Forty-five years ago, the largest and most important strike movement in the history of Quebec took place. During this historic episode, the workers of the province stormed onto the political arena to fight against the bourgeoisie. At its peak, workers occupied the factories and mines, and the general strike movement brought the economy of the province to a halt.
Today, the events of the spring of 1972 are a historical blind spot in the ‘official’ history of Quebec, which focuses on the October crisis as the apex of political and social turbulence of the epoch. At a time when the capitalist crisis drags on, class struggle is on the rise all over the world, including Quebec. It is therefore essential that we commit ourselves to study this forgotten moment in the class struggle in order to learn lessons for the future.
The Impasse of the Quiet Revolution and the Resurgence of the Workers’ Movement
The 1970s in Quebec are often represented as a period of nationalist struggle culminating in the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976 and the first referendum on the sovereignty-association in 1980. However, this version of events conveniently covers up the history of rising class consciousness among the workers of Quebec, who entered into a revolutionary struggle against both the anglo-imperialists and the emerging Quebecois bourgeoisie in 1972. While we cannot go into too much depth here, it is essential to understand the contradictory way in which Quebec developed in order to fully understand the turbulent events of the 1960s and 1970s.
After the defeat at the plains of Abraham in 1759, the nascent French bourgeoisie was almost completely smashed and the 70,000 French peasants who remained became subjects of the British crown. The development of a francophone bourgeoisie was essentially cut off and Quebec was intentionally kept in a backwards rural state of development in order to guarantee the domination of the anglophone capitalists and imperialists.
During the decades prior to the 1960s, Quebec was rapidly industrialized. American and anglo-Canadian imperialism invested massively in the province to extract natural resources and exploit the cheap labour. This led to a significant increase in the size of the working class in the province, and as a consequence, an increase in its political weight. This also led to a shift away from a largely rural based population to large bustling urban centres.
At the same time, the political institutions of the province were leftover from another epoch. Maurice Duplessis, in alliance with the Catholic church, governed with an iron fist during a period that is known as “the great darkness.” Basing himself on the backwards rural petty bourgeoisie, he was intransigent towards the trade unions and he led a witch hunt against communists (most notably with the famous “padlock law”). Education, healthcare and many other services were under direct control of the church, which stifled the development of society. Dogmatic religious prejudices permeated all institutions of society and were the ideological foundation used to justify all forms of oppression. The propaganda of the Union Nationale and the religious authorities held the workers of quebec in servitude and limited the intellectual, cultural and artistic development necessary for a modern industrial society.
The institutions of society were stuck in the past while the province’s economy had been changing rapidly underfoot. In Marxist language, we would say that the legal and state superstructure was a holdover from a past period and had entered into contradiction with the new relations of production that had been established. This superstructure, which essentially represented a backwards, agrarian, rural society, was in conflict with the advanced industrial economy, with large urban centres and the vibrant intellectual life that was struggling to develop. This superstructure had to be brought into alignment with the new economic base of society. But which class would lead this process?
The emergence of the trade union movement was a reflection of the fact that the working class was looking for a way out of this dead end. As the working class grew and became more conscious of its power, it entered into struggle against the reactionary government of Duplessis. This conflict gave birth to many important strikes, like the Asbestos strike of 1949 and the Murdochville strike of 1957. Even if these struggles ultimately went down to defeat, they served as important learning experiences for the working class and paved the way for the fierce battles in the years to come. Unfortunately, the leadership of the working class movement was unable to create a workers party, so the leadership of the movement had to come from somewhere else.
With the death of Duplessis (known popularly as “le Chef”) in 1959, all of the contradictions that had built up within Quebec society burst asunder. As we explained previously, the francophone bourgeoisie had been smashed and the imperialist bourgeoisie (mainly English Canadian and American) thus dominated Quebec. The remaining francophone bourgeoisie was entirely tied and subservient to the imperialist bourgeoisie and had no interest in developing or modernizing Quebec society. From their perspective, their position in society and their profits were best guaranteed under the status quo. The urban petty bourgeoisie were most sensitive to the backwardness of Quebec society, and could sharply feel the absence of modern institutions. They were inspired by the struggles of the workers against Duplessis and were able to put themselves at the head of this growing movement. Too weak to directly compete against the imperialists, they needed to use the state to protect them and rallied around the Liberal party of Jean Lesage and his project of modernization of society.
