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André Frappier’s journey as a class struggle militant

Canadian PoliticsSocial MovementsSocialism

CD columnist André Frappier has been active in various labour unions over the past 30 years, including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Greater Montreal FTQ Regional Council. Photo by Louis-Philippe Cusson/Le Mouton Noir.

I first met André Frappier in the late 1970s, when we were members of the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue ouvrière révolutionnaire, a pan-Canadian Marxist cadre organization. When the league decided to hoist its banner in the 1980 federal election campaign, André—already well-known as a union militant—was chosen as our candidate in a downtown Montréal riding.

Along with many others, André and I parted company with the RWL/LOR soon afterward. For André, this was by no means the end of his political activism, quite the contrary, as this recent interview by Pierre Beaudet shows. It was published in the current issue of Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme under the title “À contre-courant : André Frappier, toujours présent.”

Richard Fidler

André Frappier became an activist in the 1970s, in the student movements. He was then hired at Canada Post, where for several decades he became one of the pillars of the combative Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Later, André became an active member of Québec solidaire (QS) which he sees as a potential tool for our emancipation.

From the CEGEP, where you had your first activist experience, you went on to the post office?

I spent a good part of my time as a CEGEP student in activism, especially in solidarity with Chile, then at the heart of the political debates. It was fascinating to watch an attempt to transition to socialism without revolution, which contradicted what we were learning from Marxism. Finally, the coup d’état in 1973 put an end to the experiment, reminding us that the capitalist class does not allow itself to be controlled so easily. On May 1, 1974, several of us in the Québec-Chile student solidarity committee occupied the Chilean consulate. We were all arrested, and I spent a night in a cell. My political vision was to deepen after that, as internationalism is decisive in the fight for an egalitarian society.

I had not completed my college diploma when I was called to the Post Office for an interview in August 1975. Among the 1000 hired (out of 10,000 applicants), I was ranked 740th! As soon as I got to work, I took part in my first major strike, which lasted six weeks.

In the union, there was a great leader.

For two decades, the Syndicat des postiers du Canada (SPC) in Montreal was Marcel Perreault. He had been president of the largest section in Québec since 1968 (over 4,000 members) and the second largest in Canada after Toronto. He was a fiery leader who knew how to command respect among his members as well as in other unions. He was vice-president of the FTQ (Québec Federation of Labour) and president of the Montreal Labour Council (CTM) for several years. In 1977, I attended my first “national” convention in Halifax, when Joe Davidson was president. It was at this congress that an extraordinary trade unionist, Jean-Claude Parrot, became national president. In 1978, a strike that was initially legal was declared illegal with Bill C-8. Parrot found himself on the front lines and was sentenced to three months in prison, after being cravenly abandoned by the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Dennis McDermott.

You had to follow the “line”…

In congresses, Perreault required the Québec delegation to vote with one voice. However, at the 1980 convention, I dared to vote with two other comrades in favour of a resolution aimed at adjusting the union dues of part-time employees according to the hours worked. Perreault was opposed to it, but the proposal had the support of the rest of Canada. During the adjournment, National Director Clément Morel ordered our expulsion from the Québec caucus. At that time, I had just been fired by management and was awaiting arbitration of my grievance. I was somewhat distraught. My friend Paul Heffernan from the Toronto local advised me to report this event to the convention. The next day, I went to the microphone and asked the national director of Québec to explain why he had expelled three members of his delegation. I got a standing ovation from delegations from the rest of Canada who took a dim view of the rigid discipline to which we were subjected in the union.

In the end, I was able to gain some respect. A few years later, to my surprise, Clément Morel confided in me that he did not fully share Perreault’s feelings! In the meantime, my friend Paul Heffernan had become president of his local. In my opinion, one of the best Toronto has seen.

Perreault was opposed to everything that was progressive.

Despicably, he had fought the establishment of a women’s committee on which several women had worked for months. Perreault had also opposed the proposals from the Western region concerning sexual harassment at the 1983 convention as well as the plans for day care and child care costs. The majority of delegates from Québec, overwhelmingly made up of men, registered their dissent when these policies were adopted at the 1986 convention. That same year, when the votes were counted for the local union elections, the children of parents who supported my candidacy were expelled by the union marshals, made up exclusively of Perreault supporters.

He was even against the unification of unions at the post office

He fiercely opposed the merger with the Union of Postal and Communications Employees (UPCE), which took place anyway, and helped sabotage the merger with the Letter Carriers Union of Canada (LCUC). It was not until the vote ordered by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) in February 1989, following the plan to overhaul the certification units by Canada Post, that this unification could take place. The 23,000-member CUPW won over the 21,000-member LCUC with a majority of just 901 votes.

