Priests, Pickets and Politics

The Asbestos strike violence overshadowed some sensational news — the swing to the left inside the church in Quebec

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1949

Priests, Pickets and Politics

The Asbestos strike violence overshadowed some sensational news — the swing to the left inside the church in Quebec

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1949

Priests, Pickets and Politics

The Asbestos strike violence overshadowed some sensational news — the swing to the left inside the church in Quebec


Maclean's Ottawa Editor

WHEN the Quebec Asbestos strike was about six weeks old one striker had a falling-out with the union leaders and decided to go back to work. A day or two later his wife had a visit from a friend.

“What’s the matter with your husband?” the visitor asked. “Has he left the church?”

“Certainly not,” said his wife. “He’s a good Catholic—why?”

“But he’s gone back to work!” said her friend. That illustrates the unique quality of the Asbestos struggle. From archbishops to parish priests, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec has found itself for the first time openly aligned with labor in an industrial dispute. Many a striker has felt it a religious duty to stay out until the end.

By any standard Asbestos would have been rated a big strike—5,000 men out for some four months, paralyzing a major export industry in two towns 80 miles apart. It developed into a life-or-death fight for the Catholic labor movement in Quebec; whether the Catholic Syndicates can survive it is still an open question.

It was the occasion of the worst outbreak of violence in Quebec labor history, with strikers riotously taking over the town of Asbestos one day, beating up a dozen provincial policemen, and police taking equally violent and deplorable reprisals on the morrow.

But the really extraordinary thing, the fact that will make Asbestos a landmark and perhaps a turning point in French Canada, has been the role of the Catholic clergy.

Father Louis Philippe Camirand, an Asbestos parish priest who is chaplain of the striking Syndicate of Asbestos Workers, has been heart and soul with the strikers from the outset and in council with their leaders. This is unusual though not unprecedented. But precedent was shattered with a crash when Monsignor Charbonneau, the Archbishop of Montreal, said from the pulpit of Notre Dame Church:

“There is a conspiracy to destroy the working class, and it is the church’s duty to intervene.” He and Archbishop Roy of Quebec City and all the 17 bishops in the Province of Quebec thereupon directed all priests in their dioceses to read from the pulpit an appeal for aid to the strikers’ families and to take a collection at the church door each Sunday for the duration of the strike. From May 1 on these contributions provided strikers with most of their funds. The effect on morale was electric—the strike became a crusade.

Duplessis Turns the Screws

WHETHER intentionally or not, the bishops’ action brought the church into collision with the DuplessisxGovernment. Premier Duplessis

backed the employers against the workers from the start. He called the Catholic union leaders “saboteurs” and “subversive agents”; as Attorney-

General he ordered

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the arrest of 20 strike leaders on conspiracy charges and appointed lus special “labor judge” to try i liera. (He withdrew when the defense obtained a writ of prohibition.) The bishops' intervention was therefore a tacit rebuke, even defiance of t he government.

Premier Duplessis accepted it as such. He tried to got the Apostolic Delegate, Mgr. Antoniutti, to order the archbishops to withdraw (Mgr. Antoniutti gave him no comfort at all). This only deepened the mutual hostility between church and state in Quebec.

Up to now a major element of the Duplessis Government’s strength had been its friendly relations with the clergy. This open clash is a political time bomb of incalculable potency. If is no exaggeration to say that the whole Quebec picture political, social, economic has been affected by this obscure labor dispute in a remote industrial region.

The dispute itself is obscure even to many who have been taking an active part in it. Hen;, in bald outline, are the facts:

Canadian Johns-Manville Company, at Asbestos, was the main focus of the strike, but three out of four smaller companies at Thetford Mines, 80 miles to the northeast, were also down. It was recognized by both sides that Johns-Manville was the test case; any settlement there would lead almost automatically to settlement in Thetford Mines.

