Introduction

The 1952 strike at Dupuis Frères threatened longstanding company loyalty among the staff and patrons alike. Although most disruption was experienced at the store on St. Catherine Street, mail-order staff was also affected. It took three months for the strike to be resolved.

At midnight May 2, 1952, the employees of Dupuis Frères, a large Montréal department store with a significant mail-order catalogue operation, went on strike. The strike was to last about three months. The story of this strike is an important chapter in Canadian and Québec labour history.

About 1200 workers were involved in the strike. Most of the staff worked in the store on St. Catherine Street, but two to three hundred worked in mail order at the company warehouse in Saint-Henri. At both locations, most of the workers were women, who showed a strong sense of commitment to the union. This was a relatively new development in the history of the company that, since the founding of the employees association in 1919, had never experienced a serious labour dispute, let alone a formal collective agreement. Read More
Introduction

The 1952 strike at Dupuis Frères threatened longstanding company loyalty among the staff and patrons alike. Although most disruption was experienced at the store on St. Catherine Street, mail-order staff was also affected. It took three months for the strike to be resolved.

At midnight May 2, 1952, the employees of Dupuis Frères, a large Montréal department store with a significant mail-order catalogue operation, went on strike. The strike was to last about three months. The story of this strike is an important chapter in Canadian and Québec labour history.

About 1200 workers were involved in the strike. Most of the staff worked in the store on St. Catherine Street, but two to three hundred worked in mail order at the company warehouse in Saint-Henri. At both locations, most of the workers were women, who showed a strong sense of commitment to the union. This was a relatively new development in the history of the company that, since the founding of the employees association in 1919, had never experienced a serious labour dispute, let alone a formal collective agreement. The new spirit of union militancy was a reflection of the post-war era as well as changes within Dupuis Frères itself.

The Changing Historical Context in Quebec

The period immediately following the end of the Second World War was one of turmoil on the labour front. A series of dramatic strikes saw unions in battle with management in the asbestos industry (1949); at the textile mills in Louiseville (1952-53); at Shawinigan (early 1950s); and, in the copper town of Murdochville (1957). In every case, the employer was the primary target, but there was a second intended target: Maurice Duplessis, the conservative premier of Quebec from 1944 to 1959.

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the Confédération des Travailleurs Catholiques du Canada (CTCC) turned the tables on its adversaries by redefining the social meaning of Catholicism. Catholic unionism had been defined as a means of tempering relations between employees and employers, the haves, and the have-nots. Now the emphasis was upon justice for the working person.

Justice is what the union was after in the case of Dupuis Frères, where CTCC represented its employees. Strike leaders such as Jean Marchand, CTCC Secretary General, did not fail to point the finger at Dupuis Frères, which, on the one hand, presented itself as a religious and nationalist symbol of French Canada, while denying justice to the CTCC. Shortly after the strike was called, Henri Pichette, the CTCC Chaplain, spoke these encouraging words to Dupuis Frères strikers: "Your strike is your union and christian cross to bear. Carry it valiantly no matter the cost. "

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour painting of Talking Union by Frederick V, Taylor

Frederick B. Taylor, Talking Union, 1950

Photo : Marilyn Aitken.

Oil on canvas
MBA 1971.21
© Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of the artist


A combative brand of Catholic unionism was one element of change. Another lay in the way the company did business and advertised its presence. The Montréal store was entirely rebuilt and enlarged during the late 1940s. An in-store radio broadcasting service was installed. New advertising gimmicks were introduced, such as the 9.75-metre [32-foot] helium balloons sporting the giant Dupuis logo floated from the roof of the store, and the orchestrated arrival of Santa Claus by helicopter accompanied by his six elves, little people recruited for the event.

The new management philosophy was brought to Dupuis Frères by Roland Chagnon, a graduate of Montréal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales. Chagnon wanted to modernize and streamline the business and was willing to fire hundreds of employees to achieve his goal.

In October 1950, Dupuis Frères employees approached the provincial Commission of Labour Relations, with a view to establishing a union as their exclusive legal collective bargaining agent. Their intention was to introduce a formal labour-relations process, which would defend the employees' interests in light of management's intention to change the rules Read More
A combative brand of Catholic unionism was one element of change. Another lay in the way the company did business and advertised its presence. The Montréal store was entirely rebuilt and enlarged during the late 1940s. An in-store radio broadcasting service was installed. New advertising gimmicks were introduced, such as the 9.75-metre [32-foot] helium balloons sporting the giant Dupuis logo floated from the roof of the store, and the orchestrated arrival of Santa Claus by helicopter accompanied by his six elves, little people recruited for the event.

