11. 2. 2022
50 Years Later, We Should Still Be Talking About the 1972 Common Front
In April 1972, the largest workers’ strike in Canadian history paralyzed the province of Québec. Uniting in a common front and giving themselves that name, the province’s three main labour organizations – the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) [Confederation of National Trade Unions], the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ) [Québec Federation of Labour] and the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec (CEQ) [Québec Teachers’ Corporation] – brought together nearly 210,000 public sector employees. After 10 days of walkouts, the Robert Bourassa provincial Liberal government imposed a special back-to-work law and imprisoned the union leaders. The workers’ response was swift: in May, illegal actions multiplied throughout the province.
What was the Common Front, and what lessons can we learn from it? What were its key elements, and what does it have to tell us about unionism, political organization, and workers’ power today?
The 1972 strike
In the province of Québec, the 1960s were characterized by the development of the welfare state, but also by the growth of social movements that challenged the capitalist economy. By the end of the decade, the major labour organizations were dissatisfied with the provincial government’s program, which pursued a reformist agenda. They wanted to adopt a socialist framework for their fight for better working conditions. These radical positions were expressed in texts such as Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens [It’s Up To Us] (CSN, 1971) and L’État, rouage de notre exploitation [The State, Our Exploiter] (FTQ, 1971), which proposed a reorganization of society on democratic and socialist grounds. In this context, the idea of an inter-union common front, one that would unify struggles in the public sector, was gaining ground.
As the number of labour disputes in Québec increased in the early 1970s, the major unions faced a new adversary: the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa, premier of Québec from 1970 to 1976, then from 1985 to 1994. Tensions rose between union members and the government over the issue of wages, which was seen as a prelude to more radical action by the central labour bodies. In January 1972, the Common Front was created. Its slogan: “We, the ordinary people.” Its main demand: a minimum wage of $100 per week for all public sector employees, to lift them out of poverty and establish a norm that would exert an upwards pressure on the wages of all workers, in both the public and the private sectors. When the government refused to negotiate, the 210,000 union members of the Common Front called an unlimited general strike on April 11, 1972.
The Bourassa government responded with injunctions, legal instruments to force workers back to work. On April 21, it enacted a special law, Bill 19, that prohibited the continuation of the strike and allowed the government to impose collective agreements in the public sector if no agreement were reached by June 1. The union leaders decided to suspend the walkout and return to bargaining. Vengeful, the government prosecuted the union leaders who had called for injunctions to be ignored: on May 8, Marcel Pepin (CSN), Louis Laberge (FTQ), and Yvon Charbonneau (CEQ) were each sentenced to one year in prison. This provocation infuriated the labour movement, which reacted with impromptu strikes in the public and private sectors, paralyzing the province between May 11 and 14. In the cities of Montréal, Joliette, Thetford Mines, and Saint-Jérôme, organized workers occupied their factories, produced their own newspapers, blocked the roads, and demonstrated. Teachers, steelworkers, miners, journalists, shopkeepers, and nurses joined forces in the same movement, while in several cities, workers’ control over their daily lives formed the embryo of a real “workers’ power.”
The city of Sept-Îles was paralyzed for nearly a week as union members occupied it. On May 9 and May 10, construction workers affiliated with the FTQ shut down the Mille 3 construction site. They blocked with their trucks the only road leading into the city and obstructed access to public sector workers’ workplaces, making it much easier for those workers to resume their walkout. Miners chose to join the strike movement, followed by the steelworkers of the entire Côte-Nord. On May 10, an assembly of 800 workers decided to close all non-essential businesses in Sept-Îles, and a group of union members took control of the local radio station. In the afternoon, demonstrators gathered in front of the courthouse and defeated the police: first attacking them with Molotov cocktails, to which the police responded with tear gas, and finally forcing a police retreat into the courthouse. The workers then proclaimed the city “under workers’ control”! The demonstration ended when a drunken anti-strike vigilante drove into the crowd, injuring about 40 people and killing a worker. Although an assembly of 4000 people was held the next day to negotiate with the government authorities, the balance of power was quickly reversed. The local police, supported by the Sûreté du Québec, lifted the blockades and regained control of the city. Unable to continue the union assemblies and having lost their balance of power, the workers gradually returned to work between May 15 and 18.
Like the mobilization in Sept-Îles, the Common Front as a whole gradually disintegrated, splits forming within the unions. Now facing a disunited enemy, the Bourassa government imposed a series of agreements negotiated by sector in the summer and fall of 1972. But the 1972 Common Front, and in particular the autonomous actions of May, were not in vain. Public sector workers won their main demand: $100 per week. And the Common Front instilled a strong fighting spirit in the labour movement of the 1970s, a decade when labour conflicts in Québec became more numerous and combative than ever, in both the public and the private sectors. After the failure of the Common Front, workers turned to the Parti Québécois, which they considered to be the most relevant political vehicle through which they might improve their living and working conditions.
Although 9000 workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in English Canada joined the strike in 1972, the impact of the Common Front was felt mainly in Québec, since it was primarily a provincial public sector strike. Yet numerous other strikes rippled across Canada throughout the first half of the ’70s, in the public, industrial, and cultural sectors. Faced with an economic recession and inflation, workers were driven to fight for better living conditions. Still, this wave of strikes around the country, which continued until 1976, was gradually contained by the imposition of “special laws” and back-to-work legislation, as had been the case in Québec in 1972.
