The growing militancy of the North American working class, marked by the uptick in strikes last fall, in facing its deteriorating conditions post-2008 financial crisis and its sharpening with the Covid-19 pandemic demands a serious examination of past revolts against the domination of workers by the wage system and capital. Fifty years ago, the workers of Québec, placed in an impossible position on the eve of the global economic crisis of the 70s, found strength in unity and self-organization. The 1972 Québec General Strike went beyond prior labour struggles in both extent (over 300,000 workers directly participated) and character; the Québec workers acted in class independence to take strike action, held mass assemblies, and set the political agenda. Although the Québec working class was effectively demobilized by the “Common Front” troika of public-sector unions, the kernel was planted for workers today: the independence of the working class from capitalist organs such as the union structure or the state provides the basis for effective, generalized struggle against the capitalist class and its transformation into a revolutionary force.
Background to 1972
Prior to the General Strike, Québec was not foreign to working–class struggle. As part of the continent-wide surge of labour agitation in 1919, marked by the Winnipeg and Seattle General Strikes, over 12,000 workers (mainly in the factories) went on strike in Montréal, with another 15,000 threatening to join them. 1 This strike failed to generalize on a city-wide and country-wide basis, mainly due to the conservatism of the unions, but still represented a great degree of class agency and there were expressions of support for the Winnipeg workers.2 Many strikers were affiliated with international unions such as the AFL.3 Post-war Québec saw key strikes at Asbestos (1949), Louiseville (1952), and Murdochville (1957) culminate into a greater width and depth of the union movement, the former lasting four months and Louiseville lasting seven.4 With the 1960s, the unions were secularized from the Catholic Church and underwent a process of expansion and concentration.5 The growing institutional power of the unions, coupled with stagnant or worsening working conditions, made the early ‘70s ripe for a general struggle by the working class.
Québec workers faced deteriorating working conditions, reinforced by the structural disadvangagement of Francophones and women, which must be put into context. Although Québec underwent a period of rapid economic growth in the ‘60s, its working class faced persistent disproportionate unemployment and wage rates. Amidst other factors, this is because the provincial government took the whip to its working class as a strategy for attracting global capital. The labour market, wherein Québec faced 29% higher unemployment rates as compared to the Canadian average in the period from 1946-69, depressed wages as a means of securing higher rates of profit.6 Industries that relied on the labour of women particularly benefited from the fact that, on average, men were paid 60% more than their female counterparts.7 Furthermore, the national question, especially pertaining to language, played a great role in stratifying the working class by paying French-speaking workers less and typically consigning them to the lower ranks of the army of labour. According to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, monolingual anglophones were paid higher than any other group, receiving a yearly salary of $6,049 compared to the $5,929 of bilingual anglophones, $4,523 of bilingual francophones, and $3,107 of monolingual francophones.8 This was a primary basis for the national question in Québec, especially as formulated by the workers themselves rather than the French-speaking capitalist class, who would rather that it was their factories exploiting Québec labour than Anglo-Canadian or American companies.
Finally, it must be noted that the 1972 General Strike was launched at the edge of the precipice- in a little over a year’s time from the conclusion of the strike, the OPEC oil embargo would expose global capital’s decline and spark spiraling inflation, lowered wages, and mass unemployment. All talk below of working conditions, workers’ demands, and government concessions should be relativized with the fact that the militant workers are soon to face a decade of crisis. Especially when considering the tangible gains of the strike, the near future should be taken into account.
