Norwegian seamen organize general strike, 1921

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Time Period:  
May 8,
Location and Goals
Resist an imposed employers' wage cut among seamen and domestic transportation workers via general strike, with the hope for reverberations of worker empowerment and resistance to wage cuts across industries.

Following a rapid price increase and in turn wage increases (thanks to Union pressures), after the first half of 1920 prices in Norway began to rapidly fall. From 1919-1920, the cost of living rose by 16 percent, and in the subsequent period dropped 8 percent. Following the war, imports rose quickly and amounted to a surplus, marking the beginning of a turbulent global economy throughout the 1920s. Bankruptcies began to increase among businesses, feeling pressured by wage agreements and high interest rates. In early 1920, a total of 60,000 workers in different areas across Norway organized successful strikes, which led to yearlong agreements for wage increases and awards. Employers continued to feel pressured economically, with prices falling more rapidly towards the end of 1920. In March 1921, with the expiration of compulsory arbitration legislation – a contractual agreement between unions and employers to avoid strikes and submit to the authority of a neutral government commission – employers teamed up with labor to oppose its renewal, setting the scene for a major strike.

In early 1921 Norwegian employers proposed a 33 percent wage reduction. In the United States the International Seafarers Union, led by Norwegian expatriate Andrew Furuseth, organized an all-ports strike on May 1 in response to wage cuts of 25 percent. Seven days later, on May 8, influenced by the recent action in the US but organized independently, marine workers across the coast of Norway stopped working in protest of employers' wage decreases. As the strike gained momentum, one week later all remaining transportation workers walked out in solidarity with the seamen.

On May 12, a coalition of Norwegian trade unions, led by Labor Party parliamentarian Ole O. Lian and the Norwegian Federation of Labor, announced that it had no other choice but to launch a general strike. This announcement was circulated across Norway and the world via newspapers and broadcasts, giving workers, employers, and the state time to prepare for the economic disruption. Two weeks later, on May 26, 1921, 120,000 workers began the general strike. Union workers across Norway, save for rail, telegraph, and hospital workers, participated.

In response, the Norwegian government took control of the vacant ships and found workers to operate them, using police protection for the workers who broke the general strike. After the government involved the police, workers began to slowly return to work, until the Federation of Labor and the State Mediator agreed in June 1921 that everyone but the seamen and transportation workers would return to work. Feeling financial strain, the remaining marine and transportation sector workers on strike gradually returned to the workplace until the unions ended the strike across Norway, deeming it unsuccessful.

Losing the strike in 1921 made labor leadership cautious, and induced labor's parliamentary representatives to vote in favor of compulsory arbitration legislation in 1922. The failure of the International Seafarers Union strike in the US after two months added to their discouragement.

Research Notes

The workers and Labor Party in Norway were likely influenced by the activities of the Seafarers International Union, who initiated an all-ports strike on April 30, 1921, the first national marine strike in American history, also in response to wage cuts (1).

Bunker, John. “A History of the SIU.” Seafarers International Union, 1983. Web.

Galenson, Walter. Labor in Norway. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1949. Print.

Schwartz, Stephen. Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific 1885-1985.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (31/05/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Blaine O'Neill, 04/10/2010