Starting with the election of 1960, the Liberals mobilized wide layers of the working class with their program of progressive reform and modernization. The nationalization of hydroelectricity, the creation of several public enterprises (SIDBEC, SOQUEM, SOQUIP, REXFOR, etc.) and state financial institutions (Société générale de financement and the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec), education reform (the creation of the CEGEPs, the public university network, and the creation of the Ministry of Education) and the implementation of a new labour code were just some of the reforms implemented by the Liberal party of Jean Lesage with the aim of modernizing and expanding the welfare state.
These measures were largely supported by the working class, which saw their living conditions improve. It should also be noted that the Liberals promised to cooperate with the unions and involve them in the process of transforming society. At the time, the salaries of francophones were among the lowest in all of Canada, and the government committed itself to rectifying this situation.
However, the Quiet Revolution, while it made great leaps forward, did not abolish the contradictions of the capitalist system. These reforms that were implemented were only made possible because of the economic boom following WWII, an exceptional situation that had run its course by the late 60s in Quebec. It was at this moment that the province entered into a period of economic crisis that had serious consequences for the workers.
The Liberal government of the early 1960s had created a space for the development of a genuine national bourgeoisie. While there were now francophone capitalists who had found their place in the sun, the working class had not benefited nearly as much from the Liberal reforms, and their living conditions were still very difficult. Wages were still low and unemployment, which had dropped from 9.2% to 4.7% between 1960 and 1966, grew from 5.4% to 8.3% between 1967 and 1972. As the crisis developed, it was becoming clearer and clearer that the petty bourgeois elements in the Liberal Party and the rising Quebecois bourgeoisie had a very different understanding of the Quiet Revolution than the workers. While the Liberals and their allies basically wanted to create a modern capitalist state and give concessions to the workers to buy class peace and avoid the class struggle which marked the Duplessis era, the workers were more and more seeking to move beyond the capitalist system.
The Liberal project of becoming “Maîtres chez nous” (Masters of our own house) had initially created a semblance of unity in national struggle between the urban petty bourgeoisie and the working class, but the coalition now began to collapse. Ultimately, the new Quebecois state was at the service of the bourgeoisie. It is precisely this that was recognized by CSN president Marcel Pépin in 1966 when he said that, “It was clear to us, in the course of several negotiations with the state… that these negotiations were taking place under the watchful eye of big private interests…” As the class contradictions came to the fore, the traditions from the ferocious class struggles of the 40s and 50s (the strikes at Asbestos, Murdochville and Dupuis frères most notably) resurfaced. As the Liberal deputy Jean Cournoyer mentioned at the time, “It doesn’t surprise me. This could have been predicted five years ago. The nationalist movement was due to become class conscious.”
The failure of the labour movement in Quebec to create a party of the working class in the 1960s led the movement to express itself on the industrial front. Many important strikes and conflicts took place in the 1960s. Most notably, there were strikes at three hotels in Montreal, and the first lockout at La Presse in 1964. In 1969, there was a strike of the police and firefighters, and the Murray Hill company riot which involved activists from the Movement for Liberation of Taxis in October 1969. There was also the important Lapalme Boys strike in 1970. And it wasn’t only Montreal that was affected. Strikes, street blockades, riots and demonstrations took place in 1970 and 1971 in many cities all over Quebec, like Cabano, Cadillac, Mont-Laurier, Manneville and Shawinigan.
But the event that was the veritable turning point in the development of the consciousness of the workers in Quebec took place in October 1971 during the lockout at the newspaper La Presse. This was a violent confrontation between bosses, who had the unwavering support of the state. The Power Corporation, the owner of the journal, wanted to modernize production and cut the workforce. Intransigent during the negotiations, the management locked out the workers and hired strikebreakers to continue the publication of the paper.