The new management philosophy was brought to Dupuis Frères by Roland Chagnon, a graduate of Montréal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales. Chagnon wanted to modernize and streamline the business and was willing to fire hundreds of employees to achieve his goal.

In October 1950, Dupuis Frères employees approached the provincial Commission of Labour Relations, with a view to establishing a union as their exclusive legal collective bargaining agent. Their intention was to introduce a formal labour-relations process, which would defend the employees' interests in light of management's intention to change the rules of the game.

The minutes of union executive meetings show a gradual distancing between employers and employees. As a rule, the local executive met at the store on St. Catherine Street. In October 1950, all books and archives were moved to a CTCC building on de Montigny Street. Several weeks later, the entire union executive paid a courtesy visit to the management, where they were received with open arms and assured of the company's utmost co-operation. When asked by one of the company officials what the union's attitude would be following its official recognition, the union replied that it would proceed to negotiate a collective agreement.

Despite the good feeling on both sides, the union and the company were preparing to do battle with one another. In January 1951, the union was officially accredited by Quebec provincial authorities. In March, a draft collective agreement was submitted to the company. The company responded with a proposal to divide the staff in two and offered separate agreements to store workers and mail-order workers. Thereafter, negotiations bogged down for about a year. Management hesitated to accept the union's demand for a closed shop.

In late April 1952, the union submitted a second draft agreement, which management rejected. A series of five marathon negotiating sessions was conducted on April 30 and May 1. Finally, on May 1, exasperated with the lack of progress, the employees voted in favour of strike action.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of Roland Chagnon

Roland Chagon trained at Montreal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales and was a former director of the Syndicat department store. Chagnon came to Dupuis Frères as the Secretary Treasurer in 1947. Eventually he was appointed store manager upon the departure of L.-J. Dugal in 1950.

Le Duprex, vol. 13, no 4, June 1947, p. 135.

P049
© Archives-HEC Montréal, Fonds Dupuis Frères Limitée


The Strike Breaks Out

On May 2, the first day of the strike, when the store opened for business more than 1000 people, including 100 strikers, charged through the front doors within about 5 minutes. If the union thought it was a going to catch the company off guard it was dead wrong. From 50 to 200 private detectives were on hand to help keep order. City police remained on the outside - some on horseback - and had orders to disperse groups of 10 or more.

Raymond Dupuis arrived on the scene just before midnight to help direct operations. He was joined by several dozen fellow executives, company managers, and non-union staff. Buses were provided for non-union staff to help them get safely to and from the store. An underground tunnel was used to transport staff and merchandise to and from a nearby warehouse.

Management Fights Back

Management was determined to keep the store open at all costs and so customers willing to cross the picket lines were offered a 20-per-cent discount. An estimated 50 000 bargain-seekers shopped at Dupuis on t Read More
The Strike Breaks Out

On May 2, the first day of the strike, when the store opened for business more than 1000 people, including 100 strikers, charged through the front doors within about 5 minutes. If the union thought it was a going to catch the company off guard it was dead wrong. From 50 to 200 private detectives were on hand to help keep order. City police remained on the outside - some on horseback - and had orders to disperse groups of 10 or more.

Raymond Dupuis arrived on the scene just before midnight to help direct operations. He was joined by several dozen fellow executives, company managers, and non-union staff. Buses were provided for non-union staff to help them get safely to and from the store. An underground tunnel was used to transport staff and merchandise to and from a nearby warehouse.

Management Fights Back

Management was determined to keep the store open at all costs and so customers willing to cross the picket lines were offered a 20-per-cent discount. An estimated 50 000 bargain-seekers shopped at Dupuis on the second day of the strike. Full-page ads were placed in the Star and in La Presse. Self-serve, i.e., labour-saving, shopping was introduced. It set, according to Dupuis, a new standard in retailing among department stores.

Self-serve was all well and good, but Dupuis still needed a minimum number of clerks on the job each and every day. Striking employees were encouraged by telephone to come to work. University students at the École des Hautes Études Commericales were recruited on a part-time basis. The company even advertised for store clerks over the store loudspeaker during opening hours.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of the First day of the strike

First day of the strike: picket line outside Dupuis Frères, St. Catherine Street, Montréal.