The Road to General Strike
Although the opening salvos of the general strike were (for the most part) led by the unions, their actions betrayed a high degree of militancy by the workers they were supposed to represent. This was conditioned by spontaneous displays of class solidarity in late 1971. After five months of a lockout at the La Presse newspaper building and ensuing union protests, the city of Montréal and Québec government banned demonstrations on October 29th. In spite of this, 15,000 workers arrived the next day, leading to a bloody street battle against the police and resulting in one death.9
In response to both the anger of Québec workers and the direct state suppression of the workers’ movement, the three leading unions of Québec, the FTQ, CEQ, and CSN (who officially represented 215,000 workers) combined their efforts ahead of public-sector contract negotiations and formed the Common Front. These unions, especially the CEQ and CSN, utilized radical political positions (the CSN even described itself as Marxist!) and an (unofficial) alliance with the nationalist Parti Québecois (PQ) to match the dire situation Québec workers faced and the militancy they wielded. As a formidable force vis-a-vis the employers, the union announced a series of demands, including an 8% raise (to counteract inflation), a $100 per week minimum wage, and equal pay irrespective of language, sector, or sex.10
By the beginning of 1972, the Common Front enjoyed a high degree of popularity and trust amongst the workers they claimed to represent and whose energies they leveraged. This enabled their launch of the first phase of the 1972 General Strike after failed negotiations, beginning on April 11th and ending on the 22nd of the same month.
The strike, mass in scale (involving over 200,000 public-sector workers), posed a direct threat to the continuity of capital accumulation in the province. From hospitals and schools to the staff of Hydro-Québec, workers ceased labour “essential” for the reproduction of the economy. A response from the provincial and federal governments was inevitable.
The modern state is “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” and in periods of capitalist crisis (be they economic or due to the class struggle) this becomes quite clear. Just as the state ensured capitalists access to “essential workers” during the pandemic by outlawing strikes of Montréal port workers and American meatpackers, the Québec government prohibited the continuation of the General Strike, attacking first (on the 19th) over one hundred healthcare workers with arrests and heavy fines.
Two days later (on the tenth day of the unlimited strike), Bill 19 was passed by the provincial government with the assent of Ottawa, placing an injunction on the strike at-large. The strike was to become illegal on the midnight of the 23rd. The Common Front union leaders, Marcel Pépin, Yvon Charbonneau, and Louis Laberge, initially campaigned for the continuation of the strike in spite of the injunction and called for a referendum on the mandate. However, despite the fact that a majority of the striking workers (60%) voted in favour of continuing their struggle, the union bureaucracy, perceiving a weak position vis-a-vis the state, turned face and demanded the strikers return to work.11 The resulting confusion and fragmentation, where some workers continued to strike and some returned, led to an effective end of the first phase of the general strike and the May 9th imprisonment of the three union leaders for originally supporting the continuation of the strike.
The about-face of the union leaders did not go unnoticed by Québec workers. For example, the workers of Sept-Iles, a small mining city of the Côte-Nord region, sent a delegation to Québec City to address the union leaders, criticizing the decision to call off the strike as well as the bureaucratic structure of decision-making within the Common Front itself; saying that the “people doing the striking need to be the ones setting the tone.”12
From the 9th of May onwards, it was the workers themselves setting the tone, since the Common Front was unable to continue the struggle. Just two days before the resumption of the strike, Yves Charbonneau, president of the teachers’ union (CEQ), estimated that it would not be until another six months before any general strike could recommence.13 Furthermore, the imposition of 1-year sentences on Laberge, Pepin, and Charbonneau after they were tried in absentia left the union structure without a plan of any sort, let alone a plan of attack. Being the good democrats that they were, the three leaders went to Québec City on the 9th and voluntarily handed themselves in to the authorities.
In direct contrast to this display of civic virtue, the workers of Québec at large viewed the detentions as absolutely unacceptable and as the prelude to further suppression. As one worker put it in the ensuing struggle, “They can’t do this. If we let them, they can put us all in jail, anyone of us.”14
As the Common Front leaders were on the way to Québec, the first salvo of the spontaneous workers’ offensive began at the ports of Montréal and Québec City, when 2,000 longshoremen set up pickets in reaction to the news. The strike spread in rapid fashion, the workers’ ranks rising to over 300,000; unionized or not, in the large cities (such as Montréal, Québec City, and Sherbrooke) but also small industrial towns such as St. Jerome or Sept-Iles throughout the province.
