October 14, 1976 – The Saint John General Strike
By: Raymond Léger
After the Thanksgiving weekend, on October 13, 1975, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada appeared on television to announce that his government would bring wage and price control for all Canadian workers. On October 14, 1975 the Liberal government introduced Bill C-73 to the House of Commons in Ottawa. Far from controlling prices the program was controlling wages limiting increases to 8% the first year, 6% the second year, and 4% the third year. In addition the government would allow another 2% per year to deal with the increase in national productivity. In addition you could get an extra 2% if your group had fallen behind or you could get a reduction of 2% if you had done well in the previous years in relation to the consumer price index. The government set up what they called an Anti Inflation Board (AIB) chaired by former Liberal cabinet Minister, Jean-Luc Pépin to administer decisions on workers wages. The irony of this announcement was that Trudeau had campaigned in the 1974 election against the Progressive Conservative program of having wage and price control for a period of 18 months.
This was by far the most vicious attack on labour since the legalization of bargaining rights had taken place in Canada, after 1937. It meant that collective agreements that had been negotiated freely between unions and employers were torn apart if the wages negotiated were in excess of the guidelines. Wage settlements in major contracts across the country were averaging 14.3% in 1974 and 16.9% for 1975, before the AIB. At the same time inflation was averaging 10.6% for the same period. Workers had been making gains mainly because they had used strikes to get those substantial wage increases. While the government introduced legislation on October 14, 1975, the infamous act was only proclaimed on December 15, 1975. Because they wanted the wage control to apply to the public sector or each province the Federal government had to get approval from the provincial governments. Every province, including the one with the New Democratic Party in power approved of the measure. An agreement was signed with the province of New Brunswick on February 27, 1976. It took some time before the Anti Inflation Board (AIB) was functional and decisions by the AIB only started to roll in the year of 1976. But the Act was retroactive to October 14, 1975. For most workers, they had to wait for a decision from the AIB and then their wages were rolled back.
Members of local 30 of the Canadian Paper workers Union at the Irving Pulp and Paper in Saint John were amongst the first private sector workers in the country to be rolled back by the AIB. For the first year of their agreement they had negotiated a 23.8% increased. The AIB ordered that it be rolled back to 14.0% for a lost 9.8%. Workers had to reimburse the company 9.8% of their wage increase, retroactive to October 14, 1975. For the second year of the agreement they were rolled back to 11.0%. Not only this affected workers of local 30, but also, it did in fact reverse the pattern that the Canadian Paperworkers Union had negotiated for all the mills in eastern Canada. In March of 1976, workers at the Atlantic Sugar refinery had their wage increase of 14.0% reduced to 8.29% for a lost of 5.71% retroactive to September 1, 1975. It meant that most members of local 443 of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union of America had to pay back anywhere between $300.00 and $500.00 to the company for that period of time. Other locals in the Saint John area were soon to get the bad news from the AIB, because most workers were affected.
Because wage controls suspended free collective bargaining for all workers, labour organisations across the country reacted angrily at these unfair measures. For its part the Saint John District and Labour Council called a special meeting on February 5, 1976 to map a plan of action. The meeting was attended by 52 people representing 26 local unions from Saint John and chaired by the president of the Labour Council, George Vair. They decided to educate the membership on the nature of wage controls and to hold rallies and demonstrations in the City. A special committee was put together under the guidance of Larry Hanley of local 601 of the Canadian Paperworkers Union.
The Labour Council soon went to work, and a labour rally was held at the St-Malachy`s High School on March 28, 1976. Over 600 workers attended the event and heard from Shirley Carr executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Bob White, assistant director of the United Auto Workers, Richard Deaton, assistant director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Paul Lepage, president of New Brunswick Federation of Labour. The leader of the official opposition in New Brunswick Robert Higgins, who was in the audience but was not a guess speaker, was booed and heckled when he tried to defend his liberal cousins from Ottawa.
In May of 1976 the Canadian Labour Congress held its convention in Quebec City. The minds of the delegates were clearly focused on the wage control. They wanted action and the leadership was criticized for not mobilizing the workers enough in the fight against wage control. In the end a document called Labour`s Manifesto for Canada was adopted by the convention. It contained a bad policy on tripartism and a program of collaboration with governments and the employers at a time when the labour movement was under attack. The document had also a resolution that gave the “Congress through its Executive Council, a mandate to organize and conduct a general work stoppage, or stoppages, if and when necessary”. Following the convention, the executive of the Canadian Labour Congress decided that October 14, 1976, the first anniversary date of the wage control, would be the date for the Day of Protest.
Because it was called a day of protest and not a one-day general strike, many labour leaders across the country used this ambiguity to organize a protest, or demonstration, on October 14, 1976. Many of them were not prepared to put the work necessary to mobilize the entire labour movement and they left a very ambiguous message about the Day of Protest. But in Saint John the leadership of the District Labour Council decided to go for the real thing and pull as many workers as possible out of their workplaces on that day. The leaflets, the t-shirts, the material provided by the Canadian Labour Congress were put in the hands of workers to get them to understand the importance of the attack on labour and to mobilize for October 14. It is called education for action. In the last two months before the Saint John general strike, the Labour Council committee met with local leaders on a weekly basis to access the progress in the mobilization. When Prime Minister Trudeau came to town on September 22, 1976 a big crowd of labour activists greeted him. The business community started to see that the labour movement was serious about the General strike. The Saint John Board of Trade issued an open letter to the District Labour Council trying to discredit the action. Employers sent letters of threats and intimidation to the workers and the unions in the workplaces trying to discourage the movement.
On a rainy October 14, 1976, Saint John businesses and services were idle. All the big industries, the port, the stores, the public services were all down. Protesters gathered in East Saint John, in West Saint John and in the South End and they marched uptown and circled King square. They chanted slogans against the Liberal government and against the infamous wage control, before gathering at the foot of King in front of City Hall. There, they heard speeches from George Vair, President of the Saint John District Labour Council, Donald Montgomery, Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Paul Lepage, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. It was estimated that 5,000 people participated in the march in Saint John plus the ones that simply stayed home for the day and did not go to work. In total it was estimated that 12,000 workers were off work on that day in Saint John. Fred Hodges a past president of the Labour Council said that day: “that it was the best day of his labour life to see so many people in unity.” George Vair, the President of the District Labour Council described the day as “A tremendous success”.
A success it was. Never before or after have labour people in Saint John mobilized and demonstrated the power they have as workers. Saint John, along with Sudbury, Ontario, Sept Iles, Quebec and Thompson Manitoba were the only communities in Canada where the leadership of the labour movement had opted for a general strike. They had shown us the true meaning of labour solidarity.
Raymond Leger is a former research representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He has written a number of essays on labour history of New Brunswick. He is on the editorial board of the Journal Labour/Le Travail and is now retired and living in Fredericton.