Even strikers admit that for the past 12 years Johns-Manville has been a fairly good employer; most outsiders would say it has been a good employer. Health conditions are incomparably better at Johns-Manville than anywhere elite in the Quebec asbestos industry. Wages have been f;cod, especially in the last year and a 'i ill the company voluntarily boosted its base rate from 58 to 85 cents an hour in January, 1948, and the average hourly rate when the strike broke out last February was $1.05. The company has a pension scheme, group life, health and accident insurance plans, free X-ray and diagnostic services in an up-to-date clinic, and other benefits.

the New Blood in the Union a no

Afrior to 1937. when workers staged a’vuort, bitter strike and ran an unpopular works manager out of town, these good relations did not exist. Wages were low and based on no regular scale some men say they got as little as 18 cents an hour, and harsh treatment to boot. Among some of the older men the remembered bitterness of the 1930’s is still alive.

More recently, though, Johns-Manville’s ordinary day-by-day contacts with its workers have lx*en easy and even cordial.

‘ It’s the best mine 1 ever worked in,” a striker who’d had 10 years' experience in other parts of Canada told me. Yet that man had been living on strike pay of $3 a week for nearly four months. He had no doubt at all that the strike was justified.

“We’re fighting for our union,” he said. “If we lose this strike the union is smashed, and then we’ll have no protection.”

Every strikt* leader, and all but one of the rank and file to whom I spoke in Asbestos, said the same thing in almost identical words. The bishops, too, saw in this strike a battle for the survival of tlu* whole Catholic labor movement indeed for the labor move-

ment itself. To understand how this came about you have to go back a few years.

Up to 1945 the Catholic Syndicates were a notably docile labor organization. They were more interested in fighting the international unions than in bargaining with employers. Local Syndicates were mostly under the thumb of old-fashioned parish priests with whom the wise employer took care to maintain cordial relations. There was a cynical saying in Quebec:

“Buy a bell for the parish church and you’ll never have any labor trouble.”

At Asbestos the late Father Castonguay, parish priest for nearly 50 years, was a close friend of Lewis H. Brown, chairman of tlu board of Canadian Johns-Manville. Mr. Brown kept a Quebec stenographer at New York expressly to translate letters to and fro n Father Castonguay.

Lay leadership of the Asbestos Syndicate was also friendly. One expresident of the local is now a foreman. Another, though he remained on strike on grounds of intimidation, was opposed to the walkout from the beginning and speaks of the company with enthusiasm.

The 376 syndicates in Quebec arc organized into the Canadian Confederation of Catholic Labor, which has 82,000 members. Up until 1945 the president of the CCCL was Alfred Charpentier, an ardent Duplessis man but not an aggressive unionist. That year Gerard Picard defeated him on a platform of militant action.

This was no mere turnover in union politics. It was a major triumph for the left wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec— a group of Catholics, lay and clerical, who believe it imperative that the church take more vigorous action for human welfare. They recall the words of Pius XI: “The great scandal of the 19th century was that the church lost the working class.” They Ixdieve the church must regain that support by taking its place at the working man’s side.

The old Syndicate policy, blessed by the church right wing, had been to segregate French-Canadian workers in closed “confessional” groups whose major aim was not better wages and working conditions, but exclusion of alien contamination as represented by the unions affiliated with the AF of L and the CIO. The new* policy was to work in friendly co-operation with the international unions, open Syndicate ranks to workers of any faith or language, and concentrate on improving their lot. These left-wing Catholics

(not to be confused with political leftists, which most of them are not) believe that the way to combat Communism is not fulmination, but better service to the worker than Communism can give.

Gerard Picard, leader of the new regime, is not at all the firebrand type. The jet propulsion of the new Syndicate program comes from Jean Marchand, the young secretary of the Confederation.

Marchand graduated in 1942 from Laval’s School of Social Sciences, a major source and inspiration of the new spirit among Quebec Roman Catholics, and he has been a labor organizer ever since. Within three weeks of taking his first job he organized a strike of pulp and paper workers. Soft-voiced and genial in private talk, Marchand is a passionate, fiery orator with tremendous power to sway a crowd—more power, it seems, than he sometimes realizes. He was a key figure in the Asbestos strike.

