In dubious battle

Montreal’s United Aircraft strike as a throwback to class warfare

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1975

In dubious battle

Montreal’s United Aircraft strike as a throwback to class warfare

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1975

In dubious battle

Montreal’s United Aircraft strike as a throwback to class warfare


A raw January wind whipped up the St. Lawrence river valley, rattled the empty shells of deserted Expo buildings and swept over the bank to batter at the angry mob of men assembled outside the locked plant gates of United Aircraft of Canada Limited. The men stamped their feet and flapped their arms against the cold, and glowered up at the silent factory behind the gates. They had been locked out, and they had gathered here, braving the cold and the bosses, to vent their rage and frustration in the bitter winter air. Someone produced a bolt cutter, to a chorus of cheers, and the sharp snap of a parting chain drew another cheer. The gate swung, then sagged, then buckled as the men poured in. Shouting and waving, they ran toward the factory’s main door. Suddenly, around one corner of the building appeared a photographer, who began snapping pictures of the onrushing men. “Company fink!” someone shouted; “Get him!” shouted someone else, and a knot of workers broke away from the main body and sped after the photographer. He turned and ran toward a nearby guardhouse, frantically snatched a fire axe oft' its bracket on the guardhouse wall, whirled and swung it at his pursuers. The blade bit deeply into the arm of one of the men; there was a gasp of pain, a strangled curse, then blood began to spatter the trampled snow. The United Aircraft strike was well and truly launched.

That bloody beginning came on January 7, 1974, and as I write this, the strike scuffles on, through the snow of another winter, longer than anyone thought possible. Of course, it will eventually wind down; the company and the union — local 510 of the United Auto Workers — will come to terms, or the provincial government will reluctantly impose arbitration, and it will be gradually forgotten by everyone except the men and women directly involved. But it should not be forgotten; it should go down in history with those other long, brutal Quebec strikes by the Asbestos workers in 1949, the Louiseville textile workers

in 1952, and the Murdochville copper miners in 1957.

The United Aircraft strike marks a strange throwback to the Stone Age of class warfare, when unions were fighting for simple survival, and strength in the back alley was more important than etiquette at the bargaining table. Company property was sabotaged by bombs, rifle bullets and arson; more than 100 cars were set afire; a TV cameraman was assaulted and his equipment wrecked; homes of supervisory personnel were vandalized; non-union employees who indicated they might cross the picket lines and return to work were threatened and intimidated. All of this was officially deplored by union spokesmen. But unofficially, in the beer halls, and around the kitchen tables of the men who have been living for months on $30 to $40 a week in strike pay, there is a different assessment: silent approval. Even though their sabotage attempts appeared to glance off the company like spears off an armored truck, they knew it was the violence that kept the strike in the headlines, that kept the pressure on. Every reporter who covered the affair was driven to ask, “Why are these men so desperate?” And the answers hurt the company, not the union.

The U.S. owners of United Aircraft went into this battle with an enormous advantage; when the going got rough they could, and did, simply shift a substantial share of the production across the border to a plant in East Hartford, Connecticut. The strike appeared to be directed from the U.S., the company’s intransigence turned on an American issue — it would not accept the compulsory checkoff of union dues, common in Canadian industry but not in its American plants — and insensitivity to the language issue, another of the strike’s raw wounds, stemmed from a kind of gunboat diplomacy few Canadian firms would have dared.

Although the federal government has poured $70 million (with another $13 million promised) in grants and steered $200 million worth of contracts into

United Aircraft, it appeared marvelously unperturbed when the company began to shift equipment —and jobs — into the U.S. The Quebec government appeared more aware of the seriousness of the strike; provincial Labor Minister Jean Cournoyer, never one to scant on hyperbole, called it “Quebec’s Vietnam.” Still, it was allowed to drag on for more than six months without intervention. Apparently, supplying grants and contracts to giant corporations is appropriate to governments; what happens to the money and the workers on whose behalf it is allegedly spent is a purely private matter.

