The Asbestos Strike
by Antonio Barrette (Provincial Minister of Labour)
Against the turbulent background of Bill 5, a major strike in the asbestos industry was soon under way. The government was getting an extremely bad press. A general strike in this important industry could thus take place with impunity. Intensive press efforts had turned public opinion against the government in labour matters and the asbestos unions now felt themselves strong enough to set legality aside, contrary to their previous behaviour during the textile and other strikes.
Yet respect for legal procedures and the personal mediation of the Minister of Labour had resulted in a complete victory for the textile unions in 1947 and had also opened up a new era in labour-management relations.
After its victory that year, the CTCC's influence soared owing to gains achieved with government help. The government's prestige had likewise increased; but what was wrong with that?
The withdrawal of Bill No. 5 was yet another victory for the CTCC, but this time against the government.
I am convinced that the unions would have succeeded in having it amended or withdrawn in the Private Bills Committee. In any event they certainly missed an excellent chance to publicly debate the whole question of provincial labour relations with management and the government. In such circumstances they could not but have scored more goals than the government and the draft labour code would doubtless have been turned over to the Superior Labour Council for study, as happened later when I managed to convince the Prime Minister of the need to do so. (1)
But a campaign was afoot. It had become imperative to fight a government which was too powerful. Cooperation with it in any form was anathema.
The CTCC reached the height of its power after the textile strikes and used that power to conduct an illegal strike in the asbestos mines. With the government's help it won in 1947. When it fought the government in 1949, it lost and never regained its former influence. The reason is quite simple. Wittingly or unwittingly, its leaders in 1949 were playing politics rather than concentrating on labour matters. Union membership has increased since then but union influence has not, mainly because members have lost confidence in the judgment and effectiveness of their leaders.
No illegal strike was won in Quebec between 1945 and 1960. Union successes were always achieved when the province's laws were respected.
The workers themselves had sought and obtained a Labour Relations Act, which the amendments of 1945 had greatly improved. Clearly they have everything to gain by ensuring that laws beneficial to them are not flouted.
The asbestos strike began on February 14, 1949. Some 90% of all mines and factories in the Eastern Townships were involved.
The strikers had refused arbitration. I therefore had no choice under existing legislation but to declare their strike illegal and to ask them to return to work at once. At the same time I offered to study their complaints and all the articles of a new contract with them.
The strike quickly assumed the characteristics of a siege and my good offices were summarily rejected.
To judge it properly, one should bear in mind the conditions which prevailed at the time. Indeed one should go back to 1944 at least, in order to realize what working conditions were like in the asbestos industry and see the considerable progress achieved between 1944 and 1949 in the field of industrial hygiene (2), wages, and working conditions generally. Only against this background and the considerable advance made during those five years does it become possible to gauge how ill-advised the union's behaviour was.
If a reader tells me that a law is unjust and that in the circumstances a strike against such a law is just, as an eminent clergyman once told the textile workers, I can only say that it is dangerous to belittle the public's respect for the law, unless absolutely necessary, which was certainly not the case in 1949. Disrespect for the law contributed directly to the violence which was to break out later in the Eastern Townships.
Some 5000 workers were involved in the strike. They were employed almost entirely by the following companies: Canadian Johns-Manville, Asbestos Corporation, Johnson's Company, and Flintkote Mines.
Almost all of them were members of the National Federation of Mine Workers. The miners had refused to have recourse to the Conciliation and Arbitration Service, as prescribed by law. The strike was thus illegal and the government could not intervene.
At first, union officials claimed they had had nothing to do with the strike, but later changed their position and said it resulted from their lack of confidence in the Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
Thus the rumour was spread about that the miners had failed to obtain satisfaction from the Service in the past and therefore they were right to ignore it now and in future.
The fact is, however, that not once between 1944 and 1949 had arbitration been necessary either at Johns-Manville or at the Asbestos Corporation to settle a contract. Matters had always been agreed upon amicably by labour and management, with or without the help of Department of Labour conciliators. Wages had more than doubled during the period.
How then could the union seriously claim it had lost all faith in arbitration? The question was never answered.
Throughout the strike, which lasted several months, the Federation claimed the companies were underpaying the workers, and I agree. It also claimed that asbestosis was still a menace to the health of the workers. There was material for arbitration in this and it would have been easy to set up a board to substantiate the claim, to show by expert medical opinion and dust samplings what diseases were involved. For months I urged the union to agree. This would have been by far the best way of protecting the health of the miners at Thetford, Asbestos, and elsewhere. Why did it refuse?
Its officials were well aware of the miners' wage gains and the industry's numerous health improvements since 1945. Arbitration would have proved it. That is why the Federation's officials at first claimed to have had nothing to do with the strike. Later, when publicly supported by certain politicians and churchmen, they endorsed it completely. The strike was still illegal, but it had become moral, according to a slogan current at the time.
Influential speakers encouraged the miners from pulpit and rostrum: "These mines are yours", they proclaimed. "They belong to you just as much as to the companies and their shareholders." The secretary of the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Laval University travelled throughout the Eastern Townships addressing the miners. They knew whence he came and whom he represented.