The “second front” and combative unionism
The 1972 Common Front was the result of the radicalization of Québec’s central labour bodies, which had been sharpening their political positions since the late 1960s. As social struggles became more and more important in the province, the major unions took a critical stance against the state and capitalism, setting as their strategic objective the creation of a “democratic socialism” – that is to say, a québécois socialism built from below, one that would respect individual freedoms and freedom of the press. By broadening their field of action and developing combative practices, the unions hoped to become vehicles through which workers would build their political and economic power.
Marcel Pepin, then president of CSN, first presented this new approach at the union’s convention in October 1968, in his report Le deuxième front (The Second Front). The idea of the “second front” is that the labour movement must not limit itself to negotiating working conditions and wages, but must take on the full range of social issues affecting workers. This broadening must be translated into political initiatives. As Pepin writes in his book Positions (1968), “Unionism is the organized masses.” Following this principle, CSN activists participated in the creation of Comités d’action politique (CAP) [Political Action Committees], citizens’ groups that dealt with matters of housing, food, health, transportation, and more. In 1970, they also played a role in the formation of the Front d’action politique (FRAP) [Political Action Front], a Montréal municipal party that brought together all the CAPs in the city. FRAP aimed to build popular power from the bottom up. It proposed a series of structural reforms: a reorganization of the municipal administration, the introduction of rent control, and the creation of community medical clinics co-managed by neighbourhood residents and health care workers, among other initiatives.
The FTQ, too, like the CSN, recognized the limits of single-sector struggles and purely economic demands. In its report L’État, rouage de notre exploitation, the FTQ denounced the state as a facilitator and agent of workers’ exploitation in a capitalist regime, a role the state plays through its political, legal, and ideological apparatuses. Yet, unlike the CSN, the FTQ did not translate its conceptions into political action.
The major Québec unions of the 1970s advocated a form of unionism that was centred on action – strikes and demonstrations – and sought to build the power of organized workers against the bosses and the state. This is what they called “combative unionism.” In this conception, the union forms the main democratic organization for the workers who are conscious of their interests. Through this organ, the workers take charge of the economic struggles and political demands of their class. The union thus becomes the basis of the future socialist society and the vehicle for revolutionary action. In Positions, Marcel Pepin states that the objective is “to build a profound popular power,” and that instead of supporting a political party, the working population “must structure itself politically.” Thus the union that brings together the organized working class replaces the party.
What future for combative unionism?
Québec’s major union federations made other attempts at a common front strategy in 1976, 1979, and 1982-83, but never with the success of 1972. The systematic adoption of special anti-strike laws by the parties in power, followed by the Parti Québécois’s violent offensive against the workers’ demands in 1982-83, destroyed the fighting labour movement. Since then, the major Québec unions have focused on negotiating wages and defending workers’ gains according to the principle of “co-management” with employers, where the union’s goal is to find common ground between the union and management, rather than to establish a power struggle between the two. Only the student movement kept alive the theory and practice of combative unionism in Québec – until around 2015, when the student movement’s organizations that made use of this strategy collapsed.
The fact remains that Québec’s unions reach and have the capacity to mobilize a large number of workers. What role can those unions play in the current struggles? In the Québec context, the big unions’ policy of co-management makes it unlikely that they will play a revolutionary role in the short or medium term. Their investment of union members’ pension funds in private companies – an especially baffling form of co-management – makes workers depend on those companies’ profits to protect the growth of their retirement funds. This policy creates a structural barrier to the militant possibilities of unions, whose members are now locked into the employer’s interests, which they must defend to ensure their own access to a decent retirement.
Could we imagine union members regaining control of the unions and their finances, and then disengaging themselves from a strategy of co-management? Could they elect an assertive political leadership within those unions and invest their pension funds in workers’ cooperatives? It’s hard to imagine. Some locals could disaffiliate and give themselves politically revolutionary leadership. This option is more feasible, but it raises the problem of disunity among a union’s locals. It runs the risk of atomizing workers and making them more vulnerable. The effort required to transform the existing unions or to create new ones seems enormous. Such a mass of effort would perhaps be better invested in the construction of a different kind of political organization based on class confrontation.
It seems that the unions in Québec can no longer provide a viable organizational structure for a revolutionary working class or serve as a vehicle for the establishment of democratic socialism, as the province’s labour movement had aspired to do in the 1970s. So, the question before us: which form of workers’ organization is most able to take on the fundamental challenges of our time? What kind of organization might be capable of confrontation with the capitalist system – responsible for widespread misery as well as the ecological crisis – and able to take on the project of building an emancipated society?
Though the 1972 Common Front was the largest workers’ strike in Canadian history, advancing radical proposals through autonomous actions, occupations, and blockades across Québec, it proved unable to sustain itself and escalate. The three main unions backed down in the face of state repression, leading to the end of the movement. Can we attribute this failure to the limitations of the union form itself? To the incompleteness of the Québec unions’ political projects at the time? To the fragility of the Common Front in the face of the united, organized, and militarized state? Probably a bit of each of those factors was at work. Today, the memory of the Common Front invites us to ask critical questions about unionism and build a new revolutionary strategy, rooted in organization and combativity, and capable of triumphing in the current conditions.
Alexis Lafleur-Paiement is a member of the Archives Révolutionnaires collective and a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at the Université de Montréal and Université de Lille.
Mélissa Miller is a member of the Archives Révolutionnaires collective and a history student at the Université de Montréal.