The lockout became a symbol of the exploitation of the entire Quebecois working class, and support poured in from all over the province. A demonstration in support of the workers was organized by the three union federations on October 29th, 1971 and more than 15,000 people, mainly workers, responded to the call. This demonstration was met with show of force on the part of the bourgeois state. The police brutally charged at the demonstrators with clubs. By the end, 190 were injured and 200 were arrested. Michèle Gauthier, a student at the CEGEP Vieux Montreal, suffocated to death when the police fired tear gas into the crowd. The arrogance of the La Presse bosses during this conflict was only matched by the mayor of Montreal at the time, Jean Drapeau, who cynically declared that “It is dishonest to say that someone died during the events on Friday evening. Nobody died at the demonstration. Madame Gauthier could have died at the Santa Claus parade.”
The Creation of the Common Front
The La Presse lockout shook the consciousness of the workers and revealed the real nature of the state in Quebec. But state violence, far from weakening the workers’ movement, reinforced the tendency towards unity and accelerated the process of radicalization among the workers and the unions.
This process of radicalization already had its effects on the CSN. The CSN was originally the CTCC (The Canadian Confederation of Catholic Workers), a reactionary Catholic union in the back pocket of the bosses. Under the pressure of the radicalizing working class, the union was ‘deconfessionalized’ and was converted into its opposite, and the CSN was born in 1960. The CSN was one of the most radical unions in North America and was on the leading edge of the workers’ movement in this period.
A few weeks before the lockout at La Presse, the CSN published a manifesto titled “It's up to us” which showed, using figures to support it, the domination of Quebec by American imperialism, and put forward the need to overthrow the capitalist system and establish a planned socialist economy. Here are a few extracts:
“Capitalism and foreign domination of our economy are the direct cause of unemployment and poverty for an increasing number of workers.”
“The C.S.N. strongly believes that Quebec has no future within the present economic system.”
“Quebec workers already know they can’t count on Quebec capitalists or on a government which is at the service of capitalists and imperialists.”
“Another consequence of the capitalist system is that a worker’s salary represents only a fraction of the value he has produced. The rest goes to the capitalists, who use it to consolidate the empire-or just throw it away.”
“C.S.N. militants must devote themselves to the task of informing Quebec workers of their dead-end situation. They must stimulate workers to discuss possible solutions within the framework of a popular democracy, and encourage them to take part in the concrete struggles whose ultimate objective is to replace the bourgeois system with a classless one-an economic system controlled by the workers.”
“With socialist planning, the workers become owners of their own labour and receive the full benefit of their own labour. We are our own strength. Let’s stop selling ourselves. It’s up to us!”
Meanwhile, the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) and the CEQ (Corporation of Quebec Teachers) took a bit more time to radicalize, but the events at the October demonstration sped up the process. The following month, the FTQ published its manifesto, “The State, Our exploiter,” while the CEQ in 1972 published its manifesto, “The School in the service of the ruling class.”
The tendency towards trade union unity, in opposition to the traditional rivalries between the unions, manifested itself during the La Presse lockout when the three big union federations united to support the workers and called for the demonstration on the 29th of October. Four days after this historic demonstration, they organized a massive rally to discuss the next steps for the movement. With only 24 hours notice, more that 14,000 people gathered at the Montreal Forum for this meeting, which marked the creation of the Common Front between of the unions. The CSN, the FTQ and the CEQ created a united front and called on all progressive forces to join them in a struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism.
Michel Chartrand, the president of the CSN’s Montreal Central Council presided over this historic meeting, which saw strong speeches against the provincial government of Robert Bourassa, against Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, and against the capitalist class. Side by side with Chartrand were the three leaders of the Common Front: Louis Laberge of the FTQ, Marcel Pépin of the CSN and Yvon Charbonneau of the CEQ.
The mass of workers that gathered was a heterogeneous mix of various manual workers and other types of workers, like the teachers and journalists. All over the Forum, the slogan resonated: “It is only the beginning, continue the fight!” The tone from the union leaders was bitter and reflected the rapid radicalization of the movement.
