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This Round to the Union: The Conflict between Dupuis Frères and Its Workers, 1952
by John Willis

The 1952 strike at Dupuis Frères threatened longstanding company loyalty among the staff and patrons alike. Although most disruption was experienced at the store on St. Catherine Street, mail-order staff was also affected. It took three months for the strike to be resolved.

Introduction | The Changing Historical Context in Quebec | Prelude | The Strike Breaks Out | Management Fights Back | Each Side Taunts the Other | Taunting Turns to Violence | Fighting in the Courts | Support Arrives from the Union Movement | The Conflict Accelerates | Dupuis Decides to Negotiate | The Strike Ends | Further Reading


At midnight May 2, 1952, the employees of Dupuis Frères, a large Montréal department store with a significant mail-order catalogue operation, went on strike. The strike was to last about three months. The story of this strike is an important chapter in Canadian and Québec labour history.

About 1200 workers were involved in the strike. Most of the staff worked in the store on St. Catherine Street, but two to three hundred worked in mail order at the company warehouse in Saint-Henri. At both locations, most of the workers were women, who showed a strong sense of commitment to the union. This was a relatively new development in the history of the company that, since the founding of the employees association in 1919, had never experienced a serious labour dispute, let alone a formal collective agreement. The new spirit of union militancy was a reflection of the post-war era as well as changes within Dupuis Frères itself.

The Changing Historical Context in Quebec

The period immediately following the end of the Second World War was one of turmoil on the labour front. A series of dramatic strikes saw unions in battle with management in the asbestos industry (1949); at the textile mills in Louiseville (1952-53); at Shawinigan (early 1950s); and, in the copper town of Murdochville (1957). In every case, the employer was the primary target, but there was a second intended target: Maurice Duplessis, the conservative premier of Quebec from 1944 to 1959.

  Talking Union, painting by Frederick 
B. Taylor.  

Enlarge image.Frederick B. Taylor, Talking Union, 1950, oil on canvas.


Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the Confédération des Travailleurs Catholiques du Canada (CTCC) turned the tables on its adversaries by redefining the social meaning of Catholicism. Catholic unionism had been defined as a means of tempering relations between employees and employers, the haves, and the have-nots. Now the emphasis was upon justice for the working person.

Justice is what the union was after in the case of Dupuis Frères, where CTCC represented its employees. Strike leaders such as Jean Marchand, CTCC Secretary General, did not fail to point the finger at Dupuis Frères, which, on the one hand, presented itself as a religious and nationalist symbol of French Canada, while denying justice to the CTCC. Shortly after the strike was called, Henri Pichette, the CTCC Chaplain, spoke these encouraging words to Dupuis Frères strikers: "Your strike is your union and christian cross to bear. Carry it valiantly no matter the cost. "


  Roland Chagnon worked his way up to 
store manager in 1950, Le Duprex, June 1947, p. 135.  

Enlarge image.Roland Chagon trained at Montreal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales and was a former director of the Syndicat department store. Chagnon came to Dupuis Frères as the Secretary Treasurer in 1947. Eventually he was appointed store manager upon the departure of L.-J. Dugal in 1950. Le Duprex 13 (4) (June 1947): 135.


A combative brand of Catholic unionism was one element of change. Another lay in the way the company did business and advertised its presence. The Montréal store was entirely rebuilt and enlarged during the late 1940s. An in-store radio broadcasting service was installed. New advertising gimmicks were introduced, such as the 9.75-metre [32-foot] helium balloons sporting the giant Dupuis logo floated from the roof of the store, and the orchestrated arrival of Santa Claus by helicopter accompanied by his six elves, little people recruited for the event.

The new management philosophy was brought to Dupuis Frères by Roland Chagnon, a graduate of Montréal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales. Chagnon wanted to modernize and streamline the business and was willing to fire hundreds of employees to achieve his goal.

In October 1950, Dupuis Frères employees approached the provincial Commission of Labour Relations, with a view to establishing a union as their exclusive legal collective bargaining agent. Their intention was to introduce a formal labour-relations process, which would defend the employees' interests in light of management's intention to change the rules of the game.

The minutes of union executive meetings show a gradual distancing between employers and employees. As a rule, the local executive met at the store on St. Catherine Street. In October 1950, all books and archives were moved to a CTCC building on de Montigny Street. Several weeks later, the entire union executive paid a courtesy visit to the management, where they were received with open arms and assured of the company's utmost co-operation. When asked by one of the company officials what the union's attitude would be following its official recognition, the union replied that it would proceed to negotiate a collective agreement.

