Belgian Workers Strike against Austerity, 1960-61 ("Winter Strike")

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
stays very true to the time period given
1960-1961
1960
to
1961
1961
Location and Goals
Country: 
Belgium
Location City/State/Province: 
Wallonia, Belgium
Location Description: 
Wallonia was where the strike was especially heavy, but the strike took place all across Belgium including but not limited to: Flanders, Ghent, Antwerp, Liége, Hainaut, Namur, etc.
Goals: 
Initial goal: make electoral gains based on the anger of the people, but not stop the law since the elections were not due to be held until after the law was supposed to be passed

goals as movement expanded: fundamental reform, demand that financial companies have no economic decision making powers

specific goal of Andrés Renard was federalism and structural reform

 

The Belgian workers strike of 1960-61, often referred to as “Winter Strike” or “The Strike of the Century”, was considered to be one of the most important Belgian strikes of the 20th century. Strike history in Belgium had always been slightly unconventional compared to Northern European, North American, and French and Italian strikes. Differences existed in the frequency of strikes, the size of the strikes, as well as the duration. Belgium had frequent strikes pre World War II, and this history of striking contributed to the success of the Winter Strike.

The Winter Strike started due to a growing movement of social protest that had been building for years prior. Reconstruction around Belgium led to the development of new industries allowing for a bigger role in the technologies. The bourgeoisie in Belgium did not invest in these new industrial sectors, and kept their energy focused on heavy industries like steel and coal, unlike most other countries in the area, which in turn disadvantaged their economy. The economic state of Belgium had been declining, and the government’s most recent attempt to fix it caused and civil unrest. Their attempt hurt of the working class. The austerity laws cut into workers’ purchasing power by raising taxes and threatened their working conditions. This attempt was known as lo unique, and was initiated by the Eyskens’ government.

Members of the working class began the strike on 20 December, when the Belgian Socialist Party (PSB/BSP), and the FGTB/ABCC Trade Union Federation called on them. They aimed to elect candidates that supported their voices, but they did not necessarily want to stop the austerity law (lo unique) because the elections were held before the law was meant to be passed. Creating a general strike was not the first option the BSP and FGTB wanted. They worried that they would lose control more easily. André Renard, a very active leader of this movement, suggested a number of demonstrations leading up to a 24 hour strike following the vote on the law. The Socialist Public Sector Union (ACOD) started a strike of government personnel, and immediately tens of thousands began striking. 700,000 strikers opposed the government and showed their discontent by returning to the streets day after day. They paralyzed most of the public institutions by derailing trains, attacking high voltage lines and bridges in Liége and Hainaut, as well as severing electricity to the industrial areas in Ghent, which caused a crisis for five weeks.

The government responded with violence. There were barricades throughout the Boring Walloon industrial belt. Social elites such as Cardinal Van Roey condemned the strike and called it criminal. These statements served as justifiers for the violence that the government used against the strikers. In contrast, Walloon socialist mayors came out with solidarity for the strikers and even refused to carry out orders from the central government. The government tasked 18,000 state police officers, and ordered them to guard and dismantle the strike, with the reinforcement of the army. They guarded industrial buildings, bridges, train stations, etc.. In response, the strikers tried to hold off the police forces with caltrops (antipersonnel weapon made of two or more spikes), trees, concrete blocks, cars, crane wrecks, and other obstructive objects. The strikers never intended to use violence, but used antipersonnel weapons to hold off the police and prevent further attacks on strikers. The police injured 75 strikers during several hours of street battles on 6 January 1961. When the violence did not stop the strikers or lessen their attempts, on 9 January arrests started. The government sentenced more than 2,000 to one or more months in jail.

Strikes originated primarily in Wallonia, Ghent, and Antwerp, with less support from Flanders. Due to the lack of centralized leadership, strikers began to organize themselves into smaller groups or committees. The government feared this exactly - a development of additional leadership on a lower level based on their collective struggle and anger. When the strike took over the whole country,the regional structures finally made the call for a general strike. Renard, mentioned earlier, created a regional coordination committee, which effectively split up the working class strictly along Walloon/Flemish lines. They called for a large scale reform and demanded that the financial corporations lose their economic decision making powers.

Renard spoke and addressed the whole country, using radical language, asking for concessions from the government for money lost during the strike and directly from the law, as well as asking bosses to modernize the industrial sector. On 23 January, 1961, the strike finally ceased. Due to the lack of communication between the leadership of the social-democracy and the FGTB, both left and right wings, the defeat was not the result of the government or the power of the capitalists, but rather the disorganization of the strikers. Due to this dissolution, the strike failed to stop the lo unique law, but the strike made significant damage to the country, and reinforced Walloon regionalism and the claim for federalism.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Slightly influenced by the general strike in 1950's surrounding the question of whether Leopold III could return to his position as King of the Belgians after he surrendered to Germany during WWII (known as the Royal Question)

Sources: 
Brinton, Maurice. "Belgian General Strike Diary, 1960 - Maurice Brinton." Libcom.org. 24 Mar. 2009. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <https://libcom.org/history/belgian-general-strike-diary-1960-maurice-brinton>.

Croes, Nicolas. "50 Years since “strike of the Century” in Belgium." History: Belgium. Socialistworld.net, 20 Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/4733>.

Strikewerda, Carl. "General Strikes and Social Change in Belgium." UMich Library. University of Michigan, 1 Apr. 1980. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/50989/215.pdf?sequence=1>.

"1960–61 Winter General Strike." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1960–61_Winter_General_Strike>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Clare Perez, 2/3/2015