Monday, January 15, 2007

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

Within the context of the Duplessis regime’s brutal repression of trade union freedoms and in the midst of an increasing level of government corruption, Le Devoir’s André Laurendeau developed the “roi nègre” theory in the late 1950s to explain the political situation in Quebec. As opposition mounted to the lack of democracy in Duplessis’ government, the Premier had a journalist from Le Devoir ousted from a press conference after the newspaper had printed a particularly stinging story about corruption in his government. The francophone press universally condemned the Premier’s actions. Interestingly, the anglophone press outside of Quebec joined the francophone press in condemning the Premier while the anglophone press within Quebec avoided the story. This incident encouraged Laurendeau to reflect on the relationship between the Premier and the anglophone community in Quebec. In essence, Laurendeau argued that the Duplessis regime’s impact on Quebec was best understood by comparing it to the colonial status of many African nations ruled by “roi nègres” controlled by the British Empire. As Claude Bélanger has explained, “The British, always pragmatic, did not necessarily destroy and replace the existing political power in the colonies. In fact, they frequently accommodated themselves with local customs and rulers, as long as these petty rulers recognized the superior authority of the imperial power and protected its economic interests. To maintain traditional rulers was useful; the local people were used to them and obeyed them.”[1] Laurendeau unquestionably considered Duplessis to be one of these “roi nègres” who would carry out the policy preferences of the English in return for protection and support for his regime. Laurendeau, referring to the anglophone community in Quebec, wrote “they close their eyes to the abuses of authority, as long as their interests are well served.”[2]

Also during this period, CCCL members, frustrated with years of paternalism and conservatism, began a process of radicalization and secularization which culminated in the creation of the Confédérations des syndicats nationaux (CSN) in 1961. That year also saw the newly minted CLC develop the New Democratic Party (NDP), a more moderate and union-oriented offspring of the CCF. This event represented a clear break from the TLC’s tradition of Gomperism and entrenched the labour movement’s support for social democracy and electoral politics as a political strategy. One of the NDP’s first major accomplishments was its ability to convince the Liberal minority government of Lester Pearson to pass the Public Sector Staff Relations Act (PSSRA), which extended collective bargaining rights to civil servants. The explosion of union activity in the public sector which followed the passage of the PSSRA in 1967 combined with a nascent sense of Canadian nationalism to bolster the strength of the Canadian labour movement and significantly reduce the influence of international unions in Canada. In 1962, just under 25% of unionized workers in Canada were represented by national unions. That number increased dramatically to nearly 50% by 1978 and again to 64% by 1990.[3] The Canadian labour movement, after a century of having been controlled by forces outside of Canada, began to chart its own course. And in doing so it moved away from continentalism and embraced a position of economic nationalism in political affairs.[4]

The turn to economic nationalism happened to coincide with fundamental changes in industrial relations. In the mid 1970s, the post war compromise began to unravel as business and government adopted a more hardline approach to labour relations. Beginning with Trudeau’s wage and price controls, federal and provincial governments of every political stripe led an assault on trade union freedoms designed to weaken the collective strength of the labour movement.[5] This new era of neo-liberal globalization was characterized by massive job losses in manufacturing, an increase in outsourcing and privatization, restrictions on the right to strike, increased use of back-to-work legislation, and the introduction of continental free trade.

The CLC’s all out war against the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement in the late 1980s, although ultimately unsuccessful, demonstrated the labour movement’s strength as an independent, progressive coalition builder. However, the triumph of neo-liberalism over Keynsianism in Canada has left the labour movement at a crossroads. Aware of the contradictions of neo-liberal globalization, but unwilling to challenge them in any serious way, unions in Canada have been unable to develop a coherent strategy for growth, let alone survival.

[1] Claude Bélanger, La théorie du roi nègre, Department of History, Marianopolis College
[2] Laurendeau quoted in Bélanger, La théorie du roi nègre.
[3] Jon Peirce, Canadian Industrial Relations 2nd ed., (Toronto: Prentice Hall), 146.
[4] Miriam Smith, “The Canadian Labour Congress: From Continentalism to Economic Nationalism,” Studies in Political Economy, (Summer 1992) Vol. 38 pp35-60.
[5] Panitch and Swartz (2003), Chapter 1.