Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Constitutional Politics of Labour: From Confederation to the Quiet Revolution - Part Three

The Birth of the Canadian Labour Congress

When the TLC and CCL merged in 1956, the new Canadian Labour Congress opted to maintain a highly centralized confederal structure. However, practically, the CLC's role was restricted to providing a mechanism to resolve disputes between its affiliated unions. In many ways, such a structure makes practical sense since Provincial Federations of Labour and individual unions, which tend to be more homogeneous than the CLC, are in a better position to lobby governments. It has always been the case that some of the larger CLC affiliated unions have had the internal capacity to conduct their own research for presentations to government committees.[1] Many unions have also run parallel lobby campaigns because they view the Congress as ineffective. In spite of this reality, the CLC has been unwilling to relinquish its role as the labour organization which purports to speak for all Canadian workers.[2] This tension between the CLC's practical political influence and its own perception of its role has played an important role in explaining the CLC and its predecessors’ positions on constitutional questions in Canada.

The Canadian labour movement’s participation in debates concerning the constitutional division of powers in the immediate post-war era basically consisted of repeated calls for a more centralized federation. With the exception of the CCCL, and to a lesser extent, the QFIU, trade union organizations in Canada preferred a strong national government which could focus on centralized economic planning, national policy frameworks, and the delivery of social programs from coast to coast to coast.

The demise of the Quebec’s Union Nationale regime after the death of Premier Maurice Duplessis in 1959 ushered in a new era of Canadian constitutional politics. The election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals in 1960 precipitated a Quiet Revolution in Quebec which would forever change the relationship between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. The national unity crises which would eventually emerge from this powerful political transformation would also have a significant impact on organized labour and its perspective on constitutional questions.

Quebec Labour and the Quiet Revolution

The Quiet Revolution represents a period of significant political, social and economic transformation in Quebec. Although the Quiet Revolution lasted for only a brief period between 1960 and 1966, its impact on Quebec society far outlived the Lesage government which gave it life. The Quiet Revolution was a reaction to the Duplessis regime’s conservatism and helped to foster a progressive nationalist movement in Quebec. During this period, Quebec distanced itself from the influence of the Catholic Church by adopting a more secular outlook. The province also embraced industrialization and state intervention. The Quiet Revolution both represented and helped to produce increasingly liberal attitudes and an impressive movement to modernize the province. The establishment of a modern welfare state, regional development, and the proliferation of new public institutions were key to transforming Quebec society and improving the opportunities available to Quebec francophones in a province where the anglophone minority very much controlled the world of business. The Quiet Revolution helped the province shed its image as a backwards, conservative, and agriculturally-based society. Instead, what emerged was a Québécois nation which combined a renewed sense of nationalism with demands for progressive social change.

To understand the roots of this radical transformation, one must look back to the Asbestos Strike of 1949, which has often been referred to as “the first shot of the Quiet Revolution.” The brutal repression of Catholic miners at Asbestos rallied Quebec’s progressive forces against the Duplessis regime and helped frustrate the iron clad relationship between the Church and the State. The Asbestos Strike in 1949 would forever change the relationship between labour, the Church and the State in Quebec. What made the Asbestos Strike so significant to Quebec’s political history is that the CCCL’s break with Duplessis helped set the stage for the Quiet Revolution. As Serge and Roch Denis have explained:

"Comme plusieurs études l’ont souligné, la grève de l’amiante aura effectivement constitué une véritable expression du mouvement par lequel la classe ouvrière au Québec se taillait une place en rapport avec son poids social réel. Mais si ce mouvement a été enclenché par les travailleurs industriels, il allait rejoindre, dix ans plus tard, plusieurs autres secteurs clés de la population active. Et le caractère particulièrement spectaculaire de la vague de syndicalisation et d’action de grève dans les années subséquentes s’expliquerait non seulement par l’éclatement de la contradiction accumulée entre la force collective concentrée sur les lieux de travail et son degré d’inorganisation, mais aussi entre cette force et un ensemble d’institutions et d’idéologies exceptionnellement rétrogrades. Au Québec, la rencontre de ces différents facteurs, auxquels se conjuguent évidement les aspirations nationales, aura constitué un mélange particulièrement favorable aux transformations sociopolitiques."[3]

In a keynote address to delegates attending the 1965 provincial convention of the British Columbia NDP, Quebec NDP leader Robert Cliche warned delegates:

"If English Canada decides to turn a deaf ear to the new awakening of Quebec, if it remains set in a mould of complacency and bigotry...then the future is black. The nationalism of resentment will build up; French Canadians will have the sense that they have had so many times in the past... that they can only trust themselves, that they have no allies, only enemies outside."[4]

The same could be said of the FTQ’s relations’ vis-à-vis the CLC. From its formation until the mid 1960s, the FTQ maintained decent relations with the CLC. Although no provincial federation of labour wielded much power or influence due to a lack of resources, the Congress’ first President and one of its Vice-Presidents were Quebecers. If the FTQ struggled for anything, it was for the CLC to become an officially bilingual organization. At its 1960 convention, for example, FTQ delegates passed resolutions calling for a French version of the CLC constitution, publication of bilingual CLC documents, and simultaneous translation at CLC conventions.[5] Similar language struggles were reflected in Canadian society at large where francophones were demanding more representation in Ottawa, in business, and in other positions of power.

Although the CLC’s first President, Claude Jodoin, was a francophone Quebecer, the FTQ did not enjoy any sort of special status within the CLC until 1974. In fact, throughout the 1960s, the FTQ remained a relatively weak provincial wing of the CLC, much like federations in other provinces, which operated without autonomy or decision-making authority. Policy positions, education and organizing programs were conceived and directed by the CLC, but delivered through provincial federations of labour. As previously stated, the subordination of the provincial federations vis-à-vis the CLC was largely the result of a lack of human and financial resources. In Quebec, for example, the FTQ could hardly be considered a proper trade union central before 1965. On paper, there was no question that the FTQ dominated the Quebec labour movement. However, in reality, the FTQ had fewer than a dozen staff members and neither the President nor the Secretary General worked full-time for the Federation. The subordinate position of provincial federations of labour vis-à-vis the CLC was also apparent in the domain of electoral politics.

[1] David Kwavnick, Organized Labour and Pressure Politics: The CLC 1956-1968, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972), 41.
[2] Kwavnick (1972), 68.
[3] Roch Denis et Serge Denis, Les syndicats face au pouvoir: syndicalisme et politique au québec de 1960 à 1992, (Ottawa: Vermillion, 1992), 31.
[4] Speech delivered by Robert Cliche, Quebec leader, at the provincial convention of the NDP of British Columbia in Vancouver (May 23, 1965), 6.
[5] FTQ, Politique de la FTQ, 1960-1967, 96.