The new union, which was not based on mutual agreement, gave rise to an open war in which Perreault took delight in provoking the former members of the LCUC. He rebuked them for their interventions and set up a union marshalling squad made up of about fifteen men dressed in black who stood at the front of the room. At one meeting he even called in the police. It took a long time to pick up the pieces, even after his election defeat in 1991. In fact, it required a new generation to take over on both the former CUPW and LCUC sides.

During all these battles, did you have a hard time?

At each union meeting, he was waiting for me around the corner. Perreault’s discourse was based on a narrow nationalism which hardened the Québec members against the positions of the members in the rest of Canada. He used my support for Parrot and my links with several union activists in the rest of Canada to present me as a spy for the Canadians and a traitor in Québec!

In March 1987, I attended an important meeting on a draft collective agreement. In the room, the seats around me were empty, no one dared be seen beside me. Perreault spoke of the “four-page rag”, referring to a tract published in my recent union election campaign. He tried to entertain the room with a dubious play on words: “Je ne vous demande quand même pas que vous le Frappier” (“I’m not even asking you to hit him!” Frappier is close to frapper, to hit).

It got pretty wild?

During all these years, I helped to put together teams in local elections with a democratization program and I ran against him for the presidency. I wanted us to deepen our ties with the FTQ, to participate in political battles. We had to put forward the demands of women who had been sidelined for so long. To my surprise, in my first election in 1983, despite all the pressure and the smear campaign against me, I got almost a third of the votes. It encouraged me a lot. I naively believed that since I had made a show of strength Perreault would calm down a bit and that we could finally hope for a more serene climate in the union. The opposite happened, he took it as a danger to his survival. After this election, a few comrades and I were put on a blacklist, distributed by members of the executive during the assemblies to elect delegates to union bodies and to congresses. It was ten years before we could participate again.

Your resistance ended up getting some results.

Perreault continued to protect his power by taking advantage of a conservative ideology. He was a brake on trade-union unity, so necessary in this context of a government offensive. In 1981, more than 100,000 workers, including several thousand SPC members, protested in front of parliament against the economic policies of the federal government. The following year, when the Parti québécois (PQ) government wanted to cut Québec civil service salaries by 20 percent, Jean-Claude Parrot offered financial assistance of five dollars per union member both in Canada and Québec to organize the resistance. But Perreault was opposed, on the pretext that we were not allowed to play with the union dues. However, it was clear that the governments were organizing an offensive against the public services and that union unity was more urgent than ever.

And then things came to a head in 1987.

During negotiations, the national leadership of the union understood that the government was going to pass a special law. The National Executive Council wanted to keep up the pressure while preventing the government from legislating. Rotating strikes were the appropriate way to achieve this. Perreault opposed this, adopting the false image of a radical trade unionist. He hoped anti-union legislation would allow him to blame the government and the national leadership while relieving himself of all responsibility. When the time came to vote he made a fiery speech against rotating strikes. No debate was allowed, and Perreault was going to proceed to a strike vote by show of hands, contrary to the rules of procedure. I walked to the front of the room and demanded microphones. The union marshals expelled me manu militari. I had, however, opened a crack; several members who ordinarily would not have dared to speak congratulated me. The media were present and reported the event. During this period, I thought about resigning my duties as a union delegate and quitting my activism, but I was too proud to do so!

But in the end, the tide turned?

It was at this point that Perreault lost his bid for re-election to Richard Forget. The arrival of the LCUC members in 1989 was the factor that hastened his downfall. His strategies were aimed not at strengthening the trade union movement, but dodging to make others bear the burden of possible compromises. The iron fist imposed on militants was now arousing growing discontent. His defeat made it possible to move on. It was high time!

Did Perreault’s departure open the door?

Faced with the growing rebellion against Perreault, the vice-president of the Montreal local, Richard Forget, won the union elections of 1991 by promising some democratization. I had worked hard and was disappointed that he did not call on me. He had actually backed the cheap blows against me, but we were in new times, hope was finally allowed, so I supported him without hesitation. In the first general meetings, Perreault and his supporters persisted in their attacks on the new executive and the president. I came to his defence, giving Perreault a good lesson in democracy. He was now unable to come to terms with the decision of the members, which he regarded as the basis of the union when he was in power. I was warmly applauded, it was a first for me, I almost felt like crying.

In the end, you managed to break down the wall.