A year before, the president of the FTQ, Louis Laberge said, in a moderate tone: “I am a practical man, not a dreamer: I believe in evolution, not revolution…. And even if I do not agree with the current system, I do not want to destroy it.” However, just like a large part of the labour movement, Laberge had learned from the recent experiences, and at the end of 1971 his speeches changed. During the rally at the Forum he notably said, “It's not windows that we must break, it’s the regime that we want to break.” In addition, in commemoration of the tragic death of Michèle Gauthier, he said, “We have given serious warning to the well off, to the powerful, to the government controlled by big business, that we are disgusted. And that this first victim, may be followed by others, but in the future, the victims will not be on our side.” On another occasion he said that, “No matter what kind of model for society we are considering, we know that the one we have in Quebec, and North America in general, is not for made for us. We have analyzed the political and economic machine that is trying to destroy us and we have come to the conclusion that we cannot expect any goodwill from it.” And then, “The definition of all the peculiarities of the society that we want to build is less urgent than the development of a strategy to destroy the current system, a system that does not allow and will never allow all the necessary reforms to build a true and just society.”
Public sector contracts came up for negotiation in 1972. Following the La Presse affair and the Common Front meeting at the Forum, the unions were more united than ever. The Common Front, which grouped together 900 different bargaining units, was officialized on January 1972. This sent a very clear message to the bourgeoisie: a real class war was declared. The workers were now entering a new stage of the struggle. It was no longer a question of how to fight in different sectors for reforms, or how to make small wage gains for certain layers of workers. Going beyond the stage of fragmented struggles, it was now a question of struggling for the interests of the working class as a whole.
With the slogan, “We, the ordinary people,” the Common Front united and entered the scene of history and gave rise to the largest working class uprising in the province, which shook capitalism to its foundations.
The General Strike
At the beginning of the year, the Common Front, which represented 210,000 of the 250,000 public sector workers in the province, entered into negotiations with the government. The mood of the unions was not as it had been in the past. Now the tone was very radical. As Yvon Charbonneau of the CEQ said, “the negotiations will bring into question the entire capitalist system and unmask it. This will be the first blow against the system.”
Previously, the divisions inside the workers movement served the interests of the government, as they used the divisions to play off different sections of the workers against each other. Once again, the government insisted on negotiating separately with each section of the public sector workers. But the Common Front took the position that the negotiations be based on the demand for a general sum of money, which would cover all public sector salaries, that they would then decide how to distribute fairly among the workers. The government was strongly opposed to this, along with the other demands of the Common Front, such as equal pay for equal work regardless of sector, region or gender; a general wage increase of 8% reflecting the increased cost of living; greater job security and better working conditions.
One of the most important demands was the $100 per week minimum salary for all workers. At the time, 19% of the 210,000 workers represented by Common Front earned less than $70 per week and more than half of this number earned less than $50. The amount of $100 was not an arbitrary amount. It 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. While this seemed to be a fairly straight forward way to bring many people out of poverty, this was not a harmless demand, but brought into question the method of compensation under capitalism. If a wage floor like this in the public sector were to extend to the private sector, it would mean a retrenchment in the rate of profit for private enterprises that the capitalist class could not support. As Marcel Pépin said, “The minimum wage of $100 is a new method of compensation that the capitalist system cannot accommodate and the government rejects. This method of compensation should not be based on the needs of the market but on human needs and the needs of the most disadvantaged workers. We want to begin with a decent minimum wage and we want to narrow the gap between the best and worst paid workers. But the current capitalist system tends to increase this gap.”
The negotiations between the Common Front and the government went nowhere. The government absolutely refused to back down, believing that if they gave in to the demands of the public sector, this would be a source of inspiration for the private sector. The government's offer, which sought to hold separate negotiations and limited itself to a meagre salary increase of 4.3% (this would not allow wages to catch up to inflation, especially because the government wanted to increase the number of hours worked in certain sectors.) was rejected by 75% of the members of the Common Front at the beginning of March, 1972. The general strike was imminent.
The first day of the strike took place on March 28th. The government fought back with a number of injunctions against the Hydro-Quebec workers and hospital workers with the aim of dividing the movement. The government still refused to yield in spite of the fact that the leaders of the Common Front said that they were ready to put aside the demand for a $100/week minimum wage in favour of a general increase in salaries. In response, the Common Front chose to go on the offense and declared an unlimited general strike starting on April 11th. Once again, the government responded by targeting the hospital workers with stiff fines and injunctions. Thirteen hospital workers, among the lowest paid in the Common Front, were sentenced to six years in prison and fined $5,000 each. In addition, their union was fined $70,000. In the following days, 103 workers received fines totaling $500,000 and we sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison.