What Caused the Showdown

As tiestos didn’t feel the change in Syndicate policy at once. JohnsManville had bargained amiably for years with its local Syndicate officered by its own employees. It was less happy when locals in the Asbestos industry formed their own federation with a full-time president to act as business agent for the locals. JohnsManville found him a hard bargainer.

Last year relations between company and union deteriorated badly. They deadlocked over a minor grievance and took the matter to arbitration.

The company’s arbitrator was Yvan Sabourin, its legal adviser, who is also Quebec organizer for the Progressive Conservatives and a good friend of Premier Duplessis. The Duplessis Government named as chairman of the Arbitration Board a judge who, in the opinion of the union, was too friendly with Mr. Sabourin. When his judgment came down, accepting all the company’s contentions and none of the union's, the workers felt, the dice had been loaded against them.

Last, Christmas Eve negotiation began on a labor contract for 1949. The union demanded a wage increase of 15 cents an hour, nine holidays with full pay, several othei benefits of that kind. After the strike broke out the company awarded a 10-cent wage increase and four paid holidays to the nonstriking workers.

“If they’d offered us 10 cents at the bargaining table we’d have settled for it,” a union officer said. But according

to the union at was" afHfc (fUpa In any case, there were other” points of dispute. The union wanted the Rand Formula for union security—the compromise by which Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand settled the Ford :e in 1946. It provides that union shall be paid by all employees ^er they are union members or ¡¡ven had they wanted to, commrasent a lives could not have msèWted to this. It’s a matter of gfcflfipany policy, laid down by the Wlrnrd of directors in New York, to have nothing to do with anything that smacks however faintly of the closed shop.

The union wanted the company to pay three per cent of its gross payroll into a “social welfare fund.” The company refused; they already have a broad social insurant e program for employees, and they suspected the union of trying to build up a strike fund at their expense. Hon. Antonio Barrette, Quebec Minister of Labor, has since suggested a compromise— joint contributions by company and employees, and joint administration of the fund—which seems to be acceptable to both parties.

The union also asked to be informed in advance of all promotions, transfers or layoffs (other than dismissals for cause) and for the right to make representations in writing on these matters. They have this arrangement with some other companies in Quebec and say it works well in a situation where, owing in part to the presence of two racial groups in the working force, a promotion is often a delicate matter.

Johns-Manville regarded this demand as an unwarranted encroachment on the rights of management. The negotiations came to a deadlock. Early in February the union representative asked for arbitration and the company agreed; both sides named their arbitrators.

Since last year, though, the workers had been suspicious of arbitration— and even though they’d asked for it union leaders shared this suspicion. They wanted, if possible, to get a firm promise from the Quebec Minister of Labor that the chairman would be a man they regarded as fair.

Jean Marchand, the young firebrand of the Labor Confederation, laid the situation before a union mass meeting in a rousing and vehement speech.

At the end of it, when the workers were in a state of high excitement, : he told them the only course was arbitration.

“No,” workers yelled from the floor. “We’ll strike right now.”

Marchand begged: “Give me 48 hours—even 24 hours—to go to Quebec and see the Minister of Labor.” What he wanted was to go to Quebec with what amounted to a strike vote behind him to back his demand for the appointment of an acceptable chairman.

Unfortunately Marchand underestimated his own ability as a demagogue. He had fired the men all too well, and they wouldn’t listen to his appeal for delay; they walked out there and then, on a strike which was patently illegal. Union officers had no choice but to go along.

Violence for Violence

At the outset the strike was not disorderly, though there were isolated cases of violence. However, the union did throw up a mass picket line which prevented not only workers but company officials from entering the plant. Maintenance work was carried on under union orders; officials were unable to get in to see that their costly equipment was being properly looked after. The company entered a damage suit for $300,000, and took out an injunction to stop the picketing. Provincial police were sent in to enforce the injunction.

From then on, for two and a half months, the strike was a masterpiece of order and decorum. Under the guidance of Father Camirand, the strikers paraded daily to church.

But underneath this outward calm tempers were rising high. At the union meetings, one striker said, the men were getting more and more surly, more and more resentful of inaction. They didn’t so much mind the 277 old employees of Johns-Manville who returned to work, but when the company hired 234 outsiders from neighboring towns as permanent employees the strikers began to be frightened.