The union structures, deprived of their heads, were caught totally unawares. However, they threw their lot behind the workers whom they now tailed. Although the unions facilitated the process by federating newspapers, sending communiques, and opening buildings for discussion, the workers took the initiative throughout the course of the May strike in the form of mass assemblies, the creation of strike committees, and the publishing of local political journals and newspapers. In direct contrast to the April phase of the strike, May saw Québec workers equipping themselves with tools that enabled them to act at their own behest.
Indeed, the strike itself was able to generalize solely due to the workers’ self-initiative: it was word of mouth, illegal radio broadcasts, and solidarity actions that were the basis for their strength. The strike at Chibougamau, an isolated town of northern Québec, was instigated by a march of working-class women to the local mines who compelled the miners to strike.15 Building and going beyond the already-widespread April period, the strike was able to expand far past a sectoral outlook since the struggle was carried out by workers as workers, rather than as members of this or that union (or union alliance).
In the smaller towns, the workers displayed a strong capacity to lead and take practical action against capital. In Sept-Iles, whence the delegation criticizing the unions’ capitulation came, workers from various industries formed a strike committee that took control of the radio station (broadcasting union and local bulletins), stopped local air traffic, and set price controls to ward off speculation. Sept-Iles set the model for other industry towns, and radio stations were seized in 21 other communities to broadcast news of the strike.
A worker from one of these towns near Montréal, St. Jerome, brought to the light the extreme confidence and bravery workers across the province exhibited: “What’s our complaint? I guess the answer is that we’re tired of being pushed around, and now, finally, we’re pushing back. If we can show them, we’re capable of anything.”16
It has been seen that the Québec working class demonstrated active resistance to capital as a class, uniting workers of disparate trades, bridging the divisions of skill and professions, and sweeping up non-workers into their movement, especially students. It has also been seen that this was conditioned by the workers’ independence, initiative, and militancy gained in the course of development of the general strike as a whole. The events in May show that the Québec workers stood at the vanguard of North American workers’ self-organization. However, the end of the May phase of the strike shows that even this degree of class struggle was insufficient.
The immediate cause of the resumption of the strike, the imprisonment of the Common Front leaders and their immense popularity amongst the workers, was also to be the cause of its end, despite the fact that the workers had moved far beyond the union structure in practice from May 7-14. On the 14th, the Common Front issued a call to return to work, on the grounds that it would augment their strength in negotiations with the province. With hindsight, it is clear that these unions were indebted to the state and could not move beyond it. The workers, however, demobilized, and the strike was over for most workers by the 16th of May.
In anticlimactic fashion, the Common Front leaders were released on the 20th in order to enforce social peace and re-enter negotiations with the government. They did so willingly, and struck a deal involving very limited gains. The $100 weekly minimum wage was secured, but, across the board, workers received around 5% wage augmentations (as opposed to the 8% they demanded) and, according to one database, “greater job security and equality among workers [were] not discussed at all.”17 Coming off the greatest display of working class strength Québec had ever seen, the best the unions could attain was partial victories and full defeats on crucial demands. That the workers did not rise up again at this juncture should come as a surprise to the reader, but this attests to the ideological pull the unions retained even as the workers’ practice superseded them.
Understanding the 1972 General Strike
That the unions played an instrumental role in the defeat of the strike in both phases, countermanding the mandate of the majority of the striking workers and duping them into ending the strike against their interests, goes to show the separation of the unions (even at their most combative and radical) over and against the working class. Not only did the unions stifle working class initiative during critical moments of the strike, thereby declawing the militant workers, they did not even share the same interests and perspectives of the combative working class.
Despite their manifestos declaring that “there is no future” in the bourgeois state, the ultimate role of the Common Front was to mediate the class struggle and arrive at compromise when it was at its highest pitch. The union is only possible when there is a boss to bargain with, and as such they cannot move beyond the boss.
The workers of Québec, on the other hand, as the class with nothing to lose but its chains, had no such structural hurdles. Albeit brief, the workers were able to establish a class terrain of their own through mass meetings and strike committees. Such self-organization provided workers not only experience, activity, and strength through numbers, but also opened up new avenues of tactics.
