Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Short History of the Labour Movement in Canada and Quebec: Part Two

In the early 1900s, the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies” as they were commonly known, reached out to unskilled and immigrant workers who were excluded from the TLC. The IWW denounced Gomperism, craft unionism, capitalism, and electoral politics. It welcomed all races into its ranks and promoted the general strike as a tool to overthrow the system. However, the transient nature of the IWW’s members in the resource industry made it virtually impossible for the organization to sustain itself. Its greatest impact was felt in British Columbia, but even in that province, the IWW’s influence was marginal.[1] In 1918, the Western Canadian based and socialist led One Big Union (OBU) was launched with the aim of erasing jurisdictional barriers between craft and industrial workers. However internal power struggles and economic hard times ensured that the OBU would only play a minor role in the development of a Canadian labour movement.

Historically, according to Harold Innis, “labor organizations with English-American traditions were unable to penetrate French Quebec effectively.”[2] While southern Ontario was experiencing a period of rapid industrialization in the latter half of the 19th century, Montreal, which continued to be dominated by merchant and commercial classes, lagged behind. The rest of Quebec lagged even further behind; it continued to adhere to a quasi-feudal seigneural structure dominated by a small group of professionals and the Catholic Church. When industrialization finally began to gain momentum in the early to mid 20th century, small-scale craft production and agricultural initiatives in the countryside were replaced with rapid urbanization and the emergence of a significant wage-earning class of industrial workers.[3] In a conservative attempt to preserve “traditional” French Canadian values, the Church promoted Catholic trade unions as an alternative to the secular and increasingly militant trade unions which were gaining strength in the province. The Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour (CCCL) emerged as the TLC’s main rival in Quebec. Inspired by the social doctrines of the Catholic Church, the CCCL, which was founded in 1921, rejected socialism, communism, and even the idea of class struggle. Instead, the CCCL focused on the “harmony of capital and labour and the right to national autonomy.”[4] Suspicious of Americans, international unions, and foreign capital, the CCCL in many ways represented a reaction to industrialization’s threat to traditional French Canadian values. The CCCL essentially acted as a branch of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec and served an important legitimation function in the workplace. In fact, each CCCL union local was run by a Catholic priest who oversaw its daily operations. Workers were discouraged from adopting militant bargaining positions and strikes were only sanctioned in rare instances.

The CCCL’s founding convention, which received the apostolic benediction of the Pope, dealt with several unique resolutions that clearly set the Confederation apart from other trade union organizations. CCCL delegates, for example, called for the preservation of farming and the agricultural character of Quebec; the prohibition of childrens’ attendance at movie theatres; and an amendment to the Lord’s Day Act which, in addition to Christmas, would see the inclusion of the Circumcision, Epiphany, Ascension, All Saints, and Immaculate Conception as recognized holidays.[5] In 1922, a CCCL delegation to the federal government called for bilingual paper money and postage stamps. The CCCL also expressed its desire to prohibit “all foreign immigration during a period of three years, except the immigration of farmers,”[6] and at its 1923 convention, CCCL delegates voted in favour of a resolution calling on the provincial government “to pay premiums of $50 for each seventh, eighth and ninth child, and $100 for all subsequent children, the Federal Government to pay half the amount of the premiums.”[7] At the CCCL’s founding convention in 1921, a resolution calling on the federal and provincial governments to adopt fixed election dates was “promptly ruled out of order by the presiding officer on the ground that it was of a political nature.”[8] However, the CCCL’s aversion to pronouncing on political issues had certainly withered away by the 1930s. Throughout the decade, the Duplessis government played an active role in procuring collective agreements between the CCCL and employers in industries eager to avoid having to deal with international unions[9]; and in 1938, the CCCL submitted a memorandum to the federal cabinet which called on the government to “pass all legislation necessary so that the Communist party can no longer exist legally in this Dominion.”[10]

Also formed in 1921, the Communist Party of Canada, like the CCCL, posed an immediate challenge to the Canadian trade union establishment. However, the similarities end there. After several failed attempts at entry into the TLC, and later the All-Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL), the Communists set up their own labour federation in 1930, the Workers’ Unity League (WUL). The WUL played a very important leadership role in several strikes during the Great Depression, but was ultimately disbanded after five years under orders from the Soviet Union.[11] Communists, however, remained influential in the Canadian labour movement until the 1950s, especially among immigrant communities.

[1] Morton with Copp (1980), 96-97.
[2] Innis, H.A. Labor in Canadian-American Relations, (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1937), xviii.
[3] CSN, The History of the Labour Movement in Quebec, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1987), 14.
[4] Carla Lipsig-Mummé, “Quebec Unions and the State: Conflict and Dependence,” Studies in Political Economy, (Spring 1980) no. 3, 127.
[5] Labour Gazette vol. 21 (1921), 1264-1266.
[6] Labour Gazatte vol. 22 (1922), 371.
[7] Labour Gazette vol. 23 (1923), 993.
[8] Labour Gazette vol. 21 (1921), 1264.
[9] Lipsig Mummé (1980), 128.
[10] Labour Gazette vol. 38 (1938), 156.
[11] Heron (1996), 62-63.