Pretext and Reality
To return to the beginning of the strike, on February 15 I sent a telegram to the Federation urging the workers to abide by the laws of the province in their own interest and that of their cause. I asked them to return to work and to have recourse to arbitration so that justice could be done to both sides.
On February 16 I addressed the Legislative Assembly as follows: "This strike has nothing to do with asbestos dust. It is a peculiar strike. It is also an illegal strike and I have advised the miners to return to work at once and submit their case to an arbitration board."
On February 17 Le Devoir carried Jean Marchand's answer. (3) He quoted the Pope's recent statement that unjust laws had to be resisted. He neglected to add that the Pope was referring to communist persecutions in Eastern Europe at the time!
The same day the Labour Relations Board ordered the Federation to enjoin the miners to return to work immediately. If it refused, the Board would have no alternative but to revoke its certification.
On February 19 the Federation caused Bell Mines at Thetford to close. Its workers had not joined the strike, but were now forced to.
Two days later the Board revoked the certificates of the unions concerned.
On February 23 I informed the Thetford and Asbestos municipal authorities that I was still willing to act as mediator in the dispute in order to reach a fair settlement. I added, however, that for me to do so it would be necessary for the men to return to work. Why was my help rejected at the time, when it had invariably been sought in the past and was again to be accepted in future? I was risking a good deal. Did it stem from fear that I might reduce to naught the case with which union leadership hoped to win an illegal strike?
By February 1949, wages in the mines had more than doubled. They had varied between 44 and 55 cents per hour when I became Minister of Labour in September 1944, but by February 1949 had risen to $1.10 per hour.
As for union leadership's case about asbestosis, existing laws and statistics prove beyond doubt that great progress had been achieved in this field during those five years under pressure from the provincial Department of Labour, despite the complexity of the problem and the difficulties involved. Specialists in pneumoconiosis have testified in my presence that nothing is more difficult to diagnose than asbestosis, since it cannot be detected by X-rays alone. Only lung expansion capacity can indicate the degree of illness involved.
That is why the National Union government, at my express request, granted two research fellowships in this field as soon as it returned to power in 1944. One was bestowed upon Louis-F. Cantin, a lawyer, and the other upon Dr. Bertrand Bellemare, a medical specialist in industrial diseases. Cantin is now a judge and Bellemare a member of the Workmen's Compensation Commission.
Thanks to free health services for the miners and to the medical and legal work of these two specialists, asbestosis victims were able to submit irrefutable claims to the Commission. Thus was it proved again that pertinent laws are indispensable for substantiating claims. At the same time the Department of Labour was fully cooperating with management and the unions to prevent lung diseases in the mines. Indeed benefits were made retroactive so that workers with asbestosis before the new health measures went into effect also received compensation.
In actual fact the miners' complaints resulted essentially from poor conditions prevailing in the industry before the National Union government's return to power in 1944. It was a retarded bomb and we were its victims. Those who attacked us most vehemently during the strike in 1949 were precisely those who had allowed starvation wages and poor working conditions to prevail in this industry before 1944.
During the fall of 1946, at my request, a joint meeting of labour and management, along with officials of the Departments of Labour and Health, took place on the subject of asbestosis in the Parliament Buildings in Quebec City.
It soon produced practical results. The Workmen's Compensation Commission immediately set up a fund of $250,000.00 for former asbestosis victims, as a direct outcome of administrative measures and reforms sponsored by the Department of Labour. While priority was of course being given to preventive measures, it was also necessary to help those miners who were entitled to compensation but who had not been able to obtain it previously.
Because substantial assessments had been levied against the companies in order to help long-standing claimants, government decisions and recommendations were readily accepted. In 1946, the companies in Thetford set up a clinic where 3,000 miners received a complete medical check up in 1949 only. Canadian Johns-Manville built a similar clinic in Asbestos in 1949 at a cost of $160,000.00; its annual operational expenditures amount to $45,000.00 covering 2,500 medical examinations each year. These clinics were established before the strike.
Over the years, Quebec's asbestos mines have spent a good deal of money on behalf of their 5,000 workers in order to eliminate asbestos dust from the mines by means of new machinery, flues, and ventilation equipment. These improvements were made at the Department of Labour's request. Where such equipment did not exist, it had to be installed; otherwise the mines would be shut.
In résumé, the asbestos industry had before the strike spent some $3,500,000.00 between 1944 and 1949 on asbestosis preventive measures alone, that is, an average of $700.00 per miner (4).
Between 1947 and 1949, 800 dust samples were gathered in the industry's mines and plants for analysis in the Department of Health's laboratories. This entailed 76 checks, some of which lasted several days. These large-scale and complex operations took place well before the strike. Indeed Rodolphe Hamel, president of the National Federation of Mine Workers sent me a letter on the subject on December 3, 1947, wherein he expressed the Federation's gratitude about the progress achieved as a result of government interest in the problem:
And referring to those of my officials who were engaged in this work, his letter states:
This letter from the Federation's president one year before the strike should prove beyond all doubt that the decision to strike on the ground of asbestosis was completely unjustified. Hamel's two paragraphs above convey not only his official reaction and impressions, they also testify to the progress achieved in preventing asbestosis as a result of the combined efforts of the Departments of Labour and Health and of the Federation's officials themselves.