The union structure was tied to the legal apparatus of the state, even on the rare occurrence when it opposed the latter such as when the Common Front initially campaigned for the continuation of the strike. To break the law was such a colossal undertaking for the union that they backed out of their decision in spite of a workers’ mandate to carry it through. In contrast, the Québec workers in May did not conceive of their actions as legal or illegal, at least not in any significant sense. They sensed an emergency and carried out according to their will, through their independent organizations, the measures necessary to build and extend their movement and press their demands.
For example, the workers of Montréal took no issue with disrupting law and order when they saw it necessary. In the May strike, the workers blockaded three bridges and bombed twice the metro system’s electrical station in order to enforce the strike.18 This tactical character of working class terrain is of vital importance for the success of a workers’ revolution, since, as we see in 1972 as well as 2020, the state reserves all right to restore bourgeois “order” when the working class asserts itself.
The independence and immediacy of the Québec workers’ action and organization also developed into a contradiction with the unions on the subject of national liberation. It was the stated position of the unions that an independent Québec was an absolute precondition for the development of the class struggle and the possibility of socialism. Whether or not they in their minds agreed with this position, the workers in practice repudiated it since they organized as a class independent from any national forces such as the PQ. The task they set in motion for themselves is the same task that belongs to all workers under the capitalist mode of production–the confrontation against imperialism and national oppression at their roots, the seizure of power by the workers and fundamental transformation of the social-economic fabric, i.e. communism.
The Québec workers’ reliance on the union was not substantial- they had proven to themselves that they did not need it. Yet, they relented to the union at the end of either phase of the General Strike. If a small minority of workers continued to strike, they were neither organized nor influential enough to pose a viable alternative.
For us workers today, if we are to avoid the pitfalls of 1972 (the groundbreaking elements of the General Strike aside), we need an organization that understands the course of the class struggle as a whole and promotes the independence of the working class as a whole. Workers need to know before and during the course of the crisis that only they themselves can liberate themselves. The spontaneous self-defence of the working class must be united with a working class political organ, which unites the workers’ movement internationally to assault the common enemy of capital.
1 Geoffrey Ewen, The Workers’ Revolt in Montreal. activehistory.ca/2019/06/the-workers-revolt-in-montreal
3 Ewen, The International Unions and the Workers’ Revolt in Québec. 1998.
4 Canadian Museum of History, Quebec: The Common Front http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/labour/labh39e.html
5 Matthieu Noël,Québec Trade Unionism in the 20th Century. McCord Museum. collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=11&tablename=theme&elementid=106__true&contentlong
6 F.T.Q., The State is Our Exploiter. 1971. Found in Québec- Only the Beginning, ed. Drache. new press: Toronto, 1972. p.239
7 John Alexander Dickinson, Short History of Québec. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montréal, 2008. p.335
8 Ibid. p.321
Mick Sweetman, 1972: The Québec General Strike. The Northeastern Anarchist. Issue #9, Summer/Fall 2004. https://libcom.org/article/1972-quebec-general-strike
C.S.N. and C.E.Q. The History of the Labour Movement in Québec. Black Rose Books: Montréal, 1987. p.234
10 Arielle Bernhardt, “Canadian Quebecois Workers General Strike for Higher Wages and Job Equality, 1972.” Global Nonviolent Action Database, swarthmore.edu 2010. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/canadian-quebecois-workers-general-strike-higher-wages-and-job-equality-1972
Sweetman, Quebec General Strike,
Spartacist Canada, “Lessons of the 1972 Quebec General Strike.” Fall 2005
12 Sean Mills, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montréal. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montréal 2010. p.200
14 Sweetman, Quebec General Strike
17 Bernhardt, “Canadian Quebecois Workers General Strike”
18 Dimitrios Roussopoulos, Dissidence: Essays against the Mainstream. Black Rose Books: Montréal, 1992. p.75