UACL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Aircraft, an industrial complex based in East Hartford, Conn., which makes aircraft engines and other high-technology products on a huge scale. In the third quarter of 1974, profits of the parent company totaled $24.5 million on sales of $802.5 million, and you have to wonder, with that cash flow, why the company needed help from the Canadian taxpayer. Production is confined to North America, but its markets are worldwide, and its customers include the Shah of Iran and the People’s Republic of China. Although United’s technicians are at home with laser beams and fuel cells, and all the modern gadgetry of aircraft and space technology, its labor relations appear to belong to the early part of this century, when companies welcomed labor disputes as a convenient battleground for smashing unions.

Two months before the strike was launched, UACL management mounted closed-circuit television cameras at the plant gates to record picket-line skirmishes, and the contract negotiators knew then that a strike was inevitable. The union demanded wage increases of $1.25 an hour in a three-year contract, on top of a current average wage of $3.82; it also wanted a cost-of-living escalator clause, voluntary overtime, a

Brian Johnson is a former labor reporter for the Montreal Gazette.

voice in shift scheduling, the rehiring of André Choquette, a union official who had been fired, and the Rand formula of union security. In 1945, Mr. Justice Rand ruled in an arbitration that Ford of Canada had to collect union dues from all employees who benefited under company contracts, whether they belonged to the union or not; his formula became widely accepted. However, UACL, realizing that if this compulsory checkoff were granted in Canada its 60,000 unionized U.S. employees might want the same, flatly rejected the Rand formula.

The company’s attitude to the union demands was framed dramatically by the Canadian president, Thor Stephenson: “The problem now is that unions have too much power. It’s time someone took them on. They’re tough, and so are we.” The strike, says Stephenson, boils down to one issue: “Who is going to run the place — we or they? And no way are they going to run it.”

Negotiations broke off in mid-December, 1973, but even before that time UAW members had begun trench warfare inside the plant; there were sit-ins and slow-downs, threats and scuffles. Management suspended 21 militants for disturbing the peace and then, on the morning of January 7, simply locked the plant gates. Employees were told to come to work on a staggered timetable, and to submit to interviews as they entered; instead, they turned up en masse and stormed the place.

Within two days, the lockout became an official strike, and the union siege a prolonged skirmish. Every morning, the non-union office, technical, engineering and management employees — roughly 2,600 of them, about the same number as the unionized plant workers — would run the gauntlet at the plant gates and, once inside, would be herded to the complex machines and told to maintain some semblance of production or face suspension.

It was a great picket line for photographs. On a good day a car would be rolled, a windshield shattered and some aerials snapped off. The riot police would mill around like bears in their bulky winter gear. Shouts of “Scab!” and “Chien sale” would fill the air. The photographers would click away and the next day the French language tabs would announce; VIOLENCE À UNITED.

Soon, one quarter of the police force of Longueuil, the Montreal suburb where the plant sprawls, was occupied full-time in guarding the plant. Longueuil Mayor Marcel Robidas received a jolt when he discovered that the company was paying the municipality $804 a day for extra police protection, but Police Director Michel St. Jean saw no problem: “The company made us an offer. We asked them to put it in writing.

All the company’s strike strategy was laid down by the parent American firm

We figured we could provide the service they wanted.”

The rent-a-cop farce was one of a score of United Aircraft scandals that kept popping up in the Quebec media. Mild-mannered and duly constituted groups such as the Order of Engineers of Quebec were drawn into the dispute. The association doesn't usually dabble in labor matters, but when it learned that the company was attempting to turn out aircraft engines using professional engineers who were not trained to use the machines or work at a bench, it warned that this would result in a lower quality of work, endangering both the engineers and the people who would eventually fly in the planes.

UACL responded to the bad publicity and violence by staging a press conference in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where President Thor Stephenson offered the media a special treat — home movies. Video tape replays of picketline violence were followed by a little pep talk from Stephenson, which began with an unfortunate line — “I don’t speak French ... I guess I'm not intelligent enough.”

The reporter next to me muttered, “We don’t have to put up with this crap” and started to walk out, but others were soon on their feet, asking rude questions. “Mr. Stephenson,” barked a woman from Radio Canada, “how can you sit there and show us these films? Do you take us for idiots? Do you think we need to see these to know there's been violence? Don’t you think that having television cameras spying on the picketers might have something to do with their behavior?”