Moreover, the Federation's actual pre-strike negotiations with Canadian Johns-Manville, the principal company concerned, only serve to emphasize the forthcoming strike's peculiar nature.
On December 14, 1948, when the Federation began negotiating a new contract with the company, proceedings followed the course prescribed by law. The Federation was quite willing to abide by a law which obliged the company to negotiate with the unions. However, it was less than willing to do so when the same law obliged the unions to negotiate with the companies. Bilateral negotiations having produced no agreement by January 30, 1949, conciliation began. By February 10, this too proved fruitless and the two parties agreed to refer-their differences to an arbitration board.
Thus ten days after their contract had expired, (5) their disagreement could have been referred to an arbitration board.
Four days later, that is, on February 14, the unions decided to strike without warning and without recourse to arbitration. The strike was thus completely illegal. Never before had such widespread lawbreaking occurred in the history of the province. It could only have taken place as the result of support received from those who had opposed Bill No. 5.
During the four month period between October 1, 1947, and January 1, 1948, a pay raise of .27 per hour had been granted. A new offer of .10 per hour was made at the outset of contract negotiations in January 1949.
Wages had thus increased by .37 per hour in 16 months, excluding cost-of-living bonuses adjusted to the price index. These gains were unique throughout Canada at the time.
It should now be self-evident that factors other than wages and asbestosis were involved in the union's decision to walk out. The strike was clearly political in background, nature, and timing.
I have, I believe, completely answered the union's case that recourse to arbitration would have been futile. I have likewise disposed of the claim heard somewhat later that the strike was a spontaneous movement. For months there had been a widespread publicity campaign about asbestosis and silicosis. Mention was even made, in this campaign, of the articles of one Burton Ledoux (an American citizen of French origin, I believe) who had taken it upon himself to tell certain miners that they suffered from silicosis. Although silicosis had nothing to do with the case, many of his readers thought asbestosis and silicosis were pretty much the same thing. Le Devoir and Relations paid a good deal of attention to Burton Ledoux. René Chaloult was his champion in parliament.
A decisive battle thus started and all means were used to have the Rand formula put into effect, whereby the miners would have been obliged to pay union dues whether they were union members or not. That was one of the main objects of the strike.
I have related these facts merely to place the strike in its proper perspective; to prove that it was prepared well in advance; and that it had unpublished aims. Indeed one month before the strike, I warned my cabinet colleagues that organized labour was preparing the ground for a major confrontation with the government soon; that the site and industry had already been chosen; that the strike would be illegal because union leadership had already decided to reject arbitration procedures; and that what labour really wanted was to create a precedent for the future by forcing adoption of the Rand formula and having a contract negotiated completely without recourse to procedures prescribed by law.
Although quite different in nature from the other major strikes I was called upon to deal with during my tenure of office, the asbestos strike could have been avoided or at least considerably shortened.
During its first two months, there occurred many regrettable incidents which made headline news. However, I want to relate only those of its aspects which are less well known.
After two months of negotiations I was able to announce on April 22 that the Federation and Johns-Manville had agreed to appoint before the following noon their respective representatives on an arbitration board which would begin its sessions immediately after the strikers had returned to work. Once arbitrators had been chosen, the strike was over in principle at least. Marchand immediately denied my communiqué.
Le Devoir of April 23 carried my statement and Marchand's denial as follows: "Asbestos strike solution in sight"; and just underneath: "Mr. Barrette says YES; Mr. Marchand replies "NO". It added:
After denying my statement, Marchand immediately went to Asbestos and, again according to Le Devoir of April 23, said:
Marchand knew on April 22 that as a result of the good offices of the Archbishop of Quebec and the Minister of Labour, the Federation and Canadian Johns-Manville had agreed to appoint arbitrators on April 23. In a press release Marchand had accepted, albeit rather vaguely, the possibility of having such a board set up through the intermediary of a third party (the Archbishop of Quebec). But he denied that a meeting would take place on April 25. The press of course asked me who was right and I replied: "Well! Come to the Department of Labour on Monday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. If the arbitrators are there, I'll have been right and you can draw your own conclusions. If they are not, I'll have a press release for you." On April 25 at 3:00 p.m., management's lawyer, Ivan Sabourin and Theodore L'Espérance, counsel for the Federation, entered my office. Unfortunately not one newspaper reported this in connection with Marchand's denial of my statement.
At the beginning of the meeting, owing to Marchand's denial I asked L'Espérance in what capacity and for what purpose he was present. Was he authorized to act for the Federation? "Yes", he replied, "I am". Was he the Federation's arbitrator? After a good deal of hair-splitting and shilly-shallying he said he was. It took him a good hour to do so. He was not very forthcoming, but at least he had given me enough evidence to proceed with the task of choosing a chairman. It proved to be long, arduous, and futile.
