Unions exist to help working people get organized and stand together to win a better deal for their families and their communities. Workers know that fairness is won through unity – with one another in their union local and with other locals in their union. They also need to support workers in other unions through solidarity. Often this means respecting and joining picket lines, boycotts and other actions aimed at pressuring employers. But sometimes it means joining the strike.
The origins of the Common Front can be traced back to the 1971 La Presse strike. In response to draconian anti-worker measures on the part of the Quebec government and Paul Desmarais, the new owner of La Presse, workers from several different unions joined in solidarity with the striking La Presse workers. A march of 12,000 demonstrators in support of the strikers was brutally suppressed by police, leading to riots that wounded many and resulted in the killing of Michele Gauthier, a student activist. The shared experience of the police riot created common ground for the coming together of normally competitive and divided unions.
The Common Front of 1972 was an alliance between the Confederation of National Trade Unions, the Quebec Federation of Labour, and the Quebec Teachers Corporation, as well as several smaller unions to present a united set of demands during negotiations with the provincial government. It represented 210,000 out of 250,000 public employees (84%) and demanded: an 8% increase in wages, job security, increased control over working conditions to better service provision, and a $100 per week minimum wage regardless of race, sex, religion, or job sector. When the government was unwilling to cede to these demands, the Common Front struck, and on April 11, 1972, 210 000 workers walked off the job.
The government of Robert Bourassa had ridden the swelling wave of change that was sweeping Quebec society to win power in the 1970 election. Faced with economic turmoil and the new political threat of the nationalist Parti Québecois, Bourassa’s Liberals (and the political establishment they represented) feared being scuttled. The wave needed breaking.
The province targeted its hospital workers, obtaining 61 injunctions, which the workers ignored. The response was harsh: 13 low-paid workers were jailed for 6 months and fined $5000 each (about a year’s pay) and their union was fined $70,600. Overall, 103 workers were sentenced to a total of 24 years and fined half a million dollars during a few days.
On April 21, the provincial government passed Bill 19. The new law forced unionized workers back to work and banned all fundamental trade union rights for two years. When the leaders of the Common Front – Loius Laberge, Marcel Pépin and Yvon Charbonneau – urged workers to defy the law, they were arrested, and each was sentenced to a year in jail.
“That’s the justice system,” said Brother Laberge, “while big corporations are fined $75 or $500 for polluting our rivers, killing people or breaking the law, we – the criminals – must got to jail for exercising a right – the right to strike.”
The profound unfairness of sending the three men to jail triggered popular outrage across Quebec’s working class. Over the month of May, work stoppages broke out across the province in public and private workplaces – construction and metal workers, miners, machinists, auto and textile workers, salespeople, print-shop employees, the staff of major news media, teachers and some hospital workers.
In towns like Sept-Îles, Thedford, Sorel and Joliette, the strike was profound, with people talking about the strikers “occupying” and “being in control of” workplaces. Radio and television stations were occupied by the union members, who broadcast their messages.
The massive scale of the public revolt forced the government to back down. The labour leaders were released from jail after serving four months and many of the Common Front’s demands were agreed to during negotiations. Employers across Quebec had also heard the message from their workers loud and clear and were reserved in their demands for years to come. This solidarity among Quebec’s working class would last for a generation and is one reason why union density in that province remains among the highest in the country.