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Spartacist Canada No. 146

Fall 2005

From the Barricades to the Parti Québécois

Lessons of the 1972 Quebec General Strike

For Quebec Independence!

The general strike that engulfed Quebec in the spring of 1972 was the most deep-going class battle North America had seen in many decades—or has seen since. Yet even the basic facts of the strike, let alone its lessons, are little known to militant workers or leftist youth today, including in Quebec.

The general strike came on the heels of the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, which saw French-speaking Quebec transformed from a church-dominated backwater to a modern, self-conscious and largely secular society. While a new francophone bourgeoisie began to displace the English overlords, layers of the working class and student youth underwent a significant radicalization. This was fueled in large part by opposition to national oppression, which saw workers told to “speak white” if they did not address the foreman in English.

These developments produced a chauvinist reaction in English Canada, leading to the October 1970 “October Crisis” when Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau sent the army to occupy Quebec and arrest hundreds of leftist and union militants. Trudeau claimed he was crushing an “insurrection” by the left-nationalist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), which had kidnapped two government representatives, but his real purpose was to put an end to the widespread social turmoil in Quebec. He was seconded in this by provincial Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, whose government provoked the general strike a year and a half later by jailing Quebec’s top union leaders.

The following article on the general strike was first published in SC No. 57 (March 1983). It documents how the misleaders of English Canadian labour lined up behind the Canadian capitalists to denounce the militant Quebec workers and, more generally, struggles in Quebec against national oppression. Following the defeat of the strike, the already significant divisions between English-speaking and Québécois workers became deeper. Trudeau maintained his hard line against Quebec nationalism, seconded by the social-democratic NDP and the English Canadian labour tops, who either supported him or tacitly accepted Quebec’s forced retention within Canada. In Quebec, workers were increasingly driven into the arms of their own francophone capitalists, leading to the election, with significant labour support, of the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois four years later. The PQ government repaid the workers by launching its own sweeping anti-union attacks in 1982-83, when our article was first published.

The 1972 general strike was a watershed, demonstrating that national animosities had poisoned relations between English Canadian and Québécois workers, undermining the prospects for united working-class struggle. This divide is very real: for example, the vast majority of unions in Quebec are either separate or highly autonomous. From the 1980 and 1995 referendums through various “constitutional” crises to today’s sponsorship scandal, Quebec workers have felt only arrogance and indifference coming from English Canada.

This year’s Canadian Labour Congress convention, held in Montreal in June, provided a telling example of the depth of national antagonisms in the working class. When Gilles Duceppe, leader of the nationalist Bloc Québécois, addressed the delegates, he denounced the NDP’s recent pact with the federal Liberals, including party leader Jack Layton’s grotesque chauvinist comments against “getting into bed with the separatists” in Quebec. As Duceppe motivated Quebec independence, nearly a hundred delegates from English Canada walked out holding Maple Leaf flags and singing O Canada.

From our inception in 1975, the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste has strongly opposed Anglo chauvinism and defended Quebec’s right to self-determination—i.e., to independence—including in the unions. However we did not take a position advocating independence until 1995, following an intense re-examination of the question (see “For Quebec Independence,” SC No. 105, September/October 1995). While the article below aptly motivates the need for a proletarian internationalist perspective against the dead end of bourgeois nationalism, it is a weakness that it does not draw the logical conclusion from the evidence presented, that support to Quebec independence is an essential component of a program of class struggle against Canadian capitalism.

In advocating independence for Quebec, we seek to lay the basis for the workers in both English Canada and Quebec to see that the enemy is their own exploiters, not “the French” or “les anglais.” In English Canada, that means a fight to break the working class from the chauvinist labour tops and New Democrats who push deadly illusions in Canadian capitalism. In Quebec, it means breaking the workers from the PQ and Bloc, capitalist parties promoted by the nationalist Quebec union bureaucracy. While Quebec labour is today battling against yet another right-wing Liberal government, under Jean Charest, the PQ has shown during its repeated terms in office that it is equally a class enemy of the workers. As we emphasize below, the national and social liberation of the working people of Quebec requires a perspective of revolutionary internationalism embodied in a Marxist vanguard party.

* * *

“We must assume that what has been happening these past few days in Quebec is not representative of public feeling generally, for if it were a major part of Canada would be on the verge of revolution.”