Normally, in such circumstances, the two parties would quickly agree or disagree to cooperate in selecting a chairman. If they disagreed, according to the Labour Relations Act the choice was then left to the Minister. Ex officio I had named at least two hundred such chairmen. In this particular case, however, L'Espérance refused to cooperate, yet without ever agreeing that he was refusing to do so! He used these tactics to prevent me from acting.
Finally after four days of negotiations our meetings came to a dead end. Usually the choice of a board chairman required only an hour at the most. The Federation was obviously determined to disagree. It was also determined to continue the strike. Its behaviour on this occasion was good proof of this.
At the beginning of our meetings I suggested that L'Espérance choose as chairman, first, any one of the puisne judges of the Sessions of the Peace or the Magistrates Courts of the district of Quebec or Montreal, except one whose name had been submitted to me outside my office on behalf of only one of the parties concerned; second, any one of the chairmen of any provincial commission or board, e.g., Workmen's Compensation, Labour Relations, Civil Service, Municipal Affairs; and finally any one of the Chief Justices of the Sessions of the Peace or Magistrates Courts of the Quebec or Montreal districts.
L'Espérance refused them all, while Sabourin in the name of the company had agreed in advance to abide by his opposite number's selection. The Federation was resolved to accept as chairman only one judge in the province, the one whose name had been sub mitted to me ex parte and whom I had rejected for that very reason. (7)
Of fifty provincial judges, the Federation rejected forty-nine! To refuse one might have been understandable. But to reject forty-nine was unique in the history of the province's judiciary.
Negotiations between L'Espérance and Sabourin for the choice of a chairman ended in a rather unexpected way on Friday night, April 29.
When we adjourned that afternoon I told the newspapermen who were waiting outside my office for the results of our negotiations that our meetings had so far been unproductive but that another was scheduled for the following morning. I also made known my intention to keep on negotiating everyday of the week, Sunday included, in Quebec City, Montreal, or elsewhere in order to choose a chairman.
At about six o'clock that afternoon, I asked the two lawyers if they were prepared to return to my office the following day at 9:00 a.m. L'Espérance said he was not sure whether he could conduct business on Saturday.
My offer to continue our talks on Saturday and Sunday had caught him by surprise and he replied that he could only let me know later.
I had nothing very definite to tell the newspapermen. However, they were aware of my good faith; I made L'Espérance repeat to them what he had just told me in my office. I also told him in their presence that I was expecting him to telephone me that night about our next meeting. At that point L'Espérance again asked me to telephone him, but I repeated that I would be in my room from 7:00 p.m. until midnight and would be awaiting his call.
I was pretty certain it would be difficult for me to locate him that night, so I preferred to put the onus of the call on him. The newspapermen present, my deputy minister, and several department officials all witnessed this exchange.
That night several wire agency reporters and newspapermen got in touch with me to find out if the negotiations would continue the following morning. I replied in the affirmative, while reminding them that I was still expecting the Federation's reply.
While waiting for L'Espérance's call I heard over the CBC ten o'clock news that the Federation had decided to break off our negotiations completely. Very shortly thereafter the strike's most serious disturbances occurred at Asbestos, the main trouble centre.
L'Espérance telephoned me twice that night to say that no decision had yet been taken. The first time he said he had just finished dinner and was about to submit his report to the Federation's senior officials. Only after he had done so would he be in a position to let me know. He telephoned again between nine and nine thirty to say that his meeting with his superiors had just begun and a decision was still pending.
Meanwhile BUP correspondent Marc Thivierge had also telephoned me for news. He called again at ten o'clock and said: "Why don't you listen to the news bulletin on the radio right now. It will give you the decision you've been waiting for."
As a result of his telephone calls, L'Espérance and his friends knew I was in my room and unable to find out that press releases were being readied to announce dramatically over the weekend that negotiations were being broken off and that public collections on behalf of the miners would be held at church doors after mass on Sunday.
That night the CTCC and the Federation had led me to believe they were studying the possibility of continuing our talks when in fact they were ensuring that the strike itself would continue. While I was awaiting L'Espérance's call, Gerard Picard, president of the CTCC, Monsignor Jean-Charles Leclaire, president of the Church's Social Studies Committee, and Theodore L'Espérance were, drafting their communiqués and news bulletins.
These were distributed with considerable commotion that night (8) and were given headline treatment the following day. The three plotters had planned well. It being Friday night, they knew I could not answer before Monday morning, that is, after the church collections announced for the following Sunday. Their timing was as perfect as their consciences were elastic.
I had only about an hour in which to confirm to the press that the unions had decided to break off our talks. I explained that they had just come to an end at 10:15 p.m. that night. They had been long and laborious and I had made every effort to set up a board.
There can be no doubt that the timing of the three communiqués by Picard, L'Espérance, and Monsignor Leclaire was entirely premeditated and that the releases were issued precisely when they were in order to prevent me from giving a complete account of the events of that week. The press had been in constant touch with me. They had seen the two arbitrators enter my office on Monday, despite Marchand's denial. They had heard L'Espérance's replies to my questions on Friday night.
Frankly, I confess I was never very sanguine about the success of our negotiations. Nevertheless I had felt it my duty to continue. At the very beginning I told L'Espérance that his shilly-shallying and hairsplitting would not make me lose my temper. I also told him I was prepared to talk all day and every day until a board was set up. My words did not fall on deaf ears. He immediately changed his tactics and proceeded to take an entirely negative stand!
It should not be forgotten that the union was not obliged to accept a majority decision. It was obliged only to agree to arbitration. It could refuse to accept the board's majority decision and then, quite legally, go out on strike. That had often happened before.
I had been all deference, all courtesy, to the two lawyers that week. Friday night, all that was left for me to do was to issue a brief communiqué which I couched in polite terms despite the provocation I had been subjected to.
Church collections were duly held on several following Sundays. Food baskets were also distributed to the miners by members of the newly-founded Quebec branch of the Social Credit Party, then a precious ally of the CTCC, but now condemned by Marchand.
Agreement about an arbitration board would have nipped these shows of sympathy in the bud. They prove however that the strike had very little to do with the companies. An all-out attack against the government was under way. Even asbestosis was no longer mentioned.
The church's role in the strike is well brought out by the following incidents.
The Sunday before our long week of negotiations Camillien Houde called on me in Joliette. He claimed he had a quick and simple solution to the problem. If the Rand formula were accepted, the strike would cease. I knew that already.
Houde said he was approaching me on behalf of Archbishop Charbonneau of Montreal. I replied that I could not accept this request owing to its serious implications for future relations between labour and management throughout the province.(9) When I told him that the Faculty of Social Sciences at Laval University had approved of the strike and that the dean's secretary had even gone to the Eastern Townships to incite the workers, Houde was vastly surprised. He was even more so when I showed him the progress achieved in improving working conditions in the industry and proved that beyond the first few days the strikers had made no mention of asbestosis or asbestos dust.
All efforts were now concentrated on securing the Rand formula. Houde was shocked and asked me to speak that very night to the Archbishop, who had called on him the day before and who was due to return to his home that night for an answer.
We agreed that around eight o'clock Archbishop Charbonneau would speak to me over the telephone from Houde's house. No names were to be mentioned. At eight o'clock my telephone rang and I recognized Houde's voice. "The person we spoke about this afternoon is here and wishes to talk to you". The Archbishop immediately did so. I recognized his voice without difficulty. "I have just heard staggering news", he said. "You should have told me immediately. I was completely unaware of it. However, there is still time to put a stop to it".
I assumed he meant the church collections would not take place, but it was doubtless too late to stop what had already been decided.
That Sunday morning when I went to mass, a number of young people followed me for a considerable distance to ask me for a contribution. Another Sunday I was even pestered in a country village where I had gone to mass. So too were several of my colleagues.
After my conversation with Archbishop Charbonneau, I confess the church collections puzzled me; he had told me over the telephone that he would stop them, yet it was he himself who started them in his archdiocese. From Montreal they spread throughout the province.
In any event after my conversation with him I expected a rather more understanding outlook on his part and even his help in preventing the serious disturbances which were then looming on the horizon. I thought it best not to burden the Prime Minister with my worries and even when negotiations with the Federation broke down I remained silent so as to prevent matters from becoming worse.
A few days before Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque, o.p., dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Laval University, called on me. He arrived without an appointment but presumably with the connivance of one of my departmental officials since he came in through my private entrance and not through my secretary's office as was normally the case. I rose immediately and met him in the middle of the room. He said: "I know you are dealing with an extremely difficult problem. I want to offer you my help in explaining to the people of Quebec what this matter, of which you are not at all responsible, is all about. Rumour has it that you are going to resign. If you do, I stand ready to support you and to speak with you throughout the province."
Without answering him and without offering him a chair, I walked slowly to the door and politely but definitely signified that he should leave.
He called on me at a time when some of his students were collecting money for the strikers and getting ready to go to Thetford on a solidarity visit, during which it would be turned over to the strike leaders.
The rector of Laval University wisely dissuaded them from doing so, which brought down upon him the editorial ire of Gérard Filion in Le Devoir on April 23:
THE HORNS OF A DILEMMA?
Monsignor Ferdinand Vandry, rector of Laval, replied sharply a few days later while in Trois-Rivières for an alumni meeting. Le Devoir printed his answer in full on April 28:
The situation was obviously tense. Public opinion was aroused and everybody was being drawn into the maelstrom in the expectation that it would harm the government sufficiently to bring about its fall.
