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Quebec general strike   -  1972
Contributed by New Socialist Group

Thirty years ago Quebec was convulsed by one of the most profound working-class struggles of North America in this century. Throughout the spring of 1972, hundreds of thousands of workers shut down much of Quebec, first in an illegal public sector strike in April, and then in a semi spontaneous and equally illegal general strike for two weeks in May. 

The unions' history of the strike gives a sense of its breadth and scope: "work stoppages broke out in the public and private sectors alike: among construction and metal workers, miners, machinists, auto and textile workers, stevedores, sales people, print-shop employees, the staff of major news media, teachers and some hospital workers." (Quebec, Federation of Labour and Confederation of National Trade Unions, History of the Quebec Workers' Movement, 1984, p.266) 

At its highest point there were an estimated 300,000 people involved in this upsurge. Factory and plant occupations blossomed everywhere. 23 radio stations were occupied. Airports were blockaded. Bridges were blocked when elementary school teachers dumped kegs of nails on them. Whole towns were taken over by working people, in Sept-Iles, Joliette, Sorel, Thetford and elsewhere. For days a virtual state of dual power existed in pockets across Quebec. 

The short-term result of this struggle was a partial defeat. However, the longer-term outcome was substantially more favourable The positive gains from this struggle included the Common Front unions winning their key demand of a $ 100 per week minimum wage for the lowest-paid of their members, predominately women workers. 

Major gains were also made in general wages, cost-of-living clauses and pension plans. The general strike and its aftermath created so much political pressure on the Quebec Liberal government that it was forced to ask the imprisoned union leaders (Marcel Pepin, Louis Laberge and Yvon Charbonneau) to appeal their contempt convictions so as to make it possible for the government to release them from prison and continue bargaining.

Finally, the shift in the relationship of class forces created by the general strike was no small factor leading to the defeat of the Liberals four years later.

This enormous struggle has been virtually censored out of history. A Goggle search on "Quebec general strike" will produce exactly four returns!  And no wonder, because there are many lessons to be learned here.

The Quebec History on this web site consists of two articles from the Last Post, one of the most important radical news magazines of the late 1960's and early 1970's. The articles, taken from the issues of December 1971 - January 1972 and of June 1972, provide a wealth of detail on the background to the Common Front strike and the general strike that followed it. 

Obviously we need to be careful not to assume that this whole experience can be transferred directly to the struggle now taking place in British Columbia. There are significant differences between our situation today and that which existed in Quebec in 1972, that require us to assimilate this history critically and carefully. (Just to give one example, the working class radicalization in Quebec during this time was so broad that a mass meeting of 14,000 could be called on less than 24 hours' notice!) But having said that, there are abundant lessons here on what is possible, what we can do, and where we can go with proper organization and planning.

The first lesson is that you need unity to win. The Common Front strike of 210,000 public sector workers had a solid 75% strike vote. The ensuing general strike involved nearly 50% more participants, and as the Last Post article points out, most of the workplaces that walked out to join the general strike did so after conducting membership meetings and holding votes to do so.
However, the history of this struggle also shows that while unity is essential to a victorious outcome for any general strike, it's completely unrealistic to expect unanimity. The right-wing split and treachery of the "3-D's"- the right-wing union leaders Daigle, Dalpe and Dion - have had similar expressions during any labour upsurge, whether of the leadership's betrayal of the Solidarity movement in BC in 1983 or of the demobilization of the Ontario Days of Action by much of the leadership of the private sector unions in the, mid-90's. In moving toward a general strike, we will have to fight for the broadest unity possible, but we also need to recognize that there simply will be unions (and sectors of the population) that will be neutral non-participants, or actively hostile to such a strike. If we wait for them, we will wait forever.

A second lesson concerns the role of dress rehearsals. The struggle in Quebec went through at least four distinct phases. There was a one-day Common Front strike on March 28h, 1972, serving as a trial run for the two-week Common Front strike that began on April 11th. In a similar fashion, there was an unsuccessful attempt at a one-day general strike on May 1St, followed by the semi-spontaneous eruption that was triggered by the May 4th jailing of the union leaders. The entire hot spring of 1972 had been itself prepared by a series of bitter strikes that had galvanized the Quebec labour movement from 1969 on (the Leiopelma post office couriers, the Murray Hill airport limousine strikes and the 1971 La Press strike in particular), the radicalizing influence of the Quebec national movement and, throughout this period, sharp local conflicts in small resource communities in the early 1970's involving battles with the riot police and that even went so far as to produce occupations of entire towns (Cabano and Cadillac). 

It's entirely realistic to expect that any movement toward a general strike in BC  will also throw up episodic struggles that will serve as dress rehearsals for the real thing, as experiences where the lessons drawn from a bitter struggle in one town or one sector can be made available to everyone. There is nothing inherently wrong with a one-day general strike in and of itself, as long as the bureaucracy is not allowed to use its failure to stop Campbell to argue against all general strikes.

The Quebec experience of 1972 also shows many of the universal characteristics of general strikes:

  • they tend to be quite short. Rather than being protracted, long-drawn-out , they tend to be won or lost in a few days, or at the most, a few weeks.

  • because of this, they are sharp conflicts. They ebb and flow rapidly, and the overall relationship of forces can alter within days. This makes the question of advance preparation even more important, as there is , not likely to be a lot of time to experiment, adjust tactics, etc.;

  • successful general strikes are active strikes. It's not a question of just stopping work, but of taking over one's workplace, one's neighbourhood, one's town. And the impact of shutting down the bosses' enterprises and economy finds its corollary in continuing genuinely essential public services as determined by the democratic decision of the strikers themselves.

  • as far as repression goes, the larger the strike, the more disarmed are the police, and this means less violence. During the height of the Quebec general strike the police were temporarily overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

A fourth essential lesson concerns the ability of unions, even conservative ones, to transform themselves during the course of historic struggles. The Last Post articles points out that during the course of the Common Front strike even conservative unions like the carpenters, plumbers and printers began to catch some of the radicalizing contagion spreading across Quebec (for example, voting 98% for a resolution calling for collective ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management). 

Transformations like this at a membership level can result in new, militant leaderships being thrown up, sometimes in quite unexpected places.

Finally, these articles begin to spell out in some detail the sort of spontaneous union/community alliances that appeared in the course of the Quebec Common Front and the general strike. Partially this was  stimulated by the unions' making a priority of demands important to their lowest-paid members (women, to be sure). 

The general strike was strongest in working-class communities outside the metropolitan Montreal area, especially in resource towns - Sept-Iles, Thetford Mines, Black Lake, Asbestos, Baie Comeau, Port Cartier, Rouyn-Noranda and Joliette. And while unionized workers were the backbone of the strike wave, they were fighting alongside members of their communities. In some cases, the general strike was spearheaded by the community, like in Chibougamau, where "the general shutdown was provoked by an angry group of women, some of them teachers and hospital workers. They marched to one of the mines and pulled their husbands off the job. It was only a matter of time before the effect was total." We can draw lessons from this struggle in how to organize a general strike where unionists and non-unionists, workers and their neighbours, start to learn how to organize a broader movement where everyone can find a place.