Belgian Workers Strike for Minimum Wage, Paid Vacations, 40 Hour Work Week and Union Rights 1936

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
While the bulk of protests took place in May/June 1936, the campaign truly began in January 1935 with a series of incitatory speeches in Quaregnon.
January
1935
to
June
1936
Location and Goals
Country: 
Belgium
Location City/State/Province: 
Brussels, Belgium
Location Description: 
The locations of the protests spread between Brussels, Antwerp and Liege.
Goals: 
1. Raise the Minimum Wage from 27 francs per day to 30

2. Paid Vacation Days

3. Forty Hour Work Week

4. Trade Union Rights

 

96

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:"";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

In 1934, Hendrik De Man, leader of the Belgian Labor Party designed the Plan De Man for post-depression economic reform by preventing monopolies and ensuring fair wages. The economy at the time suffered because of post World War I depression and the devaluation (decrease in value) of the Franc, the French currency, which Belgium used at the time. In this same year, George Theunis, leader of the conservative government, cut unemployment benefits and pensions. On 19 January 1935, Hendrik De Man and local deputy, Achille Delattre delivered speeches to a group of miners in Quarengnon, inciting them to take nonviolent action against Theunis’s oppressive regime. That same evening, De Man wrote an editorial for Le Peuple, a Belgian newspaper, called “Impressions from the Borinage: It is Five Minutes Till Midnight.” Out of fear that his article would incite violent protest, De Man wrote another editorial, “The Hour of Plan Must Come Before the Hour of the General Strike,” which called for a peaceful demonstration. Theunis outlawed a planned peaceful demonstration for February 24th. The Belgian Labor Party and the Socialist Trade Unions considered staging a general strike as a response to Theunis, but voted against it, deciding that such a reaction was too extreme.

Theunis’s government ignored the Plan de Man and did not supervise Belgian banks. Bankers and entrepreneurs developed the reforms to the Belgian Franc in private meetings, and thus private businesses could control and manipulate the economy without government supervision. This caused an increase in unemployment and an economic crisis. When Theunis resigned, Paul Van Zeeland replaced him as Premier in May 1936. Van Zeeland’s cabinet contained fewer representatives from the Catholic Party than years past and more representatives from the proto-fascist Rex Party, the Flemish Nationalists and the Communist Party, making one fourth of parliament anti-democratic. The Socialist Party, Catholic Party and Liberal Party aimed to reinstitute their positions of power and secure democracy in Belgium by allying against the other parties to lead the General Strikes.

The campaign had four demands: 1. Union Rights, 2. A New Minimum Wage, 3. Paid Vacation, 4. Forty Hour Work Week. The first protest of the campaign took place on 22 May 1936 when 15,000 coal miners congregated in Brussels to protest “famine wages” and were tear-gassed by the police. The following day, the same amount of protesters were joined by their wives, children and the press. The strikers held up signs saying “We want bread for our children, not tear bombs,” and called the five Socialist members of Van Zeeland’s cabinet traitors. That same day, fifteen miners quit a hunger strike at the suggestion of their colleagues.

The next strike took place in Antwerp on 4 June. A total of 10,000 dock workers went on strike to demand wage increases. Fifteen thousand bus and trolley workers joined the dock workers. Vessels were not able to dock at Antwerp. Van Zeeland sent in troops to corral the strikers. The troops arrested two strikers. The employers promised to revise wages in two weeks on the condition that the strike stop immediately, but the strike did not end until 21 June 1936, when Van Zeeland granted dock workers higher wages.

On 17 June, Achille Delattre, the new minister of labor, held a meeting with the private banks and companies. Following the meeting, Van Zeeland announced an agreement on the four demands: A new minimum wage, guarantees of trade union liberties, vacation time and a 40 hour work week. However, the government did not enforce the demands, but only directed employers to comply. The Brussels Federation of Trade Unions declared the change in policy insufficient and encouraged workers to continue striking. A strike conference met in Liege, but armed police broke up crowds under the law that no more than three people could congregate legally. A small group of strikers tried to raid an arms factory, and the police used their batons to disperse the crowds. Another small group set fire to a wooden bridge. The political parties sponsoring the strike did not endorse protestor violence because it reflected poorly on the campaign. The police arrested fifty people.

Strikers were not satisfied until Van Zeeland convened a National Labor Conference to monitor wages and workers’ rights in privately owned companies and ensure that officials met the four demands. Work resumed on 22 June, after the Socialist Trade Union Committee ordered a resumption, declaring that the goals of the campaign had been met.

Research Notes
Influences: 

1. The Belgian General Strikes of 1936 were influenced by similar campaigns in France (the Matignon Agreements) for workers' rights. The tactics used were inspired by earlier general strikes in Belgium throughout the late 19th century.

2. The tactics used in the Belgium General strikes were used in workers' campaigns in Belgium all through the rest of the 20th century.

Sources: 
Anon. 1935. “Belgian Mining Strike Spreads; 15,000 Men Out. 100,000 May Join Move Against 'Famine Wages'.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 24. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “Agree To Revise Belgian Wages.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 5. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “Belgian Strike Turns For Worse.” Canberra Times, June 19. Retrieved September 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150927213834/http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/656543?zoomlevel=1).

Anon. 1936. “Belgian Strikers Win Four Demands.” New York Times, June 18. Retrieved September 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150927213943/http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9a01eedc113fee3bbc4052dfb066838d629ede).

Anon. 1936. “Belgium Sees Early End To Strike Wave; 40 Hour Week Asked.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 22. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “Belgium Strike Workers Following French Lead.” The Canberra Times, June 18. Retrieved September 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150927214102/http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2418741).

Anon. 1936. “Foreign Exchange Trading Confused, Sterling Drops 5/8.” Wall Street Journal, June 5. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “Foreign Notes.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 21. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “New York Times.” New York Times, June 23. Retrieved September 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150927214220/http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9c06e4dd1330e13bbc4b51dfb066838d629ede).

Anon. 1936. “Reach Strike Accord In Belgium.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 18. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 1936. “Rush Troops To Danger Zones in Belgian Strikes.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6. Retrieved September 2015.

Anon. 2017. “Strikers In Liege Charged By Police.” The New York Times, June 17. Retrieved September 2015.

Campbell, Joan. 1992. European Labor Unions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Cook, Bernard A. 2002. Belgium: a History. New York: Peter Lang.

Crafts, N. F. R. and Gianni Toniolo. 1996. Economic Growth in Europe since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laidler, Harry W. 1968. History Of Socialism; a Comparative Survey of Socialism, Communism, Trade Unionism, Cooperation, Utopianism, and Other Systems of Reform and Reconstruction. New York: Crowell.

Misner, Paul. n.d. Catholic Labor Movements in Europe: Social Thought and Action, 1914-1965.

Mommen André. 1994. The Belgian Economy in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.

Slomp, Hans and Hans Slomp. 2011. Europe, a Political Profile: an American Companion to European Politics. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Strikwerda, Carl. 1980. “General Strikes And Social Change in Belgium.” PhD dissertation, University Of Michigan. Retrieved September 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150927214313/http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/50989/215.pdf;jsessionid=bbaa712d5127a4a95be7e7b500bf9794?sequence=1).

Strikwerda, Carl. 1997. A House Divided: Catholics, Socialists, and Flemish Nationalists in Nineteenth-Century Belgium. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Witte, Els, Jan Craeybeckx, Alain Meynen, Oostende Frisco, and Hulshout Style. n.d. Political History of Belgium: from 1830 Onwards.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Celine Anderson 9/20/2015