Reverend Georges-Henri Lévesque was no friend of Duplessis' and was doing his utmost to embarrass him in the province by organizing a crusade against the government across Canada. There was no lack of evidence. Shortly after his visit to my office, he tried to convince Dr. Sydney Smith, president of the University of Toronto, to lead a protest movement of all Canadian universities against the Duplessis Government, alleging that the Prime Minister had sought to interfere with academic freedom. (10) Father Lévesque claimed the Prime Minister had interfered in strictly university affairs in connection with Monsignor Vandry's refusal to allow the students to go to Thetford. Dr. Smith immediately got in touch with Colonel Wilfrid Bovey, of whose impartiality and broadmindedness he was well aware.
Colonel Bovey, who was a friend of mine, came to see me and told me about Father Lévesque's approach to Dr. Smith. He asked me what I thought of the affair. I explained why the Prime Minister was having difficulty with Father Lévesque and also assured him that Laval's authorities were unaware of Father Lévesque's approach to Dr. Smith. (11) The matter went no further.
I said nothing about all this either to the Prime Minister or to my other cabinet colleagues. Had it become public knowledge, it would only have made matters worse, not only in the field of Labour relations but higher up as well. I felt the best service I could render at the time was to prevent the spark from reaching the powder keg.
As a result of all these intrigues and the tremendous amount of publicity being given to the dispute, an illegal strike was being made to assume the proportions of a national crisis. The government's opponents were pouring oil on the flames. Even artists and intellectuals were being petitioned to support the strikers. Such a petition was handed to me one day. I confess that in its long list of names there were not many that a reasonably well-lettered man could recognize.
After all this it was obvious that labour would bar no holds and serious disturbances occurred in the Eastern Townships shortly thereafter. They began on May 5 and would never have taken place if the strikers had known how much they had been duped.
However, such was the help they were receiving from all sides that they could well ignore legal procedures. Unfortunately they did not seem to realize that for many of their supporters the strike was really a secondary matter. Their main aim was to attack the government. A vicious circle had come into being. The more support the Federation received the more it felt obliged to continue the strike.
I was not at a loss for work at the time! Despite all these difficulties I was still trying to bring labour and management together. During the last two weeks of May, I continued to meet Picard and Sabourin in the hope of forming an arbitration board.
My efforts were futile. Negotiations broke down again on June 2. The only obstacle was still the Federation's refusal to cooperate. This time it insisted on having the Chief Justice of Quebec or one of his colleagues appointed as board chairman. This, after having refused every other provincial court judge. To acquiesce in the circumstances was impossible and the Federation knew it. Indeed its choice was intentional and designed to be rejected.
Respect for the law and the judiciary is the cornerstone of social order; the base as well as the keystone of the building. Courts, to my way of thinking, are of far greater help to the humble and the weak than the powerful. The strong can readily defend themselves and are not liable to be threatened in the same way as the meek whose only real protection is the judiciary. They must, in the circumstances, be able to rely on it.
The Federation's contempt for the judiciary of the province, its lack of respect for the courts, could only serve to lower their value in the eyes of the people. When people no longer believe in the judicial institutions of their country, they take to the barricades and overthrow their society. I always found it odd that not once during the asbestos strike did any newspaper or leading clergyman in Quebec voice concern about such social sabotage.
The Federation was well aware of what it was doing. However, by putting the onus of refusal on the government it managed to get itself out of an awkward position while ensuring that the strike would continue. Indeed it was the government's position which had become awkward, since it had been maneuvered into rejecting an apparently easy request.
Only on June 23 did the CTCC decide to end the strike by ordering the miners back to work. The strike had been won, it proclaimed. In fact nothing had been won. We had to start all over again.
I began by proposing the name of Mr. Justice Tremblay, Chief Justice of the Court of the Sessions of Peace in Quebec City, as chairman of the arbitration board. The two sides agreed. I had already put forward his name as a possible chairman and it should not have been difficult to have accepted him as such at the very beginning of the strike.
In any event, at the union's request I advised the companies that as soon as an arbitration board was set up I would seek recertification from the Labour Relations Board and hoped management would not object. The companies agreed. Certification obliged them to negotiate with the unions once the workers had returned to the mines. The law was becoming useful again.
Despite these five months of stubborn and futile striking, I continued to try to smooth out all arguments, objections, and delays. I insisted only on respect for the law and maintenance of public order, which I had at last achieved.
If the Department of Labour had not overruled management's request for a secret vote about whether the strikers still supported the union, it is impossible to say what might have happened. It may be that the miners would have disowned it, even after the strike had come to an end. They had long wanted to return to work. At any rate, I insisted that no such vote be taken and my stand prevailed.
The arbitration board held its first meeting in Thetford on August 6, 1949. Mr. Justice Tremblay immediately announced that its recommendations would be made retroactive to January 1. The strikers gradually began returning to work.
On October 6 the board held its last public meeting in Montreal and then proceeded to deliberate in closed session.
Its findings and recommendations were made public on January 16, 1950. A few days later I left for Rome to represent the province at the Holy Year festivities.
As regards asbestos dust, the board's report accepted the Federation's suggestions while underlining the companies' good work in this field and urging them to continue. Canadian and United States lung specialists had been heard.
As for wages, Picard had this to say when the board's recommendations became known: "The Tremblay majority report places the miners in a strait-jacket of false legality. Law and justice are not its sires. In fact it is not a report at all, it's revenge." Yet in January 1950 the CTCC's official organ, Le Travail commented that:
The contradiction between Picard's statement and Le Travail's account of the settlement is glaring.
The clause about dues was my idea and implied that it could not be revoked before expiration of the contract wherein it appeared.
On December 28, Picard called on the Prime Minister in connection with the cost-of-living index. Hitherto several contracts carried a clause automatically guaranteeing a pay raise of .25 per week with every point increase in the cost-of-living index. At Picard's request, Duplessis intervened to increase the sum from .25 to .40 per week. As a result, between January 1950 and January 1952, the asbestos miners received bonus amounting to $21.80 per week, owing to rapid increases in the cost-of-living. This increase had nothing to do with the strike and was over and above the arbitration board's wage recommendations. Picard never mentioned the Prime Minister's helpful decision in this respect.
Although the miners were returning to work, there were still several touchy problems to be solved. Canadian Johns-Manville had taken on a number of workers during the strike and had guaranteed them employment no matter what happened. This was made public at the same time that notices were being circulated among the strikers warning them that if they did not return to work they risked losing their jobs. Three hundred and fifty new miners had been hired by the time the strike ended. The Federation insisted that all non-union labour be slacked. Canadian Johns-Manville demurred. No compromise had been reached by the time I returned from Rome.
The companies' legal counsel, Ivan Sabourin, brought Johns-Manville's stand to my attention immediately. I rejected it completely. I told him the companies knew that a, new contract would eventually be signed. "You got yourselves into this situation", I stated, "and it is up to you to get out of it."
Sabourin immediately telephoned Lewis Brown, president of Johns-Manville in New York, stating my reaction and asking Mr. Brown to come to Quebec City at once. So, the same day. I repeated to Mr. Brown what I had previously told Sabourin and added that if the company persisted I would publicly denounce it. Brown agreed with me and so did Sabourin.
Knowing that after so long a strike it would take about three weeks to get the mines back into full swing and that it was impossible for all the miners to return to work at once, I suggested the companies first start by calling back all married men in Asbestos, then those living nearby. The needs of miners owning their own homes or living on their farms would be less pressing than those of the others. After the married men had returned to work, single men in town could be called back and then those living in the country. Four distinct groups of miners were thus established on the basis of family and individual needs. All were to return to their pre-strike jobs. Workers hired during the strike would also remain, but without seniority rights. They would be considered as entirely new employees.
"If you proceed in this way", I told Brown, "you will soon see that you will be able to employ all your old help and keep your new workers too. A prolonged strike automatically results in vacancies. A number of workers never return. Either they were afraid of the strike or they returned to their homes in other parts of the province or had other reasons for leaving. I am sure you'll be able to keep your 350 new men. They'll be handy replacements". And that is exactly what happened.
To have fired 350 strikers would have started the trouble all over again.
I considered it best in the circumstances to give no publicity to this ad hoc arrangement.
A few days later, when the new contract was signed, the Federation's president and secretary, Rodolphe Hamel and Daniel Lessard, called on me along with the president of the asbestos miners' local, Armand Laurier, and the secretary general of the CTCC, Jean Marchand. They brought to my attention certain delays a small group -- about 3 % -- of the strikers were experiencing in recovering their jobs. I immediately offered to mediate. Both management and labour accepted my recommendations.
In conclusion may I quote what Le Travail of February 1, 1952, said about the strike two years after it ended:
This happy circumstance had not come about as a result of the strike. We were merely continuing to implement the policies laid down in 1944.
A Comparison Between Strikes
At the CTCC's request I had been a mediator in several major strikes, particularly the textile strike in November 1947, which was brought to a successful conclusion on the basis of my recommendations.
Agreement on that occasion had required only five days of mediation and had resulted in a pay increase of about .20 per hour with substantial fringe benefits as well. Each worker got retroactive raises, paid holidays, etc., an average of $200.00 in cash. This was a very generous settlement at the time. It cost the companies $3,000,000.00 per year, pay arrears excluded. La Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique's official organ, Le Front Ouvrier commented as follows:
It was thus well known that respect for the law and mediation by the Minister of Labour could bring about successful results.
At this point I should mention another strike: that of the Gaspé Copper Mines Ltd., which like the asbestos strike could easily have been avoided. These two strikes, asbestos and copper, bore no resemblance to two others: textiles and aluminium, (14) which were equally important and settled reasonably quickly since they were entirely legal. They were as untroubled and successful for the unions as the two others were fierce and unproductive, bringing no really new gains to the workers.
A reckoning in the textile and aluminum industries was bound to happen someday. I was of the opinion that these two industries were beset by long-standing and apparently insoluble problems. These needed the serious scrutiny which perhaps only a strike could bring about. In both industries, the unions were convinced of the soundness of their cause; they damaged no property; set up no picket lines; and carried out no attacks of any sort.
