A Brief History of Union Organizing in Montréal

By Tyler Lawson*

Labour organizing in Montréal began with the formation of decentralized craft unions in the early 19th century. These groups came together to win a ten-hour work day in 1834 and a nine-hour work day in 1872. With industrialization, the shift from commerce to manufacturing, and the city’s population doubling between 1871 and 1891, craft unions in Montréal grew. Under the influence of United States-based trade unions, they began to practice collective bargaining, by which wages and work conditions are negotiated between the employer and the union, rather than as individual workers.

In the early 1930s, only about 10% of Québec’s workers were unionized, but this gure grew to 26.5% by 1951. In 1949, 5000 workers in Asbestos, Québec voted unanimously in favour of an unlimited strike. The conflict, the longest labour dispute in Québec history, lasted over four months. Unions in Montréal fought the Duplessis government’s anti-union legislation through the 1950s, and inspired progressive public sentiment that motivated the Quiet Revolution.

In the early 1960s, public and parapublic sector workers unionized and quickly took action; their illegal strikes for better wages and working conditions in 1963 and 1964 won legal rights to bargain collectively and to strike. Through the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, the province’s three central unions – the QFL, CNTU, and CEQ – were explicitly anti-capitalist. In 1972, they created a “Common Front” to increase their bargaining power, and the 210,000 public and para-public employees they represented launched an unlimited general strike, defying government injunctions. By May of that year, over half a million people in the province were on strike, eventually winning public sector workers a $100 weekly minimum wage. Québec maintained the highest strike rate in Canada through both decades.

In the early 1980s, the organized labour movement in Montréal and across the province began to wane. A global recession led to unemployment and wage decreases that called union efficacy into question. The three central unions abandoned anti-capitalism and adopted models of “conflicting concertation” with management. Repressive legislation deterred union activity among 22 public and parapublic sector workers. Nonetheless, union density remained at about 40% and organized labour found other ways of exercising influence in opposition to public sector wage decreases in the early 1980s and funding cuts to the public services more generally in the late 1990s. The union centrals also came out in support of Québec sovereignty in advance of the 1995 referendum.

Unions in Montréal organized in opposition to the government raising the price of public daycare from $5 to $7 in 2003, and the introduction of a 33-month wage freeze for public sector workers in 2005. Some were visibly supportive of students on strike in 2012, and many more have been involved in anti-austerity organizing in 2014-15. In the spring of 2015, talk about student–labour solidarity and a general public service worker strike circulated widely. Let’s see what comes of public sector contract negotiations taking place this summer and fall.comes of public sector contract negotiations taking place this summer and fall.

* Tyler Lawson is the Collective Agreement Coordinator for the Association of McGill University Research Employees