They
won't let Bou-Bou give us a decent wage."

Revenge

"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 injunctions.

"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."

Revolt!

Within hours of the beginning of jail time for the
'big three' workers spontaneously started downing
their tools and organizing 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.

"It's probably the outlying areas that are going to
provoke the real changes in Quebec," explained Pierre
Mercille of the CNTU's Laurentian Central Council.

"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 behest of
unionized 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 organization 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.

At FTQ headquarters in Montreal, one top official said
that many of the union staff "Had underestimated the
base, the rank and file." Even the outspoken president
of the FTQ was shocked, "Louis Laberge called from
jail saying he was expecting protests but nothing on
this scale."

The general strikes were spontaneous and
self-organized. 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 cease publishing. The battle for control
of information was important, and the workers' showed
astuteness, creativity and militancy in this fight. As
the news from the striking workers spread, so did the
strike itself.

Over 300,000 rank and file workers had self-organized
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 decided to negotiate 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…what
kind of new society? Well, I talk the way I do for a
reason - I'm a socialist."

La lutte continue

The working class, feeling victorious in forcing the
unionists' release, but not enough to provoke a
decisive struggle against the forces of the state
returned to work ending the general strike, but not
forgetting it and the workers' power they had briefly
tasted.

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 labor movement in Quebec is in a familiar
situation. A new (neo)-Liberal government in power is
systematically dismantling the social programs, trade
union rights, and other gains made by the workers'
movement. The Quebec government is only the latest in
a series of neo-liberal governments in the past 10
years have ravaged the working class across Canada.

However, the Quebec union movement offers the last
best hope for a serious fight-back since the 1996
"days of action" strikes that the Ontario labour and
NDP leadership repressed before it could generalize
into an Ontario-wide general strike.

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.

Things are already moving in this direction, with both
the FTQ and CSN discussing the option of an unlimited
province-wide general strike and putting the question
to their membership in late February 2004.

However, as history has shown us, the real strength of
the workers' movement lies not with official calls for
action by union leaders, but by a militant,
self-organized, and radicalized rank and file.

Fortunately this is not completely absent. In February
2004, workers at an Alluminum-works in Jonquière that
was slated for downsizing occupied the plant and ran
it at full capacity under workers' control for almost
a month.

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.

=============

Bibliography

Quotes and statistics from Quebec: A Chronicle
1968-1972, edited by Nick Auf der Maur and Robert
Chodos. James Lewis and Samuel, Toronto, 1972.

=============

George "Mick" Sweetman is a member of Punching Out
(NEFAC-Toronto), a
seasonal wage slave (gardener), and is active in the
Ontario Coalition Against
Poverty’s labor working group

===============

This essay is from the newest issue of 'The
Northeastern Anarchist' (#9, Summer/Fall 2004)...
which includes essays on the Iraq war and military
recruitment, anarchist arguments against electoralism,
wages for housework, prisons and fascism,
revolutionary organization, a history of anarchism and
anti-imperialism, the Quebec general strike of 1972,
and much more!

The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language
magazine of the Northeastern Federation of
Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC), covering class struggle
anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
analysis in an effort to further develop
anarcho-communist ideas and practice.

ORDERING INFORMATION:

To order a copy, please send $5ppd ($6 international).
For distribution, bundle orders are $3 per copy for
three or more copies, and $2.50 per copy for ten or
more.

Subscriptions are $15ppd for four issues ($18
international).

Back issues are $2ppd ($3 international) per copy;
special offer package for the entire set of back
issues (#1-8) now only $12.

Checks or money orders can be made out to
"Northeastern Anarchist" and sent to:

Northeastern Anarchist PO Box 230685 Boston, MA 02123
email: northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com


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