And of course, as is the case in all strikes and social movements that challenge the capitalist order, hysteria gripped the bourgeois press at the outset of the conflict. The propaganda machine was set in motion in order to try and win public opinion. Nick Auf Der Maur, in his book, Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972, gives us an overview:
“As the strike, the largest in Canadian history, dragged on for several days, the media went about their task of whipping up anti-union hysteria.
“The English media, particularly the Montreal Star and Gazette, were especially prone to this tactic. From the first day, before the strike could possibly have had any effect, the Gazette carried wild, emotional, front-page stories about patients being forced to sleep in urine or beside cadavers.
“ 'They could write stories like that about general hospital conditions without a strike', commented one picketer.”
The effects of the strike were also felt inside the provincial government of Robert Bourassa. Dissent within the Liberal Party manifested itself between a more moderate wing, embodied by Ministers like Castonguay and L'Allier, and another more rigid, impatient wing that wanted to govern with an iron hand and pushed Bourassa to do so. This is how the government came to the table with the reactionary Bill 19, back-to-work legislation which came into effect on April 21st. This law gave power to the government to impose a resolution to the conflict by decree, in addition to being able to suspend union rights for two years. The law also included stiff fines for those who broke the law - between $5,000 and $50,000 per day against a union or its leaders. A fine of $250 per day was also included for any public sector worker who did not return to work immediately. Even if the text did not explicitly state this, this law in practise led to the banning of trade unions.
That being said, support for law 19 was not unanimous within the government and there were resignations from the Liberal caucus. The law had obviously been drafted by the hardliners of the party, which shocked several deputies and ministers, like the Minister of Labour, Jean Cournoyer.
The effects of the law were also felt in the ranks of the CSN, when the right wing of the executive, Paul-Émile Dalpé, Jacques Dion and Amédée Daigle (commonly referred to as the “Three Ds”) called on their members to return to work and respect the law. The two members of the left wing of the leadership, Marcel Pépin and Raymond Parent (the “two Ps”) found themselves isolated. The leadership was torn between two wings that could not be reconciled. A split took place after the strike with the three Ds leaving the CSN to form the CSD with 19,000 of the 100,000 members of the CSN. While this was definitely a minority, it was a significant one and it served to weaken the movement. The majority supported the leadership of the Common Front.
In spite of the position taken by the CSN executive, the leadership of the Common Front (Marcel Pépin had disassociated himself with the position forced on him by the “3 Ds”), on the afternoon of April 21st, recommended that their members vote to resist law 19. Later in the day, the three union federations quickly called for votes on what actions to take against law 19. On such short notice, only half of the members were able to vote. Of those who voted, 65% of CSN and FTQ members and 54% of CEQ members voted in favour of continuing the strike.
But despite this vote in favour of disobeying the law, and in spite of their declaration that same day to defy the law, the three leaders of the Common Front finally decided to call for their members to respect the law and return to work. They justified this incredible about-face by saying that the vote was not conclusive and that they didn’t want to divide the strikers. The workers of the Common Front, disappointed and shocked, returned to work. The movement seemed to have been defeated.
It is true that the capitulation of the three Ds, who acted like saboteurs, weakened the CSN, which made up half of the members of the Common Front. However, the retreat of the three Common Front leaders, in spite of the vote in favour of defying the law, was a monumental error. Michel Chartrand of the CSN stated that the leaders were leading the movement to suicide. The bourgeois papers couldn’t contain their joy with the capitulation of the union leaders. The Montreal Gazette said that, “The young government of Robert Bourassa was better prepared and smarter than the union leadership.” As we are going to see, the union leaders totally underestimated the real mood of the workers.