In the subsequent election of the Montreal section in 1993, I was elected to the Forget team, in charge of union education. Gradually, our union began to function normally, apart from the opaque games of the former president. Yet I thought we were marking time, especially since Canada Post, managed by the Liberal party, wanted to “restructure” the postal service, which meant cutting jobs, reducing wages and increasing productivity. The threat of privatization loomed on the horizon.

Finally, you become president of the Montreal local of CUPW.

Richard Forget wasn’t a bad guy, but he had retained his old reflexes. Information circulated in dribbles to the executive except among those close to him. This had repercussions among the members and discontent grew in the general assemblies, especially on the side of the letter carriers who were still smarting and remained suspicious. Finally, the majority of the executive committee wanted to put together a new team. I was elected president in 1996 with the majority of our team. In anticipation of the 1997 negotiations, we felt that our 6,000 members really had to regain control of their union. Trade union unity and participatory democracy were at the heart of our platform. The Montreal section thus threw itself into mobilization. In the spring of 1998, more than 1,000 members from Montreal demonstrated at the Parliament in Ottawa. In the fall, 300 militants occupied the Canada Post headquarters in downtown Montréal. The following week, we occupied Place des Arts on the evening when the Post Office had invited its executives and contractors to a concert at its expense.

A few years later, you change course?

The six years in the presidency had worn me out. There had been some real political battles, but also factional battles, the two sometimes intertwined. I therefore decided to leave the presidency and to run for the post of national director in 2002. This post would offer a more political role, in particular through developing union strategies during negotiations. I was happy to take charge of organizing campaigns including that of the rural route mail couriers, which was a big step forward. This made it possible to get better terms for people who had been classed as independent contractors without the right to unionize. To get around this legal obstacle, we negotiated an agreement with Minister André Ouellet in the 2004 collective agreement. It was not a smooth process for our troops. Without saying so directly, some of our members resented our spending a lot of money from the available funds at our disposal on achieving the first collective agreement of the Organization of Rural Route Mail Couriers (ORRMC). I argued that this cheap labour in rural areas allowed Canada Post management to exert downward pressure on working conditions, which affected everyone. In the end, we managed to organize 6,000 new members, bolstering the union with new militant strength. This is how Nancy Beauchamp, who was one of these precariously employed people, was the first woman to be elected to the position of national director for the Montréal region. She is now an executive member of the FTQ.

Throughout, you got involved with activists from the “Rest of Canada.”

I had developed links for a long time with militants outside Québec. My tenure as National Director now allowed me to work more closely with them. National Executive Council (NEC) meetings lasted a week and took place once every two months in Ottawa, but during negotiations it was often monthly. I really enjoyed this experience and learned a lot from it. Despite our differences, I learned to better understand the reality of activism outside Québec. I also appreciated the fact that the Québec reality was respected. I had the good fortune to work under the presidency of Deborah Bourque, a visionary woman very concerned about democracy. Her defeat at the hands of Denis Lemelin in 2008 was certainly the event that most disappointed and saddened me in this union.

At the CLC convention in Vancouver in 1999, I took the floor and made my speech entirely in French, which nobody had dared to do. There was an interpretation service, but the majority of delegates from the rest of Canada did not use it, with the exception of the CUPW delegation! At the end of my speech, I asked those who understood what I had said to raise their hands. That was revealing, and everyone got the point. But it will take a long time to change entrenched attitudes.

André Frappier. Photo courtesy CBC/Radio-Canada.

Anti-Québec prejudices remained strong.

The CLC reflected the incomprehension that the Canadian labour movement had in relation to Québec. It must be said that the major Canadian media practice Québec bashing regularly and to their heart’s content, as in the Maclean’s magazine article that charged Québec with being the most corrupt province in Canada. With the exception of CUPW, very few pan-Canadian unions, including the CLC itself, have taken a position that unambiguously expresses Québec’s right to self-determination. A few years later, in 2002, on the occasion of Jean-Claude Parrot’s departure from the CLC, I had the honour to present on the rostrum a tribute to his work on behalf of the Québec delegation; this time everyone used the interpretation devices…

And then, in 2004, you got involved in an election with the New Democratic Party.

I thought there was some momentum with a leader who had also been present in Québec. Jack Layton wanted to change things and to include Québec while respecting its autonomy. He even told me that he didn’t mind having a pro-sovereignty candidate. So I took the plunge in Papineau riding, which had long been held by the Liberal party. My friend Pierre Laliberté did the same thing and ran in Gatineau. I had the support of my local, and also of Michel Taylor, president of the Montréal Regional FTQ Council, as well as of CUPW national president Deborah Bourque. At the nomination meeting several other trade union members were present, including my friends from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

Navigating in a federalist party was not easy.

