As first reported in Montreal’s La Presse, workers had been calling for pay increases, sick leave, training and adequate air conditioning for months. Unable to win over the restaurant’s owner, they decided to unionize with the IWW in order to pursue their demands.

Days later, in a move that staff allege was retaliatory, an employee of over a year and a half was fired, with no reason given.

Employees and supporters immediately rallied around 30 people to a picket line in front of the restaurant’s entrance, preventing clients from entering. The wildcat picket line would only come down, they informed their employer, once Morgane Mary-Pouliot was given her job back. She was reinstated within hours.

It became known as much for its openness to immigrants, the unemployed and the otherwise marginalized as for its embrace of direct action and rejection of capitalism.

In a French-language statement sent to La Presse, the restaurant’s management explained that the firing was done in a “thoughtful and entirely legal fashion, and the reasons were unrelated to the decision of the employee to unionize… However, we agree that the timing of this dismissal was poorly chosen, and this is why we re-hired [the employee].”

“I was never given a written warning,” Mary-Pouliot told La Presse in French, alleging there was no reason to fire her aside from her union activities, “nor any comment on my work.”

Contrary to the restaurant’s claims, the firing may not have been entirely legal. La Presse pointed out that Quebec’s labour code requires that employees be given notice and a reason for termination, except in the case of serious misconduct, which grants the employer the right to terminate an employee without notice. There are also provisions in the code that prohibit firing people for union activities, but it can be difficult to prove an employer’s motive.

Arguing that not all of the restaurant’s employees supported the union, the statement from management noted that “the situation of the restaurant on Rachel East is isolated, and does not represent the situation in our fifteen other restaurants in Quebec.”

The IWW’s long history in Montreal

The Industrial Workers of the World, whose members are known as Wobblies, was founded in Chicago in 1905 with the goal of bringing together the entire working class into one big union. It became known as much for its openness to immigrants, the unemployed and the otherwise marginalized as for its embrace of direct action and rejection of capitalism.

One of the union’s great accomplishments was the famous “bread and roses” strike of 1912, which won improved working conditions for over 150,000 mill workers in New England.

If a boss sent thugs to a union leader’s home, the union would return the favour.

Mathieu Houle-Courcelles, a PhD student at Laval University, wrote a fascinating opinion piece for La Presse in response to the news item, outlining the union’s past.

The IWW has a long history in Quebec, dating back to 1906 when members came to Montreal to unionize the hundreds of exploited Italian and Jewish immigrants who worked in the textile and garment sector, and whose cross-border exports were undercutting unionized prices in the United States.

Following a pitched battle with more traditional unions, the IWW disappeared from Montreal in 1914. However, Quebecers working in the United States continued to flock to it, finding a more hospitable reception for immigrants and French speakers, and founding a French-language federation within the union that published a journal and held regular congresses.

A union that fights back

An iconic logo of the IWW features a black cat, back arched and hissing. Cross the Wobblies, read the subtext, and the Wobblies would fight back. At a time when employers often used the physical violence of strike breakers and paid thugs to keep workers in line, and enjoyed the full support of government and law enforcement, the IWW helped to level the playing field by bringing in workers from other industries to protect strikers. If a boss sent thugs to a union leader’s home, the union would return the favour.

Most often, the union’s tactics consisted of wildcat job actions, sit-ins and other forms of non-violent direct action, but the warning was clear: Think twice before you send brutes after workers and union leaders, because whatever you do to them, we’ll do to you.

It all sounds barbaric from today’s perspective, but the threat of retaliation was tremendously effective in reducing incidents of violence directed at workers, and the militant threat of the IWW helped push employers to make many of the concessions to workers that we enjoy to this day.

A more common example of the union’s response to heavy-handed attempts to stop it from organizing workers took place in 1909, in Spokane, Washington. Known as the “Spokane free speech fight,” the IWW responded to an anti-union city ordinance that banned public speaking on the street by erecting a soapbox and lining up. One by one, the story goes, workers stepped onto the box to address their comrades, and one by one they were arrested.

Eventually the jails overflowed, the city ran out of money to feed and guard the arrested workers and they were all freed with the ordinance overturned. It’s considered a textbook example of effective direct action. The IWW led similar free speech fights in Vancouver, B.C., in 1909 and 1912.

The union was eventually banned in the United States and Canada after the Russian revolution of 1918, with some members arrested and deported for their union affiliation, but returned to some measure of power and influence in the ’20s and ’30s before once again fading from view. The past decades of neoliberal austerity, and the accompanying increase in precarious and exploitative working conditions, have led to a modest resurgence in interest in the union.

As major unions eschew organizing in small workplaces, where the costs of organizing and servicing members far outstrip the additional revenue collected in dues, the IWW has focused on small employers where unions are rare and conditions often include wage theft, discrimination, harassment and abuse. The IWW has an active branch in Montreal servicing several unionized workplaces.

Correction: IWW stands for Industrial Workers of the World, not International Workers of the World as the article originally stated.