Editorial Associates Ltd., Archives-HEC Montréal, Fonds de Dupuis Frères Limitée

P049/X99,001
© Editorial Associates Ltd., Archives-HEC Montréal, Fonds de Dupuis Frères Limitée


It was difficult to pick a winner early in the strike. The union made it difficult, if not embarrassing, for workers and customers to enter the store. A young woman was arrested for haranguing and spitting on passersby, who were presumably trying to enter the store. Two adolescents were arrested for distributing stickers in favour of the strike. Walls and windows in the area were plastered with hundreds of the stickers.

Both sides appealed to the public in the mass media. On day three of the strike, May 4, Gérard Picard, the president of the CTCC, appeared on the radio giving his version of events. Newspaper columns were replete with press releases and statements giving the management and the union sides of the story. Newspapers were used by both sides to float rumours that could hurt the other: Communists were agitating on the picket line. The company was offering $20 to workers who returned to their jobs. Dupuis was preparing to sell out to American interests.
It was difficult to pick a winner early in the strike. The union made it difficult, if not embarrassing, for workers and customers to enter the store. A young woman was arrested for haranguing and spitting on passersby, who were presumably trying to enter the store. Two adolescents were arrested for distributing stickers in favour of the strike. Walls and windows in the area were plastered with hundreds of the stickers.

Both sides appealed to the public in the mass media. On day three of the strike, May 4, Gérard Picard, the president of the CTCC, appeared on the radio giving his version of events. Newspaper columns were replete with press releases and statements giving the management and the union sides of the story. Newspapers were used by both sides to float rumours that could hurt the other: Communists were agitating on the picket line. The company was offering $20 to workers who returned to their jobs. Dupuis was preparing to sell out to American interests.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Until May 9, the company was relatively successful in attracting customers to the store with its discount policy. However, this changed as union-management exchanges took an aggressive turn.

A young union agitator named Michel Chartrand hit upon the strategy of letting loose some white mice in the women's lingerie section. As the mice began to run about the store to the sound of exploding firecrackers, pandemonium ensued. Order was restored with difficulty.

Company detectives and police, detained and, in some cases, roughed up reporters on the scene. One had to promise he would voluntarily turn over his photo negatives. Another had his notebooks confiscated, was escorted to the door, and advised: "Leave and don't come back." The following day, a group of strikers again managed to get inside the store where they paraded and shouted slogans. One demonstrator was hit on the neck. Women who witnessed the scene began to scream and the police had to intervene.

Outside on the picket line, matters heated up when a garage foreman with Dupuis Frères attempted to run down strikers with a car and later attacked them with a chain. On May 14, strikers Read More
Until May 9, the company was relatively successful in attracting customers to the store with its discount policy. However, this changed as union-management exchanges took an aggressive turn.

A young union agitator named Michel Chartrand hit upon the strategy of letting loose some white mice in the women's lingerie section. As the mice began to run about the store to the sound of exploding firecrackers, pandemonium ensued. Order was restored with difficulty.

Company detectives and police, detained and, in some cases, roughed up reporters on the scene. One had to promise he would voluntarily turn over his photo negatives. Another had his notebooks confiscated, was escorted to the door, and advised: "Leave and don't come back." The following day, a group of strikers again managed to get inside the store where they paraded and shouted slogans. One demonstrator was hit on the neck. Women who witnessed the scene began to scream and the police had to intervene.

Outside on the picket line, matters heated up when a garage foreman with Dupuis Frères attempted to run down strikers with a car and later attacked them with a chain. On May 14, strikers got into the store again where they released bees and frogs. Nine arrests were made. Two days later, the first stink bombs were set off inside. A melee broke out at the main entrance involving demonstrators, detectives, and police. Strikers refused to back off and a woman broke out in tears.

Later that same day, a crowd gathered outside at 10:30 p.m. to try to delay the departure of personnel after the store closed down. They threw stones at the buses that arrived to pick up Dupuis employees. Two hundred police were on hand, some on horseback. Traffic backed up on St. Catherine Street and a crowd of curious onlookers gathered to witness the events. These gatherings became regular evening occurrences. The crowd was still in the street in early June when arrests were made on both sides of the picket line.

On May 19, police authorities informed the press that they recognized a number of communists in the crowd outside the store. The next day, the company issued a communiqué expressing its concern about the presence of communists among the lawyers and journalists working with the CTCC. A few days later, the president of the CTCC accused Dupuis of using Soviet methods in its handling of the strike. Red-baiting was integral to the communication strategy on both sides of the picket line. The cold war was in full swing.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of stikers watching a bus of non-striking workers

Strikers look on as a bus of non-striking workers from Dupuis Frères passes by.

Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3

© Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3


Fighting in the Courts

The wrestling match eventually moved to the courts. On May 14, the union began distributing a pamphlet, "Pourquoi nous sommes en gréve" [Why we are on strike]. The next day, Dupuis Frères filed suit for an injunction against the CTCC affiliate that had published the pamphlet. The pamphlet, management alleged, was both libellous and defamatory. Dupuis took particular exception to the assertion that prices has been marked up by 20 per cent prior to the announcement of the special 20 per cent discount shortly after the outbreak of the strike.

A second court injunction was sought a few days later. The union was reproached for its campaign of slander and libel. Individual agitators were singled out and the company sought to outlaw further intimidation, disorder, verbal attacks, and demonstrations. The injunction specifically mentions damage to windows, padlocks, and intimidation near the front entrance at the comptoir postal in Saint-Henri. This was an indication that the strike was affecting the mail-order building as well. If, by this injunction, Dupuis was trying to dissolve the union's st Read More
Fighting in the Courts

The wrestling match eventually moved to the courts. On May 14, the union began distributing a pamphlet, "Pourquoi nous sommes en gréve" [Why we are on strike]. The next day, Dupuis Frères filed suit for an injunction against the CTCC affiliate that had published the pamphlet. The pamphlet, management alleged, was both libellous and defamatory. Dupuis took particular exception to the assertion that prices has been marked up by 20 per cent prior to the announcement of the special 20 per cent discount shortly after the outbreak of the strike.

A second court injunction was sought a few days later. The union was reproached for its campaign of slander and libel. Individual agitators were singled out and the company sought to outlaw further intimidation, disorder, verbal attacks, and demonstrations. The injunction specifically mentions damage to windows, padlocks, and intimidation near the front entrance at the comptoir postal in Saint-Henri. This was an indication that the strike was affecting the mail-order building as well. If, by this injunction, Dupuis was trying to dissolve the union's strategy of encirclement, there was an implicit recognition that the picket lines were having an effect.

The court ruled temporarily in favour of the company, but eventually ruled that the union's methods were within the limits of the law. With court proceedings in full swing, the union worked to broaden the base of popular support.

Support Arrives from the Union Movement

In May, the Transport Drivers Union, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, the Quebec Federation of Labour, and the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees all weighed in on the side of the strikers. The Montreal Central Council of the CTCC asked sympathetic municipal councillors to enquire into the incidence of police brutality. The CTCC even approached the president of the National Boxing Association to dissuade star athlete Joe Louis from making a scheduled public appearance inside the Dupuis store. Louis never did show up.

On May 30, a mass meeting was held at the Palais de Commerce. A telegram of support from Eaton's employees union in Toronto was read out. Gérard Picard, CTCC president, promised the strike would go on until victory was achieved. Jean Marchand told the 5000 in attendance that the large merchants of 1952 were conducting themselves as if they were feudal seigneurs exploiting their peasants. Speakers encouraged the crowd to continue boycotting Dupuis Frères.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of strikers

The sign says, "Our strike is legal."

Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3

© Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3


Between June 10 and July 21, the strike entered its third phase. Relations between police, strikers, and management degenerated. A Dupuis truck was overturned. On June 11, a store window was broken, a melee broke out, and a force of 50 police officers was brought in. Thirteen arrests were made the evening of the 13th after the picketers smashed a store window and rained firecrackers on the non-striking employees boarding the buses that were to take them home. The police even made arrests when picketers began to sing and chant too loudly.

On June 16, two large store windows were shattered. Four days later, three more windows were smashed. Two arrests were made among the picketers for disturbing the peace. A man trotted down St. Catherine Street on his horse to the amusement of all, offering a provocative parody of Montreal's mounted police. "La grève c'est la guerre," [The strike is war] commented Gérard Picard, not inaccurately, in La Presse.

Another mass meeting was held on June 19. Liberal MPP Dave Rochon argued for a continuation of the boycott against Dupuis. City councillor Lucien Croteau exclaimed that never before had there been such an era o Read More
Between June 10 and July 21, the strike entered its third phase. Relations between police, strikers, and management degenerated. A Dupuis truck was overturned. On June 11, a store window was broken, a melee broke out, and a force of 50 police officers was brought in. Thirteen arrests were made the evening of the 13th after the picketers smashed a store window and rained firecrackers on the non-striking employees boarding the buses that were to take them home. The police even made arrests when picketers began to sing and chant too loudly.