The NDP communications officer was always by my side, making sure that I avoided answering directly to the “question” of my pro-independence beliefs. This did not, however, prevent Stéphane Dion, in a letter published in the Globe and Mail, from criticizing Jack Layton for having accepted the candidacy of an evil “séparatisse” in Papineau. After the election (I received eight percent of the vote), the NDP concluded that its pro-Québec discourse had not produced the hoped-for results and that instead this position had caused it to suffer losses in Western Canada. With Pierre Laliberté, we agreed that this desired alliance with the NDP did not have much of a future.

In 2005, your re-election as National Director of CUPW did not go very well.

When I ran for the position of National Director, I knew I was putting myself in a risky position. At the local level, thousands of members vote by mail for those running for the executive, but a national director is to be elected at convention by the 70 delegates from Montreal. My opponents knew it and worked more effectively than I. It must be said that I had often put my head on the chopping block, defending what I thought was important for the union, such as the collective agreement which made it possible to integrate the rural route mail couriers. I lost narrowly, by three votes.

For you, CUPW has been and remains a progressive union?

CUPW is one of the few unions that has played an important role on the Canadian political scene. It has led battles and strike actions from one end to another of Canada “and Québec” which have been at the centre of media news. This union was a forerunner in obtaining the right to strike at the federal level, in the fight for a reduction in working time without loss of pay, and in obtaining parental leave. The mobilizations and political credit that it was able to build on a pan-Canadian scale have made it an imposing union force, but also a political force in opposing the Canadian government and the private companies that have always sought to gain entry to this sector for their profit. The fact that the Canadian postal sector has not yet been totally privatized, as it has been in many countries, is an achievement on the part of the union. No wonder it has been in the cross-hairs of governments.

Did you come back to basics then?

At the time, my defeat really disheartened me. But I went back to being a letter carrier, a job that I really liked. At the same time, I worked with the Montreal section of CUPW, which put me in charge of a special project at the Youville branch where I worked. The idea was to test an improvement in the flyer delivery process for the next collective agreement.

I also got involved again with the Regional Council of the Montréal FTQ and I was elected for a second time to the executive. With Michel Ducharme, we wanted to bring unions closer to popular groups mobilized in the Coalition Main rouge (Red Hand Coalition), formed in the fall of 2009 following the announcement by the then Liberal government that it would make greater use of user fees on public services and implement budgetary austerity.

You came up against the so-called concertation approach that prevailed at the FTQ.

The then president of the FTQ, Michel Arsenault, was not sympathetic to the Coalition Main Rouge. Like many union leaders, he feared this kind of coalition where unions are on an equal footing with many smaller groups. But ultimately, I think these positions were motivated more by the FTQ’s preference for tripartite consultation and partnership. In fact, it is only some local unions and regional labour bodies like the Montréal Central Council of the CSN and the Montréal Regional Council of the FTQ that have joined.

The concertation orientation has limited struggles and even resulted in defeats. In 2012, during the historic social mobilization in response to the student upsurge, the unions simply gave it lip service and prevented this movement from moving to a higher level. During the negotiations with the government, the leaderships of the centrals at no time threatened the government with a mobilization of their forces in aid of the student movement. In fact, these leaderships exerted more pressure on the student spokespersons than they did on the government. In the years that followed, the various governments have continued their policies of social disengagement in education and health, the tragic consequences of which can be seen today.

Life then took you elsewhere?

I retired in the late summer of 2010, but soon after was hired by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to work on union organizing with a bunch of young and dynamic activists who were at ASSÉ (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), including a certain Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. In the meantime, my involvement with Québec solidaire grew. I was part of the QS National Coordinating Committee for six years from 2012 to 2018. We had many debates, particularly with regard to electoral alliances with the Parti québécois, which raised several questions concerning our democratic functioning. The members had spoken out against these alliances twice, at the congresses preceding the elections of 2012 and 2014. But the day after the elections, it was as if we were faced with a blank page. This long road ended at the 2017 congress where the idea of an alliance with the PQ was defeated after a wide-ranging debate that lasted several months. Fortunately, everyone agrees now. The results of 2018 (when QS elected 10 members to the National Assembly) would not have been the same if we had fallen into the trap of Jean-François Lisée, head of the PQ. Since then, we have not made much progress in terms of our way of implementing this independence project and our strategy with regard to the Canadian state.

This question has led you to new initiatives.