Early in May there was a rumor (groundless, so far as I could find out) that the company intended to hire a lot more strikebreakers and freeze out the strikers for good. Fear and frustration combined in an explosive compound—the strikers threw up road blocks to keep out the invading “scabs,” captured a small group of provincial police who had tried to break their way through it, and gave the policemen a bad beating. Of one officer the doctor who patched him up said:

“It’s a wonder they didn’t kill him.”

Next day the police returned in force, bent on revenge. They arrfested several hundred men and handed out some rough treatment. Some of the people “questioned” were so badly marked up that they never did have to appear in court—instead they were* told to get out of town.

Very unfortunately for the company, which had nothing to do with the tactics of the police, the companyowned Iroquois Hotel and a companyowned nurses’ home were used by the provincials as headquarters during the period of violence. This has served to fix indelibly in the minds of the strikers, and to some extent in the minds of the Quebec general public, the idea that the Duplessis Government, the provincial police and the Canadian Johns-Manville Company are all one enemy of the Asbestos worker.

Meanwhile, during April, there had been a development of major importance which got little or no publicity—

the strikers themselves were hardly aware of it. Bluntly, the union decided to surrender; they didn’t put it quite that way but that was what they meant.

All through the strike Syndicate leaders had no direct contact with the company. To the company and the Duplessis Government the strike was illegal and that was that; let the men go back to work unconditionally, and then they could talk. But early in April Archbishops Roy and Charbonneau returned from a visit to Rome. Both company and union sought their help as intermediaries.

To Archbishop Roy, union leaders said they were ready to ask the men to accept arbitration and go back to work—if they had some assurance that the arbitration chairman would be impartial. They also asked “the customary guarantees” that terminate an unsuccessful strike, namely a promise to re-employ strikers without discrimination, to recertify the union as bargaining agent, and to drop civil and criminal charges arising out of the strike.

The union wanted the “customary guarantees” in writing. When they came to draft that document they found the company had different ideas. It would guarantee re-employment only if “present employees”—i.e., the outsiders hired during the strike— were retained. About 200 strikers would find themselves jobless in Asbestos. Also, the company spokesmen would make no undertaking to drop the $300,000 damage suit.

Instead, they wanted it written into the agreement that strikers charged with criminal offenses would not be re-employed at present, and those found guilty should not be re-employed at all. The Government seemed to be equally insistent on this qualification. At that time only a few men were involved; since then, charges have

been laid against about 200 i" including all the Syndicate leaders.

The two Archbishops* had already conceived a lively suspicion of the

intentions of the Government and the company toward the labor movement. Premier Duplessis had recently published a new labor bill—not the one which had been very carefully worked out by the joint efforts of unions, syndicates, clergy and the Labor Ministry but a strongly antilabor stiitute which he appears to have written himself.

The company, for its part, made it clear that the Archbishops were expected to “order the strikers back to work.” A full-page advertisement, published by the company about this time, intimated that the Catholic Syndicates had been founded to combat radicalism and that it was the bishops’ duty to purge and curb them now. This company statement was deeply resented by the Archbishops, who regarded it as a challenge and a reflection of the church’s integrity.

Therefore, when the company and the Government appeared unwilling to offer suitable guarantees of re-employment to the strikers the bishops ordered the appeal for aid from the public.

Right Supports Left

The bishops did not then, and do not now, pass any judgment on the merits of the strike itself. But the offer to go back to work on the same terms as before seemed to them to lie reasonable.

Also, Catholic labor leaders told the archbishops frankly that if they were forced to utter capitulation in this strike they were through with the Catholic labor movement. Not only the rank and file, but the leadership as well, would join the CIO.

Archbishops Roy and Charbonneau

art' both young men, liberal in their general outlook, opposed to the extreme nationalism and “Chinese Wall” isolation favored by extremists of the Right. (Mgr. Roy was wartime padre of the Royal 22nd Regiment.) Their natural sympathies lav with the workers and with the new Syndicate leadership.

However, in this particular crisis the Catholic Right was also behind the strikers, though for different reasons.