In fact, at the grassroots level the workers were fighting to keep the movement alive. During a Montreal meeting of the FTQ on the weekend of April 22-23rd, 98 delegates voted in favour of collective ownership of the means of production under workers control with only 4 voting against. At the same time, at a meeting of the Central Council of the Montreal CSN, the members voted, at the initiative of Michel Chartrand, for a general strike on May 1st, lambasting the leaders who were calling for a return to work. However, due to the hesitations of the union leadership and their lack of preparation, the strike on May 1st did not take place. The movement seemed to have been decisively defeated by the government. To add insult to injury, the three leaders of the Common Front, Pépin, Laberge and Charbonneau were personally indicted for having incited hospital workers, since the beginning of the strike, to not respect the injunctions.
On May 4th, they arrived in court, accompanied by a contingent of workers. But the courtroom was already full of security guards and police officers in plain clothes. A riot squad was also deployed for the occasion. It was an absurd provocation! Even during the court case for the members of the FLQ, the riot squad wasn’t deployed. Obviously, it was not a question of security. It was rather hoped that this masquerade would provoke a violent reaction from the workers who had come to support the three leaders, which would then have the effect of discrediting the “violent strikers” in the eyes of public opinion. But the three leaders were outraged and decided to leave the room altogether. Louis Laberge came out in the media decrying this masquerade organized by the Quebecois state and the use of police force, saying, “Those who were present in court probably witnessed what happens in a banana republic. There were 21 police officers disguised as ordinary men that we recognized. All was calm in the room. We had made a call for moderation before the trial. Suddenly 12 riot cops appeared.” When all was said and done, the three leaders were sentenced to one year in prison on May 8th.
It wasn’t enough for the Liberal government to rely on the capitulation of the union leaders to defeat the movement. It was necessary to use the entire weight of the bourgeois state apparatus to crush the workers and prevent any possibility of them rising up again. The government thought it had destroyed the movement by imprisoning the leaders, but it was wrong. Michel Chartrand understood this well enough: “The government thinks that it can scare the workers by throwing their leaders in jail. It thinks that it can silence the workers… well, it has lit a forest fire that spread everywhere, mobilizing thousands of workers in both the public and the private sectors.”
Marx explained that sometimes the revolution needs the whip of the counter-revolution to advance. The Common Front strike had come to an end but the harshness of the government was a provocation in the eyes of the workers. This served to revive the movement to a level not seen before.
Mobilization and stagnation
The union leaders had been completely blind to the situation developing underneath the surface. On May 7th, Yvon Charbonneau declared to 1,500 CEQ members gathered at the Paul-Sauvé centre that, “The idea of a strike is ruled out for the moment, that is to say, for the remainder of the school year, unless there is a change that I have not foreseen and that many others have not foreseen either.” Two days later, the day after the sentence against the three union leaders was announced, without any call to strike, spontaneous gatherings and occupations occurred throughout the province.
The movement began at the bottom, as Auf Der Maur points out, “The workers of Quebec were about to rise up by the thousands in one of the greatest displays of solidarity this country has seen since the Winnipeg general strike in 1919. The workers were to show hostility to a government dedicated to the interests of business. But above all, they were to show that the new militancy of the Quebec trade-union movement comes from the base, and is not dictated from the top. The revolt was the first, tentative step by the workers of Quebec to shrug off their old fears and to defend their class interest.” Workers occupied the factories, the villages and radio stations. At the height, more than 300,000 workers walked off the job.
In Sept-Îles, a gathering of several hundred people was repressed by police violence. This was all that was needed to push the workers over the edge. In the following days, the municipal workers organized a general strike which paralyzed the entire city. The strike committee, which was, in essence, the embryo of a soviet (workers' council), even took control of the local radio station. In Saint-Jérôme, the workers from different sectors, most notably the bus drivers, the professors and the steelworkers, went on strike. The workers at the local radio station asked the strike committee to take control of the station. Also, more than 80,000 construction workers, as well as workers at the Manicouagan dam and the mines at Thetford Mines, Asbestos and Black Lake all went on strike. Many factories all over the province were occupied and closed by the workers. Even the workers of the main papers in the province, La Presse, Le Devoir, Le Journal de Montréal and Montréal-Matin, joined the strike movement. Workers at the Albert Prévost institute, a psychiatric hospital, took possession of the hospital and announced that the institute was now “The first liberated hospital in North America.”