The clarification of QS’s positions on these issues has been at the heart of my engagement within this party. Along with others, including mainly my comrade and friend Andrea Levy, we have established a pan-Canadian progressive network that met virtually almost monthly for several years. The emergence of Québec solidaire as an independentist left party raised many questions among the Canadian left, to which answers and perspectives had to be provided. The Canadian people have no interest in defending their own establishment against the people of Québec fighting for their emancipation. Conversely, the support of the Canadian working class is essential to the survival of this project. For lack of support, we saw the failures of the Greek and Catalan progressive parties in 2015 and 2017.

Did this liaison work continue later?

I took part in several conferences in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary and I reported to the leadership bodies of Québec solidaire. I also worked closely with Naomi Klein’s team for the creation of the Leap Manifesto, along with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Roger Rashi, by trying among other things to adapt the text of the declaration to the reality of Québec. For several years now, I have been writing a column in the journal Canadian Dimension which focuses mainly on politics in Québec. At the same time, as QS’s (interim) co-spokesperson, I became more familiar with the struggles of the Indigenous nations. In the winter of 2013, I was in Ottawa during the Indigenous protests in support of the hunger strike of Theresa Spence, Chief of the Attawapiskat Nation, at the start of the Idle No More mobilizations. In the spring of that year, I met with the Algonquin population of Lac-Barrière accompanied by Geneviève Beaudet and André Richer, also of QS. In a delegation of 14 people, we heard the message of the Indigenous people and their very different vision of the territory. Michel Thusky, an elder in the community, explained to us that “the land does not belong to anyone, everyone can occupy it by respecting it and ensuring the sustainability of its resources. White governments see this same territory not as a precious ecosystem to be respected, but as an asset to be squandered.”

True to your convictions since the beginning of your activist life, international solidarity is always present.

In October 2014, I participated in Toronto, on behalf of QS, in an international meeting on public transport organized by Die Linke, the German left party. This gave me the opportunity to lay the groundwork that led to the invitation of Andreas Gunther, a representative of this party, to our congress in May 2015. In the meantime, Benoit Renaud worked to invite Cat Boyd of the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland. This was the beginning of our openness to international guests at congresses. In October 2017, I represented QS within a delegation of the international left in Barcelona at the initiative of the independentist left party CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy). In return, we invited to the QS congress in December 2017 two elected CUP members, Anna Gabriel and Eulalia Reguant.

In November 2018, thanks to you, my friend Pierre Beaudet, I had the opportunity to participate in the thematic Social forum on the mining and extractivist economy in Johannesburg, where I represented Québec solidaire. Then, in the summer of 2019, I attended the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention in Atlanta on behalf of QS, because although I have not been a member of the National Coordinating Committee since the National Council in December 2018, I am part of the party’s commission on global justice issues. As a socialist, internationalism is not an “extra” activity or a luxury, but a necessity. It is not always easy, but we must continue.

We have no choice, we have to look to the future.

COVID-19 has intensified the challenges of securing basic living needs on a level not seen since the recession of 1929. The crisis is global, global warming has caused devastating fires in Australia and California while the last plateau of unspoiled Canadian Arctic ice has just collapsed. The future of society depends on us. Neoliberal political parties cannot represent a way out, they are at the origin of the crisis.

The challenges are high. The unions have had some victories, but they have not been able to address the source of the problems, constantly restarting the cycle of gains and setbacks, which eventually deepen. The broad left has succeeded in building a political party since 2006 with Québec solidaire, but the junction with social movements and unions has not really materialized.

If there are common traits in the various struggles of my militant life, I would say that democracy would be at the top of the list. This fight is taking on decisive importance today. We have seen how easy it can be for a government like that of François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) to lead by decree if we lack vigilance.

Horizontal democracy must become a fundamental value within Québec solidaire because it is, even more in this time of confinement, the essential basis for the mobilization and life of the party.

The lessons of the coup d’état in Chile have also guided my activist journey throughout my life. If neoliberal governments can be ousted, the capitalist institutions that support them will still be present. Another eloquent illustration was the economic crushing of the Syriza government by the troika in Greece in 2015.

We cannot conceive of our struggles without the development of an internationalist strategy. The future of the planet in environmental, social and health terms depends on it. The Québec for which we are campaigning and whose population will regain control of its destiny, will constitute a step forward and generate a new social dynamic which, we hope, will transcend our borders. But the Canadian establishment will not stand idly by. Building solidarity with the working class in the rest of Canada, in alliance with the Indigenous nations, remains an unavoidable challenge. This has been and still continues to be at the centre of my militant journey.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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