Despite the good feeling on both sides, the union and the company were preparing to do battle with one another. In January 1951, the union was officially accredited by Quebec provincial authorities. In March, a draft collective agreement was submitted to the company. The company responded with a proposal to divide the staff in two and offered separate agreements to store workers and mail-order workers. Thereafter, negotiations bogged down for about a year. Management hesitated to accept the union's demand for a closed shop.

In late April 1952, the union submitted a second draft agreement, which management rejected. A series of five marathon negotiating sessions was conducted on April 30 and May 1. Finally, on May 1, exasperated with the lack of progress, the employees voted in favour of strike action.

The Strike Breaks Out

On May 2, the first day of the strike, when the store opened for business more than 1000 people, including 100 strikers, charged through the front doors within about 5 minutes. If the union thought it was a going to catch the company off guard it was dead wrong. From 50 to 200 private detectives were on hand to help keep order. City police remained on the outside - some on horseback - and had orders to disperse groups of 10 or more.

  First day of picketing outside Dupuis 
Frères on St. Catherine Street, Montreal.  

Enlarge image.First day of the strike: picket line outside Dupuis Frères, St. Catherine Street, Montréal.


Raymond Dupuis arrived on the scene just before midnight to help direct operations. He was joined by several dozen fellow executives, company managers, and non-union staff. Buses were provided for non-union staff to help them get safely to and from the store. An underground tunnel was used to transport staff and merchandise to and from a nearby warehouse.

Management Fights Back

Management was determined to keep the store open at all costs and so customers willing to cross the picket lines were offered a 20-per-cent discount. An estimated 50 000 bargain-seekers shopped at Dupuis on the second day of the strike. Full-page ads were placed in the Star and in La Presse. Self-serve, i.e., labour-saving, shopping was introduced. It set, according to Dupuis, a new standard in retailing among department stores.

  The new self-serve system at Dupuis 

Enlarge image.Inside the store following introduction of the new self-serve system, customers bring their purchases to cash registers positioned near the main entrance.

  Crowd of shoppers in the store around 
May 15.  

Enlarge image.Crowd of shoppers inside the store on or around May 15.

  Ad for the new self-serve system and a 
20% discount.  

Enlarge image.Leaflet promoting the new self-serve sales system, which probably formed the basis of newspaper advertisements. Dupuis offered a 20 per cent discount.


Self-serve was all well and good, but Dupuis still needed a minimum number of clerks on the job each and every day. Striking employees were encouraged by telephone to come to work. University students at the École des Hautes Études Commericales were recruited on a part-time basis. The company even advertised for store clerks over the store loudspeaker during opening hours.

Each Side Taunts the Other

It was difficult to pick a winner early in the strike. The union made it difficult, if not embarrassing, for workers and customers to enter the store. A young woman was arrested for haranguing and spitting on passersby, who were presumably trying to enter the store. Two adolescents were arrested for distributing stickers in favour of the strike. Walls and windows in the area were plastered with hundreds of the stickers.

Both sides appealed to the public in the mass media. On day three of the strike, May 4, Gérard Picard, the president of the CTCC, appeared on the radio giving his version of events. Newspaper columns were replete with press releases and statements giving the management and the union sides of the story. Newspapers were used by both sides to float rumours that could hurt the other: Communists were agitating on the picket line. The company was offering $20 to workers who returned to their jobs. Dupuis was preparing to sell out to American interests.

Taunting Turns to Violence

  Montreal police on horseback direct 
striker traffic.  

Enlarge image.Montréal police direct the traffic of strikers from their horses.


Until May 9, the company was relatively successful in attracting customers to the store with its discount policy. However, this changed as union-management exchanges took an aggressive turn.

A young union agitator named Michel Chartrand hit upon the strategy of letting loose some white mice in the women's lingerie section. As the mice began to run about the store to the sound of exploding firecrackers, pandemonium ensued. Order was restored with difficulty.

Company detectives and police, detained and, in some cases, roughed up reporters on the scene. One had to promise he would voluntarily turn over his photo negatives. Another had his notebooks confiscated, was escorted to the door, and advised: "Leave and don't come back." The following day, a group of strikers again managed to get inside the store where they paraded and shouted slogans. One demonstrator was hit on the neck. Women who witnessed the scene began to scream and the police had to intervene.

Outside on the picket line, matters heated up when a garage foreman with Dupuis Frères attempted to run down strikers with a car and later attacked them with a chain. On May 14, strikers got into the store again where they released bees and frogs. Nine arrests were made. Two days later, the first stink bombs were set off inside. A melee broke out at the main entrance involving demonstrators, detectives, and police. Strikers refused to back off and a woman broke out in tears.