Globe and Mail, 13 May 1972

For eleven days in May 1972 the ruling class and their media mouthpieces throughout North America quaked in their boots in the face of the near-insurrectionary general strike that rocked Quebec. Enraged at the imprisonment of the leaders of Quebec’s three major union federations by the provincial Liberal government of Robert Bourassa, thousands of workers across Quebec downed their tools and staged spontaneous walkouts. As town after town fell to the control of striking workers a state of virtual dual power was created.

The Bourassa government was thrown into a state of desperate hysteria to preserve its rule, prime minister Pierre Trudeau screamed that Quebec union leaders were out to “destroy the country” and then-Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) head Donald McDonald chimed in, “they’re not strikes, they’re revolutions.” The 1972 general strike in Quebec did raise the question of political power. But in the absence of a revolutionary proletarian leadership the combativity dissipated. Hatred for the Liberal regimes both in Quebec and Ottawa (where Trudeau had imposed the War Measures Act in 1970) combined with mounting resentment over the national oppression by arrogant and chauvinist English-speaking Canada was channeled, especially by the union leadership, into votes for the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ).

In 1972 speaking from the opposition bench in the National Assembly PQ leader René Lévesque commented:

“Of course, if one is not to be narrow-minded, one must be sympathetic to the cause of the workers in our society, but…we must not forget that the PQ will perhaps find itself as the boss at the negotiating table…. We must strike a balance between the demands of the workers and the possibility that the PQ might be in power during the next negotiations.”

Labor Challenge, 8 May 1972

Today that is right where the PQ is, pushing a massive PATCO-style union-busting attack against the militant and combative Quebec labour movement.

From the opposite side of the bargaining table Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) president Louis Laberge has recently been mouthing off about calling all of Quebec labour out in a general strike against the PQ union-busters with the invocation, “Just remember what happened in 1972.” Indeed everyone from Laberge to Lévesque remembers all too well what happened then, and to a man—from the labour misleaders to the labour haters—all have been desperately trying to avoid a repeat of this massive proletarian uprising, unprecedented in North American history.

“By Authority of the Workers of Quebec”

In late 1971 the FTQ, the Quebec Federation of Teachers (CEQ) and the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) formed the Common Front of Quebec’s public sector workers to negotiate with the Bourassa government. On April 11, 1972 after months of government stonewalling and hardlining, Common Front workers walked out in an “unlimited general strike.” But ten days later the union tops caved in to strikebreaking legislation and ordered the ranks—who had voted to stay out—back to work. This did not placate the government, which sentenced the three Common Front leaders—Laberge of the FTQ and CEQ president Yvon Charbonneau (both today in the same positions) as well as then-CSN president Marcel Pepin—to a year’s imprisonment.

The powerful industrial proletariat was the first to respond to the jailings. On May 9 a motorcade of unionists taking Laberge, Charbonneau and Pepin to Quebec City to turn themselves in had barely left Montreal when thousands of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) members from Montreal, Trois Rivières and Quebec City staged a spontaneous walkout.

The same night in Sept-Iles, a mining town in northern Quebec run by the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, a cop attack on a demonstration of angry unionists sparked massive meetings where workers voted overwhelmingly to strike. By the next day this town of 27,000 was being run by striking longshoremen, railway workers and miners—the roads were barricaded, the airport shut down and the occupied radio station broadcast union bulletins.

In the following days workers in other company towns across Quebec followed suit. Asbestos miners in Thetford Mines walked off the job followed by the town’s public sector workers—together on May 11 they staged a 10,000-strong demonstration. In St-Jérôme 23 factories were shut down as well as hospitals, schools and other public services. At the request of the United Auto Workers union in the nearby town of Ste-Thérèse, strikers from St-Jérôme picketed the GM plant there. Over 2,000 auto workers who usually stayed in the plant for lunch poured out the gates, refusing to cross the St-Jérôme workers’ picket when they returned. A GM executive who attempted to enter the plant was told “No one goes in. There’s no work today.” When he asked “By what authority?” he was told “By the authority of the workers of Quebec” (Globe and Mail, 13 May 1972).

In Chibougamau the walkout was sparked by angry wives, some of them teachers and hospital workers, who marched to one of the mines to pull their husbands off the job. By May 12, the fourth day of the strike, nine towns had been occupied by striking workers, over 80,000 construction workers were out across the province, teachers and hospital workers continued to walk out (occupying one Montreal hospital), transit mechanics and 8,000 municipal workers had struck in Montreal. And this was only the tip of the iceberg; the number of factories, hospitals, schools and towns shut down was impossible to keep track of as wave after wave of angry workers stormed out.

