Accueil » 13 -4 ( 1958) » Le mouvement syndical québécois (1957)

Le mouvement syndical québécois (1957)

Gérard Dion


L'auteur jette un regard pénétrant sur le mouvement syndical québécois à un moment particulièrement critique de son histoire. Il souligne l'opposition dont ce mouvement est l'objet dans certains milieux et les conséquences probables de cette hostilité (durcissement des structures de conflit, tensions et acheminement vers la lutte des classes) si elle ne s'apaise bientôt. L'auteur indique qu'au delà d'un monolithisme de surface, le syndicalisme québécois est profondément divisé dans son être et dans son action (économique, sociale et politique), et que ces divergences profondes se résorberont sous l'action des oppositions de l'extérieur, sans quoi le mouvement ira s'effritant.


The Trade-Union Movement in Quebec (1957)

Out of a wage-earning population in the province of Quebec of 1,500,000", about 316,000 workers belong to unions. This proportion is approximately the same as that found in the other industrialized provinces of Canada.

The Quebec labour mouvement comprises two bodies, the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour (almost exclusively limited to Quebec) and the Quebec Federation of Labour (CLC); nearly 2/3 of the unionized workers in Quebec are said to belong to the latter.

Being a popular movement, trade-unionism reflects in some ways the character of the population in a given area, as well as the problems which are to be found therein. Thus, the labour movement in Quebec, while having some common to trade-unionism in all Canada, is also marked by characteristic and somewhat unique traits. Quebec's population is quite distinctive in history, tradition and culture (religion being a basic element of differentiation). Provincial jurisdiction in most industrial relations matters, government attitudes towards unions, the degree of industrialization, the size of business concerns and the employers' general reaction to unionism are so many factors which give a unique colouring to trade-unionism in Quebec.

The present article will limit its critical examination to a particular moment ( 1957 ) of the labour movement in this province, the author's contention being that this may well be the movement's most critical period of its history, even though one should not dramatize the situation unduly. At present, the labour movement's influence in Quebec is greatly hampered by two factors: (1) it encounters in some powerful quarters an opposition which, although latent, nevertheless effectively blocks its normal development and prevents orderly union activity at various points in our system of labour relations; and (2) despite all appearances, neither in its nature nor in its effect on the economic and social fronts does Quebec trade-unionism emerge as a unified force, weakened as it is by internal divisions.


Apparently, the great victory won during the 1949 Asbestos strike marked a high point, which subsequently provoked in managerial and governmental circles the suspicion of, and tacit resistance to organized labour. Although not all management is opposed to unionism, labour leaders nevertheless feel that any company in Quebec which is eager to prevent genuine labour organization or to get rid — or paralyse the activities — of existing unions can always do so despite the laws, thanks to public apathy and governmental connivance. Some lawyers and industrial-relations services are recognized as specialists in this type of anti-union activity.

The general procedure is as follows. The employer fires the local union leaders, in violation of the Labour Relations Act. If the union acts legally, it takes action against the employer in the courts; the whole thing may last as long as a year or two before a judgment is obtained. If found guilty, the employer will then be condemned (under art. 44 of LRA) to pay a fine of $100, without being obliged to re-employ the labour leaders thus illegally dismissed. Meanwhile the union has been falling to pieces and by the time it wins its case it no longer exists.

To avoid such a peaceful destruction, the union will usually be led to an immediate strike, which is illegal according to the letter of the law. Enter the employer's publicity, the public's dislike for « lawlessness », government's refusal to intervene in something «illegal». Then the Labour Relations Board holds up or annuls certification. Should the strike prolong itself, court injunctions will be issued, and the police will intervene to « maintain order » and to « project the •rights of non-strikers » which the employer invites to resume production. At the end of this painful process, the union, once again, is usually out of the picture. It is obvious, therefore, that the real status of union freedom has been steadily deteriorating in Quebec since 1944. And such a situation, although not.general, is hardly conducive to a normal trade-union development; on the contrary, it leads to confusion within the labour movement, to contradictory tactics by the leaders, and even to occasional outbursts of violence. It invites direct political action by trade unions, although some hesitancy is displayed by the leaders in view of the little confidence they have in existent political parties, the handicap for the « labour vote » constituted by the rural-weighted distribution of constituencies and the political division in the ranks of labour itself. Problems having such an impact of the labour movement in Quebec should call for great unity of purpose and action from within. This, unfortunately, does not seem to be the case at the present time.