Clergymen of the Right might deplore the new Syndicate leadership and its policy of including Protestants among its members, but they were no more anxious than the Left to see the Catholic labor movement wiped out.

Mr. Antonio Barrette, the Minister of Labor, has been a member of the International Association of Machinists for 32 years; in his eyes, the Syndicates’ demand for the Rand Formula was part of a scheme to get a virtual monopoly of Quebec labor. He regarded the Rand union security scheme as “a power of taxation.” Premier Duplessis, in the past, has often referred to labor militancy as an attempt to set up “a state within a state.” They both appear to have regarded the Asbestos strike as a test of strength with the Catholic unions, one which was bound to come sooner or later and which might as well be fought to a finish now.

Mr. Barrette did offer his services as a mediator twice in the early weeks of the strike, before the company had hired any outsiders or laid any charges. The offer was refused— the union was not yet ready to surrender. By the time the Minister was able to intervene there wasn’t much lie could do.

As for the company, its distrust of Syndicate leadership was even more profound.

The Strike Generals

Johns-Manville officials believe, quite sincerely, that the strike was organized and carried on by a small group of troublemakers, who intimidated a majority of loyal employees; that tlie troublemakers were not mere malcontents but sinister revolutionaries from the Social Credit Party of Quebec. Some of these Social Creditors, they further believe, are ex-followers of Adrien Arcand in the Quebec Fascist Party.

It is true that Armand Larivee, president of the local Syndicate, once hud some connection with the Arcand party. He denies he was ever an/ actual member; others recall distincti.' , that he was a member for a whale, but soon dropped out. The RCMP raided his house in 1940, when some other Arcand men were interned, but they found nothing much in Larivee’s possession and never bothered him again.

The man the company really dislikes is Rodolphe Hamel, president of the Federation of Asbestos Syndicates, who has been the local Syndicate’s representative in bargaining during the past year.

Hamel is a lean, intense man of 56 who worked more than 25 years for * Johns-Manville. He wears a wrist watch presented by Johns-Manville with the inscription “In Recognition of 25 Years of Faithful Service”—a company official explained that “those inscriptions are all alike, unfortunately.”

Hamel was an original member of the Social Credit Party in Asbestos— and it’s true that in Quebec Social Credit is a narrow, fanatical, nationalist group far different from its namesake in Alberta. But Hamel himself declares that, although he still believes in “the principles of Major Douglas,” he had

falling-out with Louis Even, the Quebec Social Credit leader, about five years ago.

I asked what his politic» are now and Hamel gave a wry grin.

“The last two elections I voted for Maurice Duplessis,” he said. “I w'as one of those who made that mistake.”

Company officials believe that the emotional motive power of the strike is French-Canadian nationalism of a radical, even revolutionary, type; that it’s rooted in hatred of the “English,” and that the real objective of the Syndicate is to take over management of the plant. 1 could find little evidence to support this view.

English-speaking Protestants who are members of the Asbestos Syndicate (there arc; about 20 who stayed with the strikers throughout) say emphatic-ally that they get the fairest and friendliest treatment from the Frenchspeaking Catholic majority. Rodolphe Hamel himself is a former FraneoAmerican who speaks fluent English with a New' England accent. Jean Marchand and Gerard Picard, leaders of the central Confederation of CatholicLabor and chief negotiators in the later weeks of the strike, are men who have fought for years for the principle of friendly co-operation with English Canadians generally and the international unions in particular, against the old exclusive policy of “French-Canadian Catholics only.”

It’s fair to add that in JohnsManville there isn’t as much to aggravate nationalist feeling as there is in some; companies. The engineers are mostly English-speaking (FrenchCanadian engineers are hard to find) but of 188 foremen and subforemen, only 43 are English Canadian and the rest French Canadian. Promotion is not denied to the French-Canadian worker.

Al union meetings speakers from time to time did denounce the “foreign ownership” of Johns-Manville. Rut their resentment against the American bosses seemed to be mainly against them as bosses, not as Americans. And their resentment of the Duplessis Government, which calls itself FrenchCanadian Nationalist, was even stronger.