Several radio stations were taken over. From Sorel, Quebec came the following broadcast:

“This is CJSO, the voice of the workers. The next song we are going to play is called ‘Adieu.’ We dedicate it to all the workers who for the past two days have said ‘adieu’ to their bosses and the unjust policies of the government.”

The Gazette, 13 May 1972

Meantime the bourgeois press churned out article after article denouncing the “lawlessness” and “violence” being fomented by a supposed “radical minority.” But on May 12 the media’s anti-labour diatribes were stopped for the day as workers from Le Devoir and La Presse walked off the job. Together with workers from Montreal’s other two French-language papers they visited the Gazette and the Star “requesting” that they shut down production—a request that management couldn’t refuse.

The next day the Gazette (13 May 1972) hysterically editorialized:

“We were forcibly closed by that minority of the labor movement which has been driving workers off the job in various other parts of the province, seizing radio stations, committing acts of vandalism and generally attempting to impose their will with violence and threats of violence.”

But everyone from the Liberal regimes in Quebec and Ottawa to the capitalist media to the bosses’ labour lieutenants in Quebec and English Canada knew that this was no action by some “lawless minority” but a largely spontaneous and well-disciplined working-class uprising that fundamentally challenged the capitalists’ class rule. (The most violent incident throughout the strike happened in Sept-Iles when a Liberal Party organizer drove his car into a picket line killing one picketer.) For the most part the cops were unable to quell the walkouts and occupations as was pointed out in this account of the 1972 strike: “…actions were so widespread that police adopted a policy of non-intervention. Their power was too thinly spread. If they provoked a confrontation in one area, they wouldn’t be able to contain the snowballing effect. For once, the police were too weak to provoke violence” (quoted in Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972).

Coming to the desperate realization that it was quickly becoming the “minority” the Bourassa government increasingly tried to impose its “will with violence.” Liberal president Lise Bacon sent out a secret telex ordering local party associations to recruit town thugs and hoodlums to vigilante squads (called “law-abiding citizens committees”) to attempt to break the strikes and occupations. A phony anti-strike meeting of a minority of construction workers (most of whom were in fact small-time contractors) was held under the leadership of at least two Liberal Party organizers in an arena rented by the Montreal Association of General Contractors.

But in the end it was not the Liberal government, its cops, courts and vigilante squads or fake back-to-work meetings that stemmed the tide of the 1972 general strike in Quebec. It was the return-to-work orders that came from the jailed Common Front leaders in Orsainville prison on May 17. They appealed for an end to the strike in the name of a “negotiated settlement” with the government. And what a settlement it was. Late in 1972 the Liberal government passed Bill 89 outlawing all public sector strikes as well as transport, maritime, rail or air strikes and then proceeded to jail, once again, the three Common Front leaders (who had been released on appeal in May).

From the Barricades to the Parti Québécois

During the strike great play was given by the bourgeois press to a three-man split in the CSN executive. One of the three, Emile Dalpe, a former defeated Liberal candidate, charged that the unions were being taken over by “ideologists whose ideas can only lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat...” (quoted in Labor Challenge, 5 June 1972). But the ideas of the nationalist Quebec labour tops, for all their manifestos on “socialism,” led not to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” but to the rule of the nationalist union-busting PQ, who were swept to victory in 1976 and again in 1981 with a significant labour vote.

The flames of nationalism were only fueled by the role of the English-chauvinist misleaders of labour in English-speaking Canada who went out of their way to isolate and denounce the 1972 general strike all the while virulently campaigning for “national unity.” At the height of the strike the executive issued the following report to the CLC convention:

“It is, therefore, essential that the Congress and its affiliated unions oppose those elements, in any part of Canada, which advocate the destruction of Confederation or a reduction of the federal powers as a means of pursuing selfish regional aims.”

Globe and Mail, 15 May 1972

A token motion supporting the “bargaining aims” of the Common Front was passed unanimously but then-CLC president Donald McDonald made perfectly clear the CLC’s opposition to the general strike: “…the CLC is not interested in and will not be party to any attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government” (Globe and Mail, 15 May 1972). Speaking from the CLC podium in 1972 former (now dead) federal NDP leader David Lewis solidarized with the jailing of the Common Front leaders. If the judge had given them 30 days instead of a year, he opined, the massive labour upsurge could have been avoided.