Later that same day, a crowd gathered outside at 10:30 p.m. to try to delay the departure of personnel after the store closed down. They threw stones at the buses that arrived to pick up Dupuis employees. Two hundred police were on hand, some on horseback. Traffic backed up on St. Catherine Street and a crowd of curious onlookers gathered to witness the events. These gatherings became regular evening occurrences. The crowd was still in the street in early June when arrests were made on both sides of the picket line.

  Strikers watch non-striking workers 
pass by.  

Enlarge image.Strikers look on as a bus of non-striking workers from Dupuis Frères passes by.

  Picket line outside the store.  

Enlarge image.A picket line of marching men and women outside the store.


On May 19, police authorities informed the press that they recognized a number of communists in the crowd outside the store. The next day, the company issued a communiqué expressing its concern about the presence of communists among the lawyers and journalists working with the CTCC. A few days later, the president of the CTCC accused Dupuis of using Soviet methods in its handling of the strike. Red-baiting was integral to the communication strategy on both sides of the picket line. The cold war was in full swing.

Fighting in the Courts

  Our strike is legal. [transl.]  

Enlarge image.The sign says, "Our strike is legal."


The wrestling match eventually moved to the courts. On May 14, the union began distributing a pamphlet, "Pourquoi nous sommes en gréve" [Why we are on strike]. The next day, Dupuis Frères filed suit for an injunction against the CTCC affiliate that had published the pamphlet. The pamphlet, management alleged, was both libellous and defamatory. Dupuis took particular exception to the assertion that prices has been marked up by 20 per cent prior to the announcement of the special 20 per cent discount shortly after the outbreak of the strike.

A second court injunction was sought a few days later. The union was reproached for its campaign of slander and libel. Individual agitators were singled out and the company sought to outlaw further intimidation, disorder, verbal attacks, and demonstrations. The injunction specifically mentions damage to windows, padlocks, and intimidation near the front entrance at the comptoir postal in Saint-Henri. This was an indication that the strike was affecting the mail-order building as well. If, by this injunction, Dupuis was trying to dissolve the union's strategy of encirclement, there was an implicit recognition that the picket lines were having an effect.

The court ruled temporarily in favour of the company, but eventually ruled that the union's methods were within the limits of the law. With court proceedings in full swing, the union worked to broaden the base of popular support.

Support Arrives from the Union Movement

In May, the Transport Drivers Union, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, the Quebec Federation of Labour, and the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees all weighed in on the side of the strikers. The Montreal Central Council of the CTCC asked sympathetic municipal councillors to enquire into the incidence of police brutality. The CTCC even approached the president of the National Boxing Association to dissuade star athlete Joe Louis from making a scheduled public appearance inside the Dupuis store. Louis never did show up.

  Striker demands to be posted on the 
church door.  

Enlarge image.Leaflet prepared by the union supporting the strikers. Note the hand-written inscription on the upper left-hand corner, which suggests the notice was to be fixed outside a church door.

  Jean Marchand, former Secretary 
General of the CTCC , early 1960s.  

Enlarge image.Jean Marchand during the early 1960s. A graduate of the Université Laval, Marchand entered the labour movement (Federation of Pulp and Paper Workers) during the early 1940s. He became Secretary General of the CTCC in 1948. Marchand eventually quit the union and entered federal politics in 1965.


On May 30, a mass meeting was held at the Palais de Commerce. A telegram of support from Eaton's employees union in Toronto was read out. Gérard Picard, CTCC president, promised the strike would go on until victory was achieved. Jean Marchand told the 5000 in attendance that the large merchants of 1952 were conducting themselves as if they were feudal seigneurs exploiting their peasants. Speakers encouraged the crowd to continue boycotting Dupuis Frères.

The Conflict Accelerates

  Montreal's finest on their mounts 
outside the Dupuis Frères store.  

Enlarge image.Montreal's finest on their mounts outside the Dupuis store.


Between June 10 and July 21, the strike entered its third phase. Relations between police, strikers, and management degenerated. A Dupuis truck was overturned. On June 11, a store window was broken, a melee broke out, and a force of 50 police officers was brought in. Thirteen arrests were made the evening of the 13th after the picketers smashed a store window and rained firecrackers on the non-striking employees boarding the buses that were to take them home. The police even made arrests when picketers began to sing and chant too loudly.

On June 16, two large store windows were shattered. Four days later, three more windows were smashed. Two arrests were made among the picketers for disturbing the peace. A man trotted down St. Catherine Street on his horse to the amusement of all, offering a provocative parody of Montreal's mounted police. "La grève c'est la guerre," [The strike is war] commented Gérard Picard, not inaccurately, in La Presse.