Stephenson was also asked about the company man who had swung an axe on the strike’s opening day; did he approve? He replied doggedly, “I think it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.”

Well, Stephenson doesn't have a broad background in labor relations. He’s a science man. The son of an Icelandic farmer who emigrated to Winnipeg, he spent his early career as an engineer experimenting with wind tunnels for the National Research Council in Ottawa, until Minister of Trade and Commerce C. D. Howe plucked him out of the NRC and made him assistant director of aircraft production in 1952, when he was 32. Later, he moved into the private sector and began his climb to the presidency of UACL.

Now 55, he is a strapping six-footthree, tough-talking man who likes to go skiing occasionally and prefers to raise

cattle on his 225-acre farm near the Vermont border rather than answer a lot of nosy questions from reporters. Although Stephenson was the visible fist for UACL, the strike was clearly directed from East Hartford. One company official, who has since left the firm, told me, “There was no Canadian presence whatsoever” when the strike strategy was laid down, and it was managed by Nathaniel B. Morse, vice-president of industrial relations for the parent firm, who spent most of last winter in Montreal’s Chateau Champlain Hotel. Morse (Cook to his friends) aroused a certain amount of resentment among the Canadian executives, both for his insensitivity on such local issues as the language question and his habit, on occasion, of running off to the United States with the company executive jet.

His strategy, once battle was joined, was simple — roll out the red carpet; beg the strikers to rejoin the assembly line; besiege their homes with letters, calls and personal visits from supervisors. The letters, signed by Stephenson, were gems. Strikers were urged to abandon a union run by “storm troopers” and pay no heed to “imported demagogues,” a reference — and an' ironic one, coming from a U.S. firm —to such Montreal labor leaders as Michel Chartrand.

The come-home campaign was to swell to a climax in a public meeting on February 22, when the rank-and-file would be invited to prolong or end the strike. For a week before that meeting, the company placed full-page ads in the Montreal newspapers warning of the doom that would follow a decision to continue the dispute; the company was losing contracts, the energy crisis meant that airplanes were going out of style, hundreds of jobs were in danger.

“Just another scare tactic in the company’s psychological warfare,” said Jean-Marie Gonthier. the strikers’ chief spokesman (that was a stock response from Gonthier; management could burn the plant to the ground and there would be Gonthier, knee-deep in ashes, denouncing another scare tactic). In his view, “This is not a strike, it’s a war,” and if the union showed the slightest weakness the workers would buckle, as they did after seven weeks in 1967.

This time no one buckled; the decision to continue striking was supported by 80% of those present — about the same as the original strike vote. It was a raucous, triumphant assembly, more like a premature victory celebration than a union meeting. Gonthier and

United Aircraft refused to consider the Rand formula: “Why should union officers sit on their asses while we collect dues?”

the band of yellow-jacketed UAW leaders were cheered as heroes by a throng that obviously approved a fight to the finish. Many of them wore stickers saying HOLD ON FOR ONE MINUTE MORE, a slogan that emerged from a successful 10-month strike against Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. of Canada in 1973.

After the vote, the strikers sat back and waited for the “minute” to expire. Surely the company would cave in; at least there would be some new offer. There was none. Stephenson had his own interpretation. “Obviously,” he said, “the union was successful in pressuring the employees through a campaign of misrepresentation.”

A strike, after all, is neither a debate nor a popularity contest, but a crude test of strength, and the company was determined to sit it out until the union crumbled. So the battle dragged on, week after week, month after month. Workers began to drift off, to other jobs, rather than try to survive on strike pay (“What do you eat on $40 a week?” I asked one striker. “Sardines. We use the bones for soup. Great soup.”) Occasional botched acts of sabotage kept the dispute in the news, as when, on the night of August 22, six bombs exploded at the plant, knocking out power lines and slightly injuring a guard.

By fall, the company’s patience was paying off. About 1,200 strikers, most of them unspecialized workers with little seniority, had returned to their jobs. Morse confidently declared that management had “won the game.”