Father Camirand, rather than any political group, was the real heart and spiritual power of the strike. A short, dark-skinned man of about 40, nearly bald now and beginning to put on weight, Father Camirand does not look like a crusader. But he speaks with a kind of restrained fire which, even when he is counseling moderation,

gives a strange power to his words. It was he, far more than the bishops, who made the Asbestos strikers feel they were fighting for their religion. As chaplain he has no power over the Syndicate—he is merely an adviser, and Syndicates have often ignored their chaplains’ advice. But in this case Father Camiiand’s support has been a key factor in maintaining the strikers’ morale. He had been through one big strike before, when he was chaplain of the Syndicates in Sherbrooke from 1934 to 1939; in Asbestos, where he was posted less thar a year ago, he has been on the men’s side and completely in their confidence throughout.

The Health Question

Quebec Catholics are far from unanimous in supporting the Asbestos strikers, despite the apparent unity of their bishops. Many a middle-class French Canadian has been gravely disturbed at the violence, the overtone of revolution, that marked the strike; he thinks Duplessis is right to beat it down with a strong hand. Some of the anticlericals, who are more numerous in Quebec than anybody admits, tend to be swung toward Duplessis by the Church’s interference at Asbestos.

Other anticlericals, paradoxically enough, are backing the church in this case with great enthusiasm. They supported the strike long before the bishops’ intervention, and they still do.

Some of the emotional fire among strike sympathizers is generated by a side issue—the health conditions in the asbestos industry. It can be stated as a fact, after very careful enquiry, that this is not a primary factor in the Johns-Manville strike. Much of what has been written on this topic is grossly misleading and very unfair to Johns-Manville.

Asbestos dust, inhaled over a period of years, does cause a serious lung disease called asbestosis. Asbestosis victims tend to die of heart failure in their middle 60’s. Unlike silicosis, with which it is often confused, asbestosis does not predispose to tubercular infection.

There are cases of asbestosis in Quebec—certainly among the 3,400 asbestos workers at Thetford Mines, and probably in the small mine at East Broughton, 27 miles farther northeast. But there are no cases of asbestosis among Johns-Manville workers at Asbestos; in 50 years only two cases have been certified as asbestosis.

East Broughton, where dust has killed trees hundreds of yards downwind from the plant, is the only Syndicate-organized mine in the region which did not go on strike.

Johns-Manville, where the strike is focused, has the best health record of any employer in the industry. Only 23 employees have contracted TB in the past 10 years; six of these are cured and back at work, two are dead, two are at home though still active cases, and the rest are in hospital.

Dust control in the Johns-Manville plant looks pretty good—the air looks almost as clear inside the plant as it does in the streets of East Broughton. The company has spent $1 million on the latest electronic methods of dust precipitation; it admits its equipment has lately been outgrown by increased production, but it intends to enlarge and improve it.

Strikers concede all this. They asked in their labor contract for an undertaking to “eliminate dust by all possible means,” but they know it can’t be eliminated entirely. They were surprised, they say, at the company’s refusal to accept that clause, for they admit quite frankly that all they ask of Johns-Manville is to go on with the dust-control program it has already.

Father Camirand, asked about health and dust conditions in the Asbestos plant, said, “I haven’t made much study of that question.” Union leaders, in general, were equally uninterested.

Health was not an issue in this strike. The issues were simple enough at the beginning—wages, working conditions, union security.

Only as it wore on, from the deadlock of February to the deadlock of April; only as it grew from a squabble over wages into a fight for survival of the Catholic labor movement, did the broader meaning of Asbestos develop. That’s what made it crucial.

What it will mean, in the long run, no one yet can say. Whether the settlement is regarded as a win or a defeat for the Syndicates, it’s by no means certain they can survive this long struggle.

Only one thing is clearly apparent: Whatever the long-term results of Asbestos, it has stirred Quebec labor like nothing that’s happened in years. For good or ill it has involved the Roman Catholic Church to an unheard-of degree. It may have been the death, it may have been a rebirth of the Catholic Syndicates. In any case the Quebec labor picture will never be quite the same again. ★