Present divisions amongst organised labour in Quebec have particularly painful consequences, and constitute a paradox in the light of solid external opposition to it. It has not been possible, as yet, to reconcile the various attitudes and to discover a formula which would take into account all the unusual aspects of the Quebec union movement. That is why there are still two organizations on the provincial level sharing the union membership: the CCCL and the QFL (CLC), which cooperate only occasionally; in addition, there exist further grounds for division within each group, some of which are specific, and others common to both labour groups.


The QFL appears to be a somewhat artificial grouping, due mostly to its structure. The QFL is composed of regional councils at various points in the province, and of locals affiliated to national and international unions; so, its members have no very close connection with the central organization. The economic interests and the internal structure of these locals incline them much more towards the union of which they are a part than towards a provincial office which has few service to offer them. Affiliation with the QFL still remains optional. The organization has no effective control over its affiliated bodies. Between unions whose locals are affiliated with the QFL there is no contact, each being entirely free to organize its affairs as it wishes, to take whatever stand it likes, and to use whatever tactics it desires. Thus can be found in close proximity unions under the thumbs of the employers, others conservative, and still others truly dynamic; and while some stoop to abject compromises with politicians, others denounce violently the government's « anti-union attitudes ». Amalgamation between old TLC and CCL has little succeeded in improving the situation.

In that context, there exists a certain form of collective individualism •within each union affiliated to the QFL; and many such unions, in view of the occupations of certain categories of workers, have little in common with the mass of Quebec workers. And further, the former QFL (TLC), which embraced the majority of the present QFL membership, has never given great attention to the education of its members, leaving this responsibility entirely in the hands of the individual unions.

This absence of organized unity in the QFL, coupled with frictions between locals belonging to autonomous unions, places the directors of the QFL in a precarious position which to some extent explains their capriciousness and inconsistency of attitude. The latter are all much more attached to the unions they represent in the Federation than to the Federation itself, which appoints no permanent officers. They are constantly torn between two loyalties: the QFL and « their » union; they adapt themselves to tendencies that, while not necessarily divergent, rarely demand action of identical vigour. This is the price of maintaining unity! And this explains why notably violent talk by some leaders is followed by equally notably meak accomplishments.

There is one good note toward solidarity in the QFL, however. At the last convention, a « Union Promotion Fund », or strike fund, was created, so that each union until such time as the QFL has the financial resources to pay a team of permanent officers depending upon it alone and not upon individual unions, it is unlikely that logical decisions and executive continuity can be expected at the top.


Divisive factors in the CCCL are much more evident than in the QFL, and, if allowed to persist for a few years, are likely to bring about the gradual disintegration of the CCCL itself. Here, workers have grouped themselves around ideas more than around interests; and if shared ideas can create unshakable solidarity, the discussion of ideas may also bring about the most hopeless disagreements. Thus, the strong feature of the CCCL which gave it uncontested leadership in Quebec is at present the cause of a temporary stagnation of a pernicious nature. Originally, two ideas guided the founders of the CCCL: (1) the application of the principles of Roman Catholic social doctrine where workers' interests were involved; and (2) the freeing of Canadian labour organizations from the control of American unions.

The first idea brought forth a Roman Catholic unionism marked by constitutional conformity to the social doctrine of the Church and a membership restricted to Roman Catholics. With time and experience this formula has been gradually modified: since 1943, the ranks of the CCCL have been opened to all workers regardless of their religious convictions. However, three main problems remain for discussion: (a) doctrinal orientation, (b) organization reform, and (c) affiliation with the CLC.

(a) Doctrinal orientation. All members are agreed about the value of the principles of the Church's social doctrine and wish to see them applied to labour relations; nonetheless, some of them wish to adhere to such principles without including them in the constitution, in order to help expansion in heavy industry and in big cities like cosmopolitan Montreal. Opponents maintain that any modification would be a backing down to materialism and a betrayal of the founders of the CCCL; to this the reply is made that circumstances have changed since 1921: it is now no longer possible to envisage the CCCL as uniting all the workers of the province. At any rate, the Cardinal Archbishop of Montreal and the Primate of Quebec have asked the CCCL leaders to prepare a memorandum on doctrinal orientation.

(b) Organizational reform. This has been under consideration for a number of years; accepted in principle, it has not yet brought about unity of application. Paradoxically enough, the CCCL is organized on a basis which is too decentralized and too democratic; with a membership of 100,000, it is structured for 1,000,000. The central authority is thus deprived of effective power, certain services are duplicated, and some federations are too weak to play a useful rôle.

In the event of affiliation with the CLC, the organizational problem within the CCCL must be solved to insure preservation of its identify. Many projects have been put forward, only to be rejected by the membership. A division exists between the traditionalists and those open to compromise. And furthermore, it is hard to convince local unions and federations used to the greatest latitude in the administration of their funds and the selection of their officers that they should give up certain privileges arid hand them over to higher organizations; problems of personalities are involved; and those who are opposed to eventual affiliation with the CLC fear that organizational reforms may hasten its realization.