Fake-Trotskyists Push Nationalism—Canadian and Québécois

If the CLC labor traitors used the 1972 general strike to wave the Maple Leaf and the Quebec labour tops the fleur de lys, the fake-Trotskyists of the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO—forerunner of the Revolutionary Workers League) did both. Throughout the course of the strike their paper, Labor Challenge, was filled with articles such as an interview with their leader Ross Dowson entitled “Will Trudeau fight U.S. domination?” (8 May 1972). As for Quebec the LSA/LSO’s minimal coverage was completely overshadowed by long-winded polemics against the “Canada firsters” of the Communist Party going under headings such as “In Defense of Québécois Nationalism” (24 April 1972).

The LSO’s consistent nationalism didn’t win them a whole lot of labour support but they did manage to attract the likes of one Reggie Chartrand. At the height of the general strike their youth press, Young Socialist (May-June 1972), ran an interview with Chartrand who said, “…I, along with members of the LJS and LSO organize demonstrations for the French language and the independence of Quebec.” In 1980 Chartrand along with his ultra-nationalist thugs in the “Chevaliers de l’indépendance” confronted leftist contingents in the May Day demonstration with chants of “Long Live the Independence of Quebec” and “Death to Communism”! So much for the progressive character of Québécois nationalism.

The LSA/LSO believed that their more-nationalist-than-the-PQ program would lead to overnight growth. It didn’t. Instead in the aftermath of the 1972 general strike the splits in various amorphous New Left nationalist lash-ups in Quebec gave birth to first the eclectic New Left Maoids of In Struggle! (IS!)—headed up by former FLQer Charles Gagnon—and later the more hardline anti-Soviet Maoists who became the Workers Communist Party (WCP). Both groups were anti Québécois nationalism—the WCP from the perspective of anti-Sovietism while the cowards of IS! even refused to defend their former comrades in the FLQ. A little more than a decade later both groups, who at one time claimed thousands of members, have bit the dust—shipwrecked on the shores of the Cold War of which both organizations were truly the “vanguard.”

Not Bourgeois Nationalism but Proletarian Internationalism!

The 1972 Quebec general strike was the most explosive political event in the history of the North American labour movement. At the same time it was a dramatic example of what Trotsky called the crisis of proletarian leadership. Thousands of workers spontaneously take to the streets, occupy and run whole towns in a struggle that goes far beyond all craft and union divisions. For example the Quebec construction workers who walked out en masse were earlier deeply divided by the mutual raids of the CSN and FTQ; later they would be the target of the notorious Cliche Commission, a union-busting attack carried out in the name of fighting labour “corruption.”

In 1972 the determined militancy and combativity of the Québécois proletariat was pushed to the limit, to the point that what became brutally clear was the need for a proletarian internationalist program and leadership. At the time one couldn’t have found a more left-talking bureaucracy than the Quebec labour tops, who were busily turning out manifesto after manifesto calling to smash capitalism and build socialism. But for all their socialist rhetoric 1972 proved that they were as loyal lieutenants of the capitalist class as their Meanyite counterparts in the leadership of North American labour. But where the nationalist Quebec labour bureaucrats used 1972 to build labour support for the bourgeois-nationalist PQ the Maple Leaf jingoists heading up the English-Canadian labour movement attempted to keep the general strike from spilling over into their own ranks through orgies of chauvinism.

The dramatic rise of groups like the WCP and IS! in the aftermath of 1972 demonstrated that many workers, students and others looked to the left for a new leadership in opposition to Québécois nationalism. They didn’t find it in these groups whose anti-nationalism was forged in anti-Sovietism. Few turned to the LSO, who summed up the 1972 Quebec general strike with the comment: “Far from contradicting the radicalization of Quebec workers, this rise in support for the PQ, a bourgeois party, simply confirms what we have said about the nationalist character of the workers’ struggle (Labor Challenge, 5 June 1972). Various centrists and syndicalists who wanted to strike a more left-wing pose seized upon the 1972 strike to promote their utopian nationalist strategy for an “independent and socialist Quebec.”

The Quebec labour tops channeled the labour battles of the early 1970s into votes for Lévesque’s PQ, which today is attempting to trash Quebec labour with strikebreaking attacks, in particular on government workers, which would do Ronald Reagan proud. In this crucial labour showdown Quebec workers must draw the lessons of 1972. What is desperately needed is a proletarian internationalist leadership that can win this militant and combative working class to the perspective of multinational revolutionary class unity in which it is destined to play a leading role. Alone on the left the Trotskyist League of Canada has fought for this perspective, unconditionally defending Quebec’s right to independence and at the same time fighting against Québécois nationalism. The road forward to the national and social liberation of the Quebec working masses lies in the united proletarian struggle for North American socialist revolution under the leadership of a Bolshevik Party.

Spartacist Canada No. 145

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