On June 16, two large store windows were shattered. Four days later, three more windows were smashed. Two arrests were made among the picketers for disturbing the peace. A man trotted down St. Catherine Street on his horse to the amusement of all, offering a provocative parody of Montreal's mounted police. "La grève c'est la guerre," [The strike is war] commented Gérard Picard, not inaccurately, in La Presse.

Another mass meeting was held on June 19. Liberal MPP Dave Rochon argued for a continuation of the boycott against Dupuis. City councillor Lucien Croteau exclaimed that never before had there been such an era of liberty and freedom of expression in Montréal.

Strike momentum burst back onto the streets during the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade on June 24. Close to a million spectators attended the parade, among them Dupuis strikers. A group of 20 women filed past the Archbishop of Montréal and told him, "The strikers of Dupuis Frères honour you, Monseigneur." Other groups of strikers were less polite. Mayor Camilien Houde was pelted with rotten eggs.

In Quebec labour strife, the summer of 1952 was a hot one. There were six strikes going on at the time. The provincial government was under pressure and may have persuaded Dupuis to return to the bargaining table, which it did. Negotiations continued until July 2, when again a stalemate ensued. The report in the Star put it thus: "The company said it was unable to give an increase or back pay. They did not offer a cent. And that settled that. They put on their hats and walked out."

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of Sympathizers

Small crowd of strikers and sympathizers at the corner of St. Catherine and Parthenais Streets. Food and cola were available at Louis' restaurant. The tavern next door also provided victuals. The union ran a canteen nearby on a shoestring budget of $50 a day for some 900 strikers.

Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3

© Archives CSN, Montréal, 30.1.3


Dupuis Decides to Negotiate

A few days later, on July 8, Raymond Dupuis received a letter from a partner in the industrial relations firm of Hurteau and Desmarais. Hurteau advised Dupuis to be more flexible with the strikers, to show more, rather than less, generosity of spirit. Dupuis was reminded that a recent strike at National Breweries resulted in a hollow victory for the management; following the close of the strike in which the union was defeated, the company experienced a drop-off in popularity and sales. Dupuis could expect the same negative attitude from its clientele. Furthermore, Dupuis had to strike a deal that was acceptable to the union membership. After the strike was over, Hurteau believed Dupuis could overhaul the entire structure of communication within the company. Management and the union could then learn how to get along with one another once again.

The Strike Ends

Something or someone had to give and this is precisely what happened on July 20 when Dupuis made changes to top personnel. Roland Chagnon was fired and Émile B Read More
Dupuis Decides to Negotiate

A few days later, on July 8, Raymond Dupuis received a letter from a partner in the industrial relations firm of Hurteau and Desmarais. Hurteau advised Dupuis to be more flexible with the strikers, to show more, rather than less, generosity of spirit. Dupuis was reminded that a recent strike at National Breweries resulted in a hollow victory for the management; following the close of the strike in which the union was defeated, the company experienced a drop-off in popularity and sales. Dupuis could expect the same negative attitude from its clientele. Furthermore, Dupuis had to strike a deal that was acceptable to the union membership. After the strike was over, Hurteau believed Dupuis could overhaul the entire structure of communication within the company. Management and the union could then learn how to get along with one another once again.

The Strike Ends

Something or someone had to give and this is precisely what happened on July 20 when Dupuis made changes to top personnel. Roland Chagnon was fired and Émile Boucher, a popular man with the staff, was given back his old job. A new collective agreement was worked out with the union within a few days.

The strike was officially ended at an assembly of 900 strikers on Saturday, July 26. The assembly warmly received Raymond Dupuis who stated, "After so many weeks of sorrowful separation, the house of Dupuis would be most happy to welcome you back Monday morning."

The strike was over, the hatchets were buried. The union and management were no longer at war. Dupuis employees could return to work. The store and the mail-order enterprise of Dupuis Frères could again devote itself fully to the satisfaction of its French-Canadian customer base. And, meanwhile, the rest of French Canada could go about the business of quietly transforming its view of the world and the shape of things to come.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of Raymond Dupuis and Gérard Picard

Note the large number of women workers. Below, a solid and satisfied handshake featuring union president Gérard Picard on the left and Raymond Dupuis (the owner) on the right.

Archives-HEC Montréal, Fonds Dupuis Frères Limitée

© Archives-HEC Montréal, Fonds Dupuis Frères Limitée


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • observe and identify the characteristics of early 20th century lifestyle;
  • compare the evolution of the Canadian and Quebec society over several decades;
  • explain the similarities and differences between past and present society;
  • discuss the main events of the 20th century (economic crisis, World Wars, unionization, feminist movement) and the impact that they had on Canadian and Quebec societies.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans