Seventy years ago, the small town of Asbestos, in the Eastern Townships, was the scene of one of the most important strikes in the history of the workers’ movement in Quebec. Engulfing the province for a number of months, it was one of the major events leading up to the Quiet Revolution. Pierre Elliott Trudeau described the strike as “the violent announcement that a new era had begun.” Although the strike ended in defeat, the workers showed that it was possible to struggle against the despotic Duplessis regime and the yoke of the bosses. This heroic fight remains to this day an incredible source of inspiration for the workers’ movement.
The events of the Asbestos strike transpired in a province dominated by American and Anglo-Canadian businesses which exploited its natural resources and cheap labour. Under the cover of Québécois nationalism, Premier Maurice Duplessis and his party, the Union Nationale, ruled in favour of imperialist interests, facilitating the exploitation of the working class. This domination relied upon the Catholic Church which exercised control on all aspects of life. The Asbestos strike is generally seen as the first direct and open confrontation between the workers’ movement and the Duplessis government.
After his first term as premier in 1936–39, Duplessis returned to power in 1944. In order to win the election, he pulled on the strings of French-Canadian nationalism and criticized Liberal corruption, while surfing on the wave of the anti-conscription movement which swept Quebec during the Second World War.
Commonly referred to as “le chef” (the boss), he held onto power for 16 years, ruling Quebec with an iron fist, crushing workers’ struggles in order to subdue progressive aspirations. In this period the labouring masses found themselves in a frightening state of social backwardness compared to their neighbours in the U.S. and the rest of Canada. Cloaked in Québécois nationalism, Duplessis defended the interests of multinationals to which he delivered Quebec’s resources on a silver platter—including its workers. While the capitalists in the advanced capitalist countries, pressured by workers’ struggles and the fear of “communism,” granted some reforms allowing some improvements in living conditions, in Quebec the “Great Darkness” reigned.
The regime maintained a climate of fear and repression. In 1937 Duplessis adopted the “Padlock Law” which banned all “communist” or “Bolshevik” propaganda, without actually defining either of these terms in the law itself. This allowed the state and its guard dogs to accuse an organization of being communist in order to decertify it and to lock up its premises.
In addition to his role as premier of Quebec, Duplessis granted himself the powers of attorney general (a post historically given to the justice minister). This gave him broad powers of command over the provincial police, which would operate as his guard dogs. Facing Duplessis and the power of the state were the increasingly militant trade unions fighting for the interests of the workers.
In Asbestos, the miners’ union was a part of the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada, (CTCC, or Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labour). Founded in 1921, the CTCC united all of Quebec’s Catholic unions—the only denominational unions in North America at the time. From the moment of its founding, this federation aimed to counterpose itself to the international unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which were more combative and represented two-thirds of unionized workers in Quebec. The creation of the CTCC was, at its root, an attempt to divert the fighting spirit of the workers into safe channels. In fact, the clergy, which was tied to the Duplessis regime, held an enormous influence over these unions via the chaplain of each union local. It was only in 1943 that the CTCC began to accept non-Catholics as full members.
The “international” federations critiqued the CTCC for its lack of combativeness and its tendency to conciliate. But given the power of the church within Quebec, Catholic unionism held a firm grip on the French-Canadian workers who followed it.
However, conciliatory organizations cannot paralyze the working class forever. The Asbestos strike, during which the workers adopted combative methods of struggle and refused compromises with the bosses, was just the first step in the radicalization of the CTCC. The secularization of the federation would be complete by 1960, when it became the Centrale des syndicats nationaux (CSN, or Confederation of National Trade Unions).
Social context, polarization and the union struggle in the asbestos mines
Asbestos had been mined in the town of the same name since the end of the 19th century. In 1949, 2,000 local miners worked at the mine owned by the Johns-Manville company. In neighbouring Thetford, 3,000 workers mined asbestos for a number of companies (Flintkote, Johnson, and Asbestos Corp.). Conditions were deplorable and workers suffered gravely from the inevitable lung problems caused by inhaling asbestos dust. While the strike was just as confrontational in Thetford, history has remembered the name of the town of Asbestos because this is where the fighting-literally—took place.
Already in 1937, 1,200 miners downed tools and it only took them one week to win union recognition as well as a raise from 25¢ to 35.5¢ per hour. During the wave of strikes which hit Quebec in 1946–47, the workers won the right to collective bargaining through the Fédération des syndicats de l’amiante (Asbestos Trade Union Federation) instead of having to negotiate through the union of each individual mine. This would give a major boost to worker solidarity during the strike.
Shortly before the strike, Duplessis attempted to pass Bill 5, a thoroughly anti-worker labour code which was an attack on the closed shop and required the unions to give their financial reports and membership lists to the government. This bill ended up being rejected thanks to the unity of the entire trade union movement (international and national Catholic unions) and the Priestly Commission of Social Studies. This commission was the public voice of the church in Quebec on social issues, and was very influential among all believers.
In addition, a sordid discovery darkened the mood of the workers just before the beginning of the strike: bodies of dozens of non-unionized miners, dead due to silicosis, found in a kaolin mine in the Laurentides, entombed in what was in effect a mass grave.
Despite the strike waves of 1942–43 and 1946–47, by 1949 the CTCC miners in Asbestos had reached a breaking point. Their living and working conditions, under the authoritarian Duplessis regime, were still well below those of their neighbours in Ontario. In 1949, they demanded greater job security and workplace safety (considering the health dangers of asbestos), a ¢15 raise to reach $1 per hour, and the implementation of the Rand formula as well as bonuses for night and weekend work. Highlighting a heightened class consciousness, the workers also demanded systematic participation of the unions in job management (hirings, promotions, dismissals). This last issue, a form of co-management of the company by the unions, particularly scared the bosses and cemented their unwavering determination to refuse the workers’ demands.
The bosses could not grant these concessions. It was a showdown with the American multinationals, supported by the government, the local bourgeoisie and the clergy lined up on one side and the masses of workers on the other side. If they had given in to the workers’ demands it would have created a precedent throughout the province, inciting other workers to fight for the same rights.
Saint Valentine’s Day rupture
From the end of December 1948 to the beginning of February 1949, negotiations and conciliation led nowhere. At the general assembly of mine workers on Feb. 13, a choice had to be made: arbitration or illegal strike. The miners knew that the arbitration would not rule in their favour. And since they were then in negotiations, the strike would be illegal. The workers wanted to go on strike immediately. Their representatives tried to convince them to wait 48 hours, but failed. The meeting was extended, and in the early hours of the 14th, Saint Valentine’s Day, the rupture burst open between the workers and their exploiters.
The miners set up a picket line at the mine. On their call, only the maintenance workers were authorized to work, to ensure that the mine installations would not be damaged: the workers’ struggle was against the owners of the means of production, not the means of production themselves. The first day was marked by incredible enthusiasm. Together with their families, the strikers celebrated this smack in the face they had delivered to their exploiters. In an incredible demonstration of class solidarity, the Thetford miners, who suffered the same deplorable conditions, joined the strike that same evening.
But the euphoria wouldn’t last. The next day, Feb. 15, Antonio Barrette, the ministre du travail (minister of labour), declared the strike illegal and threatened to remove the unions certification through the Commission des relations ouvrières (CRO, or the labour board). They attempted to bring the strikers back to work at Flintkote and Thetford by offering them a compromise. But this was refused out of solidarity for their fellow workers. On Feb. 18, the strikers occupied the Johns-Manville management office, who in turn called on the government to come to their rescue. The day after, 150 provincial police officers set themselves up, free of charge, in the Hotel Iroquois, the hotel belonging to Johns-Manville, and the company announced its intention to sue the union for $500,000. On Feb. 19, with the provincial police moving in to defend the mine, the strikers ended the picket to avoid a confrontation with the police, especially since they had arrived drunk, aiming to provoke the protesters by accusing them of violence.
On Feb. 21, the labour board decertified the union. Barrette and Duplessis saw that the conflict was beginning to boil over and arranged a meeting with the union leadership. But Duplessis wanted to only meet with the local representatives and refused to meet Jean Marchand, the general secretary of the CTCC. The local representatives refused. In addition, Barrette’s proposal was to negotiate only after an immediate return to work and to have the CTCC removed from negotiations. These demands were unacceptable in the eyes of the workers. The government’s strategy from the very beginning was to threaten the workers and then to send in their guard dogs to assert their authority. The strikers were expecting this and did not bend.
Johns-Manville launched a massive campaign of disinformation throughout the media. The message was: “This strike is illegal, useless and costly.” They tried to sow discord between the strikers and their union leaders. The strikers organized various committees: the strike committee (to guide the general strategy of the movement), a recreation committee (to organize practical actions like parades and demonstrations), a shop committee (to distribute food vouchers to strikers according to their family situation) and the aid committee (to distribute aid arriving from across the country). Through these examples we can see the fantastic spontaneous tendency of working class organization to develop in the heat of the struggle. Meanwhile, the provincial police patrolled the town to increase the pressure upon the strikers, and Barrette held firm to his position that he defended for most of the conflict: “Return to work, then we will negotiate.”
Attempted negotiations, escalating conflict
After a month of conflict, on March 14, the railroad leading to the mine was dynamited; as time passed, tensions were mounting. Nobody claimed responsibility for the act, but it greatly aided Johns-Manville’s campaign to discredit the strikers. The union fought against the disinformation campaign orchestrated by the company, the Duplessis regime and the bosses. The mood in the small mining town was becoming more explosive by the day. At the same time Johns-Manville began to gather scabs, largely from the neighbouring villages, who arrived in town under police protection. In this charged atmosphere, irrespective of the union leadership, groups were spontaneously formed to go and fight the strikebreakers. This was met with harsh repression from the provincial police.
When the Quebec National Assembly discussed the strike on March 28, Duplessis attacked the Rand formula and asserted that the strike was being carried out by a minority of workers. Through the newspaper L’Action catholique, known for its anti-union positions and strikebreaking (notably during the typographers’ strike), Johns-Manville stated that the strike was “prepared, provoked and directed by a obstinate few.” Johns-Manville hoped to isolate the leadership, which it portrayed as infiltrated by fanatical socialists pushing the strike for purely ideological reasons.
Minister Barrette insisted the strike could not be resolved because of its illegal character. The union leadership responded by labelling him the minister of capital instead of minister of labour. Both sides dug in their heels.
Simultaneously, the scabs were given a 10¢ hourly raise with the aim of enticing more people to scab and to force the strikers back to work. During April around 350 scabs were brought on and production at the mine slowly restarted. The strikers’ immediate need became to prevent the strikebreakers from getting to the mine.
It was at this point that Johns-Manville ordered the eviction of strikers living in lodgings belonging to it. But Barrette forced the company to retreat on this order. He was well aware that this move would have a negative effect on public opinion, given that the entire union movement supported the miners.
An article by Johns-Manville’s CEO was published in all the magazines in the province, in the rest of Canada and also in the U.S. “A report on the strike at Asbestos, Quebec” blamed the union leadership for the radicalization and reproached it as not fighting for its workers, but against capitalism and for socialism or communism. It especially denounced the demand for employee management of jobs, which put in question private property itself. “The strike leaders . . . seem to have the intention of taking control of managerial affairs, and in this manner, to unjustly infringe on the property rights of thousands of property owners who have placed their savings in our mine,” it stated. The bosses hoped to foment a red scare for the purpose of discrediting the union in the eyes of the workers and the people of Quebec.
On April 25, the Archbishop of Quebec, Maurice Roy, began to mediate the negotiations. The bosses’ rationale was that they could make use of the authority and respect the archbishop had with the workers to put an end to the strike and to convince them to abandon their more radical demands. But the class conflict had gone too far. The workers demanded the rehiring of all workers who had been laid off. Johns-Manville categorically refused. Mediation failed.
Asbestos polarizes Quebec
This strike occupies a special place in the history of our class because it served as a rallying point for all those who wanted to fight against the government of Duplessis. Solidarity came from all over the province: all the trade union federations (CTCC, AFL, and the CIO) sent food trucks and money, and tens of thousands of dollars each (throughout the strike this amount exceeded $300,000). There was even a student delegation from the University of Montreal which brought food to the striking workers and forced Father Cousineau, who worked for the Priestly Commission of Social Studies, to say that he hopes to see “a generation which places social justice above legality.”
The Asbestos strike is also emblematic of the situation in Quebec at the time: thousands of poor francophone workers struggling against an American imperialist company, backed by a repressive government. The forces of reaction all rallied in support of the company, while all of the progressive forces supported the miners. The strike completely polarized the province, and even divided the Catholic Church, the staunch ally of Duplessis’ regime. Duplessis before had boasted that “the bishops eat out of my hand.” But with the strike, the church was shaken to the core. The majority of the clergy sided with the strikers, some for the sake of order, some to save Catholic unionism, but others out of genuine solidarity.
On Sunday, May 2, at the Cathedral of Montreal, Bishop Joseph Charbonneau delivered a surprising speech. “The working class is the victim of a conspiracy to destroy it, and when there is a conspiracy to break the working class, it is the duty of the church to intervene. We want social peace, but we do not want the crushing of the working class. We are attached to man more than to capital.” As a punishment, Duplessis sent Bishop Charbonneau to Vancouver. The bishops organized a fundraising campaign for money and food at the church doors, which raised a total of $500,000 as well as $75,000 worth of food. This situation created such a crisis in the government that Duplessis sent Antonio Barrette to Rome to ask the Vatican to force the Quebec church to withdraw their support for the strikers.
To the barricades!
With the negotiations at an impasse, tensions reached their height during the events of May 5. At dawn, the strikers gathered to intimidate the scabs. At the entrances of the city, the provincial police attempted in vain to prevent the strikers of Thetford from joining those of Asbestos. Once gathered, the workers began shouting “To the roads!” Groups of hundreds of protesters blocked the four entrances to the city as well as entrances to the company grounds with barricades.
There were altercations with the provincial police on the barricades. Police officers were taken prisoner, but the workers in charge of the barricades managed to restrain people and prevent them from lynching the captured officers. The provincial police took refuge in the company buildings and in their headquarters at the Iroquois Club. Around midnight, the union leaders tried to calm the masses who were getting out of their control, but the workers responded, “They may have us, but they will have to lay us out on our backs first.” The determination of the workers in the heat of struggle is truly remarkable.
Two hours later, another assembly was convened, and the strikers learnt that a convoy of 25 police cars and a truck were en route, filled with police officers ordered to open fire if necessary. Given the brutality and violence already demonstrated by the forces of the bourgeois state, it would have been a massacre to stay on the barricades. Faced with vastly superior forces, the strikers abandoned the barricades and eventually returned home.
But Duplessis wanted to crush the strike and make an example of the miners in order to discourage the rest of the working class. Shortly after this development, the provincial police arrived and before the morning the city was under their control. The riot act was read, and police arrested around 200 people over the weekend, although most were released soon after. Some strikers were sentenced to one or two months in prison, sentences that would later be commuted to fines. Following these events, the Johns-Manville company mentioned the possibility of leaving the city and setting up in Ontario, where it had found asbestos deposits. Finally, on May 14, the union leaders were arrested on conspiracy charges. CTCC Deputy Director René Rocque was jailed for six months on charges of “conspiracy to intimidate.”
Following these events, the conflict dragged on. Workers’ solidarity was still great across the province, thanks to the support of the church and the central union, which sent money to workers in the struggle. In June, there was a solidarity visit by American colleagues from the international union, who confirmed that Quebec asbestos mines were 20 years behind in terms of workplace safety compared to the conditions prevailing in the United States.
Maurice Roy continued to mediate the conflict until the end of the strike. This mediation was ongoing, because Johns-Manville refused to rehire 20 strikers they had blacklisted. Union leaders wanted essential guarantees: that the union would be re-accredited, that the strikers would not suffer any discrimination, and that there would be impartial arbitration on all the points of contention since the beginning of the strike. The strike ended on July 1, and the workers returned to work. They won the essential guarantees (accreditation and non-discrimination, although scabs keep their jobs), but it was a defeat on all the points that led to the strike at the outset, especially on health and safety demands surrounding the respiratory dangers of mining asbestos.
Revive the spirit of the Asbestos strike!
The Asbestos strike was, sadly, a defeat for the miners. Despite the defeat, it entered history as one of the great struggles of the Quebec working class against capitalist exploitation and it is often considered to be the beginning of the Quiet Revolution. It drew the attention of the whole province to a clear class struggle and polarized all of Quebec society. Intellectuals, students and clergy all had to choose their side: that of the workers, or that of Duplessis and the bourgeoisie. A microcosm of Quebec society as a whole — with 5,000 mostly French-speaking workers fighting American companies and their police and state allies — the strike marked the beginning of the mass mobilization of workers in the 1950s–60s. It was precisely struggles like this that were the impetus for the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s which transformed Quebec from top to bottom.