The 1972 Common Front Strikes in Quebec
In 1972, Common Front strikes took place as part of a coalition of public and para-public sector unions in Quebec with a view to ending negotiations with the provincial government.
The first strike took place in 1972 during a round of negotiations. More than 210,000 employees, virtually all public servants in the education and social services sectors at the time, came together for a general strike of 10 days, from April 11 to 22, 1972. The three main unions joining together to protest at the time were the Confederation of National Trade Unions, the Quebec Federation of Labour, and the Quebec Teachers Corporation. They demanded: an 8% increase in wages; job security; increased control over working conditions to offer better service; and a $100-per-week minimum wage regardless of race, sex, religion, or job sector.
That is when they decided to unite to help workers with their working conditions. This is called solidarity. Then Robert Bourassa’s government derailed everything:
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, within a few days, were sentenced to a total of 24 years and fined half a million dollars.
The province went after its hospital staff, getting 61 injunctions, which the workers ignored. The response was harsh: 13 low-wage workers were sentenced to six months in jail and fined $5,000 (about a year’s pay) each, and their union fined $70,600. In total, 103 workers were, within a few days, sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines.
Following this unjust decision, Bill 19 was created, forcing workers back to work. This law prohibits the exercise of all union rights and fundamental rights for two years. The three leaders of the unions encouraged the strikers to defy the law. For this reason, they were arrested and sentenced to one year imprisonment each.
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 go to jail for exercising a right – the right to strike.
It was in response to the imprisonment of these men that many other private and public sector groups got together to demonstrate: construction and steel workers; miners; machinists; auto and textile workers; salesmen; printers; mainstream news media personnel; teachers and some hospital staff. At the time, people in some cities reported that the strikers controlled the workplaces. Other union members occupied radio and television stations to broadcast their own messages.
In short, the Government had little choice but to reverse its decision. After four months of pressure, union leaders were finally released from prison. Negotiations were very positive in the follow-up to the Common Front protests. The majority of demands were met. This is one of the reasons why Quebec’s unionization rate is still among the highest in Canada. This is what brings us back to the importance of being united and in solidarity.