Another mass meeting was held on June 19. Liberal MPP Dave Rochon argued for a continuation of the boycott against Dupuis. City councillor Lucien Croteau exclaimed that never before had there been such an era of liberty and freedom of expression in Montréal.

Strike momentum burst back onto the streets during the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade on June 24. Close to a million spectators attended the parade, among them Dupuis strikers. A group of 20 women filed past the Archbishop of Montréal and told him, "The strikers of Dupuis Frères honour you, Monseigneur." Other groups of strikers were less polite. Mayor Camilien Houde was pelted with rotten eggs.

In Quebec labour strife, the summer of 1952 was a hot one. There were six strikes going on at the time. The provincial government was under pressure and may have persuaded Dupuis to return to the bargaining table, which it did. Negotiations continued until July 2, when again a stalemate ensued. The report in the Star put it thus: "The company said it was unable to give an increase or back pay. They did not offer a cent. And that settled that. They put on their hats and walked out."

   Strikers at St. Catherine and 
Parthenais Streets.   

Small crowd of strikers and sympathizers at the corner of St. Catherine and Parthenais Streets. Food and cola were available at Louis' restaurant. The tavern next door also provided victuals. The union ran a canteen nearby on a shoestring budget of $50 a day for some 900 strikers.

Enlarge image.

Dupuis Decides to Negotiate

A few days later, on July 8, Raymond Dupuis received a letter from a partner in the industrial relations firm of Hurteau and Desmarais. Hurteau advised Dupuis to be more flexible with the strikers, to show more, rather than less, generosity of spirit. Dupuis was reminded that a recent strike at National Breweries resulted in a hollow victory for the management; following the close of the strike in which the union was defeated, the company experienced a drop-off in popularity and sales. Dupuis could expect the same negative attitude from its clientele. Furthermore, Dupuis had to strike a deal that was acceptable to the union membership. After the strike was over, Hurteau believed Dupuis could overhaul the entire structure of communication within the company. Management and the union could then learn how to get along with one another once again.

The Strike Ends

Something or someone had to give and this is precisely what happened on July 20 when Dupuis made changes to top personnel. Roland Chagnon was fired and Émile Boucher, a popular man with the staff, was given back his old job. A new collective agreement was worked out with the union within a few days.

The strike was officially ended at an assembly of 900 strikers on Saturday, July 26. The assembly warmly received Raymond Dupuis who stated, "After so many weeks of sorrowful separation, the house of Dupuis would be most happy to welcome you back Monday morning."

   Smiling faces all around as strikers 
return to work.   

Smiling faces all around, heralding the return to work of the Dupuis Frères strikers. Note the large number of women workers. Below, a solid and satisfied handshake featuring union president Gérard Picard on the left and Raymond Dupuis (the owner) on the right.

Enlarge image.
   Smiling faces all around as strikers 
return to work.    Enlarge image.

The strike was over, the hatchets were buried. The union and management were no longer at war. Dupuis employees could return to work. The store and the mail-order enterprise of Dupuis Frères could again devote itself fully to the satisfaction of its French-Canadian customer base. And, meanwhile, the rest of French Canada could go about the business of quietly transforming its view of the world and the shape of things to come.

   Souvenir album of the Dupuis 

Union family album, souvenir of the Dupuis strike. Most of the strike organizers, either from the union local or from the permanent union staff, appear in this composite.

Enlarge image.

Further Reading

Daily newspapers such as Le Devoir, The Montreal Star, La Presse are a good source on the strike. The union (CTCC) paper, Le Travail, is also useful. Information can also be found in the archives of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux in Montréal and in the Dupuis Frères Collection of the Archives of the Hautes Études Commerciales.

Rouillard, Jacques. "Major Changes in the Confédération des Travailleurs Catholiques du Canada, 1940-1960." In Quebec since 1945, edited by M. D. Behiels, pp. 111-132. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1987.

Sauriol, Marguerite. "La grève de 1952." Cap-aux-Diamants, 72 (Winter 2003): 95.

Syndicat national des employés du commerce de Montréal (CTCC). "Pourquoi ils sont engrève? Un document sur les relations patronales-ouvrières à la Maison Dupuis Frères Ltée." Montréal: Syndicat national des employés de commerce de Montréal, [1952?].

Vadebonceur, Pierre. "Dupuis Frères, 1952." In En grève: L'histoire de la CSN et des luttes menées par ses militants de 1937 à 1963. Montréal: Les Éditions du Jour, 1963.


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