After less than a week of strike, the movement had spread all over the province, from Baie-Comeau to Port-Cartier, from Chibougamau to Murdochville. The police authorities were increasingly powerless when faced with the spread of the strike, especially because any repression of one sector of the workers would only lead to a reaction from the whole movement and would bring new layers into the strike. In the government, no one had thought that the movement was going to take on such a large scale. Even the union leadership, just the week before, believed that the workers had become apathetic and they didn’t have confidence that a general strike could be successful. But the anger and discontent of the working class exploded and the movement was pushing forward.
The role of the strike committees was no longer limited to the simple organization and mobilization of workers. Since workers were occupying their workplaces, they were now in a position to decide, through their strike committees, whether or not to open or close factories and businesses. An embryo of a workers' state was being formed as strike committees now had the power to manage the production and distribution of consumer goods. In Sept-Îles for example, the police had become absolutely powerless against the workers.
The scale of the strike was such that it spread to the private sector as well as different regions all over the province. It is interesting to note that the strike had developed the farthest in two completely different cities, Saint-Jérôme and Sept-Îles. The former suffered from high unemployment and low wages as the city was hit hard by the economic crisis. The latter was growing and living conditions were generally improving for the workers. While it isn’t surprising that Saint-Jérôme went on strike, the fact that Sept-Îles was also a strong bastion for the movement shows that the movement had moved beyond a struggle for simple reforms, and a genuine revolutionary sentiment had seized the province.
Despite what is written in the history books, this episode that occurred in 1972 was a real revolutionary general strike that shook Quebecois society to the core. The government was paralyzed, incapable of governing as before. After first downplaying the magnitude of the situation, claiming that there was no emergency, Robert Bourassa’s government then panicked. The ruling class was divided, which is characteristic of a revolutionary situation. One wing wanted to govern with an iron hand, using force and the judiciary. The other, more moderate wing was leaning towards giving concessions. The government was in crisis: two ministers wanted to resign, but Bourassa, wanting to preserve the appearance of unity, convinced them to stay at their posts until the end of the strike.
The divisions within the government paralyzed the ruling class. The government couldn’t rule as before and was therefore forced to mobilize the forces of reaction against the workers using extra-parliamentary measures. A secret governmental communication sent to all of the presidents of the riding associations of the Liberal party was intercepted by the CEQ, which called on them to form vigilante committees to combat the strike, and suggested that die-hard Liberals be made special constables. This ended up being the case in many cities, where around 200 Liberal party members were made into special constables, constituting the leading physical force of the counter-revolution.
The government was weakened. Power was in the process of changing hands; in many cities and regions, the workers had already taken control without necessarily being aware of this. But at the same time the movement wasn’t following a concrete plan of action to take power and overthrow the ruling class. It was doing so randomly and by default. As Trotsky wrote in his book about the 1905 revolution in Russia, “The more completely a strike renders the state organization obsolete, the more the organization of the strike itself is obliged to assume state functions.” However, power cannot change hands spontaneously. The leadership of the movement must be organized and conscious of its tasks. It must understand that the situation allows the workers to take power and act accordingly. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders didn’t have confidence in the rank-and-file and had no intention of taking power. The movement lacked a genuine leadership, which can only be given by a revolutionary party armed with the ideas and methods of Marxism, uniting the the most conscious activists, having learned from the victories and defeats of the past.
At this point, the strike was stagnating. An unlimited general strike is an exceptional revolutionary situation that cannot last forever. Workers cannot remain in an unstable, uncertain situation forever, with nothing happening. Either the workers take power and embark on the socialist transformation of society or the strike goes down in defeat at the hands of the reaction. This meant that one more step needed to be taken by the Common Front so that the workers could take power. But as there wasn’t a firm revolutionary leadership directing the movement, the momentum was lost and and the reaction gained steam.