But the game wasn’t over, and the political scandal was just beginning to bubble over the $83 million in government grants given and promised to UACL to research and develop engines, engines that were now being built in the U.S. About 500 tons of unfinished engines and precision tools had rolled across the border to East Har ford. The company had temporarily switched 40% of its engine production to the U.S. In the House of Commons, NDP parliamentary leader Ed Broadbent wanted to know if UACL had violated the terms of its government deal. Industry Minister Alastair Gillespie said he didn’t know. “I think the important thing here is to try and stabilize what is a very difficult situation in Longueuil,” he said. “I think the second point is to ensure that Canadian government rights are fully secured in this situation and the third thing ... is to ensure that the customers of this company are served . . .”

But had the company broken its contract? “I don’t know,” said Gillespie.

In past years, the federal government has become increasingly involved in efforts to shore up Canada’s sagging aircraft industry, and Prime Minister Trudeau sent a ripple of hope through the strikers when he told newsmen that the government would consider the logical next step — nationalizing UACL. But, within a week, he had backed down; all he had promised was a study, he said, nothing to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, in Quebec, the Parti Québécois jumped on another aspect of the dispute with a demand that the provincial government make the union demand for the Rand formula part of the

labor code, but, although Labor Minister Cournoyer indicated that he personally approved of the formula — “How could I be opposed? My own public employees have it in their contract” — nothing happened.

When the province appointed a freelance arbitrator, Pierre Dufresne, to investigate the dispute, he reported that the company remained “intransigent” on the issue of union security. As UACL’s Stephenson saw it, “Why should union officers sit on their asses in their offices while we collect the dues?”

Dufresne came to a stark conclusion: no negotiated or mediated settlement of the strike was possible. After a 6 a.m. union meeting in which they were told Dufresne’s findings, the strikers thought it was worth a bonfire, and five cars were overturned and burned outside the plant. About 1,400 strikers were still off the job, and showed no signs of caving in. Louis Laberge, president of the 300,000-member Quebec Federation of Labor, called for a take-over of the factory by the workers if the province didn’t intervene. Labor Minister Cournoyer kept saying that he didn’t want to meddle in the process of “free negotiations,” but public pressure left him little

choice. He set up a parliamentary committee to hear both sides in the strike; it discovered that they were further apart than ever before. Under the threat of intervention, the union and management sat down once more, but, late in November, broke off talks in an atmosphere of bitterness and frustration.

Cournoyer was left to draw up his own proposal for a collective agreement and present it to both sides in a final desperate attempt to find a settlement.

“Here I am, always doing the dirtiest jobs in the government,” he muttered as I sat in his office one afternoon watching him wearily sift through a pile of documents on his desk. “I practically have to tell them whether the thing should be on 11-inch or 14-inch paper. You see how I’m going to spend my weekend? Writing out this damned contract . . . longhand. If I don’t do it myself, they [the parties] just aren’t interested.”

While the politicians were finally being forced into action, the strikers, those that were left, had turned the conflict into a way of life. “There’s one thing the company never anticipated in dragging the strike on so long,” says union militant André Choquette, “that the guys would get to know each other.”

Choquette sits at a tavern table with half a dozen buddies. He is a special case; he has been charged with sabotage, assault and agitation, and his firing is one of the issues blocking settlement.

“The way the plant was run,” he says, “you never met anyone. You just sat in your corner. Now we know who’s who, and when we get back inside we’ll be organized. Look, I’ve got eight years’ experience at United. How many years have you got, Marcel? Sixteen? Marcel’s got 16. Jean here’s got 25. The guys who are returning to work are rookies. They’re in there ass-licking. But when we get back, if they want to lick asses, they’ll be licking our asses.”

Whatever happened, I wondered, to the guy who got slashed by the axe on opening day?

“Oh, Fougere, Ronald Fougere. He was going to scab,” says Marcel with a smile. “Yup, he was going to scab ... but we talked to him, and in the end he found another job.”

I phoned Fougere. “United Aircraft? I don’t want to talk about it. I tell you. I’m fed up with it.” No, he doesn’t think his attacker was ever prosecuted; yes, he’s still waiting for compensation. No, he won't ever go back there, and he’s found a nice steady job at Rolls-Royce for $4.68 an hour thank you very much good-bye click, ç?