Sunday, January 14, 2007

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

The management of discontent took on a different meaning with the onset of the Cold War. The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s manifested itself in both the Canadian and American labour movements in the form of a concerted campaign to rid trade union organizations of communist influence. The successful CCL and TLC-led purges of Communists from within the ranks of labour were carried out with the assistance of the CCF, and set the Canadian labour movement on a clearly social democratic political course.

In Quebec, this period was known as “la grande noirceur” and in the words of Carla Lipsig-Mummé, was characterized as “mature coercive integration larded with simple and devastating repression.”[1] The Asbestos strike of 1949 best exemplified the Duplessis government’s treatment of the labour movement. In February 1949, Catholic workers in Quebec’s asbestos mines launched a six month strike. The union, which had attempted to negotiate in good faith for union security, pensions, and improved safety measures, were ordered back to work by Premier Duplessis, but resisted. The Company, with the full backing of the Premier, fought back by hiring replacement workers. The picket lines turned violent as provincial police and strikers battered one another. The striking workers quickly gained public sympathy and even enlisted the Catholic Archbishop of Montreal to their cause. When the strike ended through a mediated settlement, it was unclear whether or not the union’s strategy had been successful. Faced with an unprecedented assault on trade union freedoms, trade unionists in Quebec turned to politics as a defensive weapon against an increasingly brutal state apparatus. Violent confrontations between workers and the police at Asbestos, and the series of bitter labour disputes which followed, radicalized Quebec’s labour movement and helped to usher in a Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

Social democracy, let alone communism, had long been denounced in Quebec by the clergy and the State, who argued that it was anti-Catholic and alien to French Canadians. However, social democracy did gain a toehold in Quebec with the creation of the CCL-affiliated Quebec Federation of Industrial Unions (QFIU) in 1952. Unlike the QPFL, the QFIU did adopt a clear ideological orientation based on its industrial and nationalist roots and developed an adversarial relationship with Duplessis’ Union Nationale Regime.[2] In 1955, the QFIU adopted its Manifeste au peuple du Québec which declared:
Alors que nous vivons dans un monde divisé en deux, soit d’une part les forces capitalistes, soit d’autre part les forces totalitaires, nous refusons de croire que nous avons à choisir entre ces deux régimes. Nous préconisons une sociale-démocratie. Nous voulons un socialisme démocratique qui respectera la propriété personnelle, les traditions et la foi des masses canadiennes-françaises.[3]

In December 1955 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Committee for Industrial Organizing (CIO) held a reunification convention, twenty years after industrial workers and craft workers parted ways. Years of raiding and the changing nature of work convinced both labour organizations that the interests of working people would be best served through the establishment of a single labour federation in the United States. Because international unions continued to represent the vast majority of Canadian workers, the merger movement could not help but spill over into Canada. In April 1956, the craft-based Trades and Labor Congress (TLC) and the industrial-based Canadian Congress of Labor (CCL) merged to form the CLC. The Quebec wings of both the TLC and the CCL followed suit less than a year later. The TLC-affiliated Quebec Provincial Federation of Labour (QPFL) and the CCL-affiliated Quebec Federation of Industrial Unions (QFIU) merged to form the FTQ in February 1957.[4] By 1960, the FTQ claimed roughly 100,000 members, representing 40% of the province’s unionized workforce.[5] Despite the fact that members of the former QPFL outnumbered former members of the QFIU, and despite the fact that Roger Provost of the former QPFL took over the leadership of the newly minted FTQ, the new union organization continued to champion the social democratic political orientation espoused most forcefully by the leadership of the former QFIU. This interesting ideological development was precipitated by the Murdochville strike, which broke out less than a month after the founding convention of the FTQ.

In March 1957, miners in Murdochville Quebec launched a seven month strike against Gaspé Copper Mines, a subsidiary of Noranda. The miners, who had joined the USWA, were striking for union recognition. The provincial government and its police force backed Noranda and the picket line became a bloody battleground between workers, the employer and the state. The newly-minted FTQ rallied around the striking miners by organizing a march on Murdochville which brought together trade union activists from every corner of the province. The government’s brutal repression politicized the new labour organization and precipitated the adoption of a more militant style of trade union politics favoured by the former QFIU, which had long advocated a social democratic opposition to Duplessis’ Union Nationale government. Despite the best efforts of the FTQ and its affiliates, after seven long months, the miners were defeated. The Murdochville strike, although ultimately unsuccessful, represented a pivotal moment in Quebec labour history because it precipitated a progressive ideological shift in the politics of the FTQ. Like the Asbestos strike before it, Murdochville was a rallying point for progressive forces battling the Duplessis regime in Quebec.

[1] Lipsig Mummé, (1980), 129.
[2] Tremblay (1972), 131.
[3] QFIU, Constitution et Manifeste politique, (Montréal, 1955), 11.
[4] CSN (1987), 161.
[5] Ibid.