ome of the most dramatic events of
these turbulent times in industrial relations occurred in Quebec.
The Quebec workers' militancy, radical politics, and campaign for
an independent Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s shocked many observers
across the country. The Quebec labour movement grew quickly in the
post World War II period, despite strenuous corporate resistance
backed by Maurice Duplessis' extreme anti-union provincial
government. Between 1951 and 1976, the percentage of organized
wage earners increased from 27 to 38 percent. Workers' demands
in Quebec were much the same as those of others in Canada.
Major strikes in Asbestos (1949), Louiseville (1952), and
Murdochville (1957) announced the arrival of a better-organized
and more militant labour movement. Most private sector workers
belonged to international unions affiliated with the Quebec
Federation of Labour(QFL), which maintained close links with
the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Throughout this period,
the QFL remained the province's largest union federation,
representing approximately 40 percent of the province's
unionized workers. In 1974, the QFL and the CLC negotiated
an agreement that recognized the autonomy of the QFL in
areas of organization, education, public relations, and
most other functions formerly exercised by the CLC.
The greatest beneficiary of the wave of public sector
organizing was the Confederation of National Trade Unions
(CNTU). It evolved from the former Catholic unions that had
dropped all ties with the church by the early 1960s. By the
early 1970s, the CNTU represented about 30 percent of Quebec's
union members. Teachers were another group that mobilized quickly.
They created a separate but influential organization called the
Quebec Teachers' Corporation (QTC).
The massive influx of civil servants radicalized the union
movement. In particular, the CNTU and QTC now proposed a socialist
agenda for Quebec and called on Quebec workers to create a new
labour party. The leadership of the CNTU, QTC, and to a lesser
degree the QFL, increasingly linked independence with demands for
a new society.
Many of Canada's most publicized and violent strikes in the 1970s
occurred in Quebec. Public sector workers led the largest of these
confrontations. In 1972, CNTU, QFL, and QTC created a Common Front
for negotiations with the provincial government. When the government
rejected union demands for major wage increases and improved working
conditions, 250,000 union members struck all government services.
Sympathy strikes spread to the private sector. It quickly emerged
as the largest strike in Canadian history. In the following turmoil,
demonstrators clashed with police, courts slapped injunctions against
unions, and authorities arrested and jailed strikers. The presidents
of the CNTU, QFL, and QTC were charged and convicted for urging their
members to defy court injunctions ordering them back to work. The
provincial government's aggressive action and poor co-ordination
among the unions brought the strike to a quick end.
Labour supporters in Quebec and across Canada demanded the release
of the imprisoned trade unionists. This pressure brought results, and
after serving only four months of their one-year sentences, the
presidents of the Common Front unions were freed. Celebrations
marking their release, however, proved to be one of the last
gasps of the solidarity of the Common Front. Each federation
went its own way, even to the point of reviving old organizational
rivalries. The CNTU faced internal challenges when a group of its
more conservative members split from the federation to form their
own union central. Despite such divisions, Quebec workers remained
among the most organized wage earners in Canada, and their unions
continued to have an influential voice in the province's social
and political realms.