The leaders capitulate
The government succeeded in gaining the upperhand and Jean Cournoyer, who was now the Minister of Civil Service, in mid-May proposed negotiations to the three leaders of the Common Front, which they were happy to accept. In these conditions, this was tantamount to abandoning any hope for victory. Stating that the negotiations must be held under conditions of a “cease fire,” an official communique from the Common Front to the government stipulated that, “Following up from your declaration stating that you desire to negotiate rather than rule by decree, we would like to meet you as soon as possible. To facilitate these negotiations, we call on our members to return to work.” They were now calling for an end to the strike. It is precisely this type of error that a genuine revolutionary leadership would not have made. It was a monumental error! They let the chance of a lifetime slip through their fingers. What was needed was not to stop the strike but to continue the strike movement and lead it to the seizure of power. The government and the bourgeois press were jubilant. On May 18th, 1972, Le Devoir wrote, “The Common Front puts an end to guerilla warfare!”
The union leaders agreed to negotiate and called for an end to the strike on the condition that the Big Three would be released, at least to be present at the bargaining table. While Cournoyer entertained this possibility, Jérôme Choquette, the Minister of Justice, was pushing in the opposite direction. He believed that the liberation of the union leaders was a sign of weakness. They remained in prison until they appealed their sentence on May 23rd and were released on bail. They therefore agreed to put an end to the strike without getting anything in return. It was a capitulation, pure and simple!
Even if workers in some of the factories remained on strike for weeks to come, the general strike was essentially over. Order had returned to the province; business could resume for the bourgeoisie.
At the end of this process, Quebecois workers had nevertheless made significant gains, such as a general increase in wages and pension plans. They also ended up winning their principal demand for a minimum wage of $100 per week. Despite these gains, one important fact remains: the turbulent events during the spring of 1972 were a missed opportunity for Quebec workers to overthrow the capitalist system and begin the transition to a socialist society.
The Lessons of the General Strike
The most remarkable thing about this general strike is the courage and determination of the Quebecois working class. Vilified from all sides, they fought, not only against the bosses, the police and the government, but in the decisive moments, against their own leaders. Just when the leaders of the Common Front were calling on the workers to return to work and the strike seemed to be over, the working class of Quebec embarked on one of the most incredible revolutionary movements in the history of North America. With virtually no leadership, workers seized the factories, mines and radio stations. The government was paralyzed and the police force was impotent.
While power was slipping from the hands of the capitalists, there was however no clear and conscious plan for the workers to take power. This leads us to one of the most fatal weaknesses of the movement at the time: syndicalism. The union leaders were openly referring to the traditions of revolutionary syndicalism espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World and Joe Hill. As CSN president Marcel Pépin said at the time, “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.”
It was generally believed that it was enough to simply launch a general strike and occupy the factories. However, a revolutionary general strike simply poses the question of power, it does not solve it. When the general strike happened, there was a massive power vacuum. The workers, without a political organization to lead the struggle to victory, were unaware that they essentially had the power in their hands. After a period of crisis where the government was immensely weakened, order was re-established. The workers, with no other alternatives, eventually returned to work.
This tragic lesson shows that the struggle against capitalism requires a revolutionary party, armed with Marxist theory in order to lead the working masses to the seizure of political power. All history shows that a simple trade union struggle alone cannot bring down capitalism and bring about socialism. As Trotsky explained in his History of the Russian Revolution, “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” Therefore, we need to group together the advanced militants of the workers and youth into a revolutionary organization. The lessons and experiences of struggles from all corners of the globe must be shared, to avoid past mistakes and to assure future victory. This is our task today!
While the Common Front general strike of 1972 eventually went down to defeat, the legacy of this fantastic movement of the working class remains. For the first time in Quebec’s history, the question of power was posed directly: who makes the wheels turn in society? Who is master of the house? Is it the workers, or the bosses?
But is this history taught in the history classes today? The ruling class is afraid of this history and has been trying to erase this from the memory of the working class. Unfortunately, most of the left has forgotten these traditions as well. It is our goal to re-kindle the interest in the revolutionary traditions of the most militant period from Quebec’s labour history.
Today, much like the period of the 1960-70s, we live in a revolutionary era. As the capitalist crisis continues unabated, the bosses are once again attempting to force austerity and attacks on to workers and youth. This had already led to an unprecedented amount of social upheaval in every country around the world, and political polarization as people search for a way out of this blind alley. It is therefore more pertinent than ever for us to learn the lessons of the revolutionary general strike of 1972 for the struggles to come.
Join us to fight for the genuine traditions of 1972 today!