(c) Affiliation with the CLC. This is perhaps the most controversial question because all the others can be related to it. While the CCCL has achieved remarkable success thanks to the quality of its leadership and to the cohesion of its membership, it stiff remains provincial in scope, while concentration of economic and political power has increased and calls for a similar concentration of union strengh at a national and even at international level. Since the amalgamation which gave birth to the CLC two years ago, this need for union-strength concentration has made it more imperative for the CCCL to think about affiliation, the main question being: Will the CCCL be able in the future to maintain itself, make progess, and continue to render service to the workers if it remains an isolated organization? The traditional attitude in the CCCL has been one of withdrawal into itself, in part as a result of the merciless war which the international unions have waged upon it for a long time. Although the CCCL's official attitudes on affiliation are progressive and discreet, its members are far from being in agreement. At the 1955 convention, the CCCL voted in principle for labour unity. In 1956 it rejected amalgamation and adopted the principle of affiliation with the CLC on condition that it preserved its identity (i.e., its own characteristics and all the privileges of national union status). A committee has been named to discuss with the CLC leaders the implementing of this affiliation. The committee was to present a report to a special convention, which was not held because no agreement could be reached on the problem of organizational reform within the CCCL. When the committee presented its report for adoption at the September 1957 convention, opposition was so strong that the report had to be drastically amended before it was passed by a small majority. Care had to be taken to prevent the principle of affiliation itself from being completely rejected.

Such is the state of affairs at the moment. The CCCL executive has its hands tied because certain groups have threatened to withdraw from the organization if it affiliates, while others will perhaps do the same thing if it does not. Some believe that affiliation will soon bring about the complete disappearance of the CCCL; they feel that existence outside the CLC at great risks is better than the certainty of disappearance within it; they insist upon the difficulties that collaboration with the CLC would entail, citing as evidence certain disloyal practices recently and even at present being carried on by certain of the CLC-affiliated unions.

Others, without being unduly optimistic, think affiliation would permit the CCCL to continue to play a constructive rôle on behalf of all the workers; they think the status quo is impossible. They are to be found mostly in unions whose members live in Montreal or work in heavy industry.


There are factors of division common to both the QFL and the CCCL. They are reducible to two: membership and leadership.

(a) Membership. Many union members are new, have not yet absorbed completely the basic philosophy of trade-unionism. Many of them have come in because of union-security clauses. Their loyalty towards the union, although real, does not necessarily give them a full understanding of the purpose and importance of union action beyond the bounds of their immediate jobs. When solidarity is called for in the face of some major danger as on the occasion of an important strike, they are prepared to contribute financial support and even to participate in mass demonstrations, but very few are wiling to go any further. The comparatively recent industrialization, the youth of the working class, the lack of collective conscience, the almost complete integration of the individual worker in his own setting, all these explain the weakness of the sense of solidarity. The labouring masses are easily buffeted by external influences that openly or clandestinely enter into collusion against organized labour. There is bound to be a certain time lag between the assumption of attitudes by the leaders and their adoption by the workers.

(b) Leadership. The labour leaders in Quebec are often first-rate men; but "they are confronted with a peculiar situation; they are in some respects too advanced for the members whom they are leading; their ideas have developed too far for the workers to be able to absorb them; while they see clearly, they cannot act quickly. Their technical ability is recognized and there is no desire to change them. In any case, one must admit a certain weakness on the part of the leadership that fails to arouse the mass of union workers to a full understanding of the vast problems that will confront them as a group in the near future. It is perhaps because the leaders have a natural tendency to assume that their reactions are of necessity shared by the members, and because they do not devote to the long and thankless task of education the attention it deserves.


Frictions, conflicts, divergencies are the normal lot of trade-unionism, whether from within or from without, since trade-unionism presupposes democracy and does not go without discussion and divergent viewpoints.

But when this resistance and opposition assumes such proportions that the normal and legitimate conflicts cannot find equitable solutions, there is a great danger that in the long run this resistance may gradually create areas of conflict and give rise to a spirit of revolt that can only lead to class struggle.

The Quebec labour movement has formed an alert élite. The crises in leadership and organization are merely temporary. External opposition will ultimately force the labour world to unify itself. It is to be hoped that the opposition forces will come to realize the need for observing reasonable limits and will appreciate the perils of the policies now being followed, so that our society may be spared the repetition of experiences which have wrought such havoc in other countries.