All strikes have individual features and spring from different causes. At Murdochville, contrary to what public opinion in Quebec has always believed, Gaspé Copper Mines was not opposed to any national or international union. It refused only to deal with the United Steel Workers of America. At Noranda, the same company and the same union are still at loggerheads (1962). The company's reasons for refusing to have anything to do with the USW do not concern us here. I wish only to discuss the background and causes of the Gaspé Copper strike in 1957.
All who have written or spoken about it should know that the Labour Relations Board had certified the International Mine Workers' Union of Gaspé district (local 544) on May 26, 1954; and that on July 16 the union and company had signed a two-year contract. For a contract to have been signed in only seven weeks in the circumstances was something of a record.
In 1956, the Canadian Labour Congress came into being. As a result, the Murdochville miners were transferred to the United Steel Workers of America (local 4881). A new certificate was therefore requested.
This time Gaspé Copper objected. After a long series of requests and appeals by the union and the company, the Labour Relations Board finally decided against certifying the USW. Meanwhile Gaspé Copper had granted a pay increase running from .07 to .18 per hour. A few months later, on March 8, 1957, the company suspended Théo Gagné, president of the local union. Two days later a strike broke out. It was completely illegal and the United Steel Workers lost it. A new union was certified in July 1958: the Murdochville Workers' Association.
These facts are not widely known, except by the parties directly concerned.
When I say this strike could easily have been avoided I mean that, if as a result of the formation of the Canadian Labour Congress the local branch of the International Mine Workers' Union had not been transferred to the United Steel Workers, no strike would have occurred.
What is more, knowing full well that Gaspé Copper was dead set against dealing with the USW, local union leadership could easily have brought the strike to a halt by returning to the International Mine Workers' Union. Gaspé Copper was willing to deal with the old union but not with the USW. Clearly these facts are quite different from the accusations leveled against the government at the time.
I am not blaming the union. On the contrary. Gaspé Copper's uncompromising stubbornness is inexplicable. However the union was aware of its objections to the USW. The old union was accepted by the company; was just as powerful as the USW; and could easily have maintained the status quo.
At the present time the province's labour legislation is so enlightened that a strike implies a serious lack of maturity on the part of those who organize it without sufficient cause or carry it out for a prolonged period of time.
(1) As I point out below, it is already some years since a provincial labour code was drawn up and unanimously approved by the Superior Labour Council. I did not table it before June 1960 only because labour's representatives on the Council expressly asked me not to.
(2) I might mention here that in February 1949 asbestosis had already been defined as an industrial disease by the workmen's Compensation Commission. Preventive clinics had been set up in the Eastern Townships by the companies concerned at the government's behest. On several occasions union leadership had officially thanked me for my work in this field, in particular the president of the Asbestos Workers' Union himself.
(3) He is now president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions.
(4) As regards treatment of such industrial lung diseases as asbestosis and silicosis, forty-five companies employing 16,880 workers spent $12,686,000.00 or $826.00 per worker from 1944 to 1949, as I stated in the Legislative Assembly at the time.
(5) February 1, 1949.
(6) Not a formal understanding about returning to work; only an agreement about setting up an arbitration board.
(7) An important clergyman having nothing to do with the strike had insisted rather dramatically in the presence of another ranking member of the hierarchy in Joliette that I appoint him as chairman. Both men are still alive today.
(8) See the Communiqués elsewhere in the collection of documents. All three communiqués allege that several matters other than the chairmanship of the arbitration board had been discussed that week. I feel compelled at this point to solemnly declare that this was not so. During the course of that week we discussed only the chairmanship. Our sessions at the time had nothing to do with conciliation.
(9) I have always held that the privilege granted by Mr. Justice Rand's formula to a particular union in special circumstances is the equivalent of a right to levy taxes. Such a concession to a union conducting an illegal strike would have created a dangerous precedent. It would also lave harmed Quebec's good name and delayed the development of our natural resources.
(10) Father Lévesque had congratulated Duplessis after a Dominion-Provincial Conference and had even gone to his suite one night to encourage him to continue his fight. Duplessis did not respond to these advances and Father Lévesque, whose feelings the Prime Minister had hurt, began a vigorous campaign against him.
(11) Dr. Smith later became Secretary of State for External Affairs in the Diefenbaker cabinet.
(12) The companies' pre-strike offer.
(13) One cent per hour, .40 per week, i.e., .40 per week per point.
(14) Dealt with below.
Source: Antonio Barrette, Memoirs, Montréal, Librairie Beauchemin, 1966, 384p., pp. 107-136. Minor typographical and spelling mistakes have been corrected. Despite attempts to do so, it was not possible to obtain permission to reproduce this document. The holder of the copyright, Librairie Beauchemin, has vanished and it is not clear who, if anybody, now owns the rights to this text. If such a person exists, I would appreciate that they contact Claude Bélanger (C.BELANGER@marianopolis.edu) to regularize this situation. The editor affirms that the publication of the document reproduced here is done in good faith, without commercial purposes, and that such publication in no way denies the proprietary rights of the holder(s) of the copyrights of La Librairie Beauchemin.
© 2001 For the web edition, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College