The General Strike in Holland

Peter Kropotkin

“Le Gréve Générale en Hollande”, Les Temps Nouveaux, 11 April 1903

The great strike of the workers on the railway and other transportation routes broke out in Holland on April 6. The decision had been taken on the Sunday night by two hundred delegates of the workers unions, meeting specially for this purpose.

Whatever the outcome of this movement, it will have an enormous importance in the annals of the struggles of labour for its emancipation. Let us recall its reasons.

We remember the strike which broke out in Amsterdam in November 1902. The National Federation of Transport Workers, which included about 15,000 organised workers in railways, docks and other transport, notified the syndicate of the canal transport companies bosses that as of 1 January no member of the National Federation would work next to unorganised workers, who were always hired by the bosses in order to lower wages.

On 6 January, the strike broke out in Amsterdam amongst the dock workers. The railway workers immediately made common cause with the dock strikers, refusing to touch the wagons laden with merchandise for the aforementioned bosses syndicate. And as the railway companies insisted that this should be done and refused to comply with the workers’ demand, the latter went on general strike on 30 January.

The next day not a single train entered Amsterdam; not one left. We can imagine the flabbergasting of the bourgeois.

There are nearly 16,000 workers in Holland on the railways; they work from 14 to 16 hours and earn on average 20 to 22 francs per week. The State owns a few lines which it leases to a company to operate.

The demands raised by the strikers were as follows:

1. Recognition of the Union;

2. Not to require workers to move the merchandise of Companies against which the dock workers had gone on strike;

3. Pay the strikers for all the time of the strike;

4. Return all strikers to the positions they occupied before the strike, and not to take reprisals against any of the strikers.

The strike was spreading to the whole of Holland when the principal Company of the exploiters, and after it the State, hastened to accept the demands of the strikers.

The strike of the railway workers was thus victorious. A great lesson on labour solidarity had been given to the whole world.

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Thereupon the bourgeoisie, having at their command the State and representative government, decided to take measures. Italy had already given them the example, where a law, making labour on the railways a public service of the State, declared that any strike on the railways would henceforth be a crime, a rebellion.

In effect, this law took the necessary arrangements to ensure that in the event of a strike, the striking workers were immediately replaced by soldiers. In other words, as soon as a strike breaks out on a railway, they call up for army service – not this or that category of the army: they call up John – a worker on such-and-such railway, Peter – an engineer on such-and-such locomotive, Paul – a porter at such-and-such a station, and so on. In short, since the great majority of workers who work on the railways belong to all categories of the army and its reserves, they are called to military service. Equipped as soldiers, numbered, belonging to this or that company and such and such a battalion, they will now be deserters and be sent for court martial if they refuse to work on the line to fatten some boss.

Hence we can see where we are going, with social-democracy preaching governmental capitalist, centralisation by the State and the abandonment of all that could disturb the Gentlemen worker deputies with their pleasant “work” by the fire. When we have Turati and a number of cigar manufacturers like Singer to represent workers’ interests, you have to expect stupid things.

Thus, in Holland, under some pressure from Germany which threatened to intervene in the event of a shutdown in transportation, the bourgeoisie proposed to mimic Italy. A certain doctor Kuyper therefore proposed a law according to which:

(1) A Parliamentary inquiry should be made;

(2) Meanwhile, and to begin with, we would put into the war budget a provision so that, in the event of a strike, those of the militia who know the work of the railways could be sent immediately on site in the event of a strike to run some trains (some trains to begin with, and then all trains). In other words, the worker is no longer a free man who dispute his prices and conditions of labour with a company of exploiters. He is handed over to them by the State in shackles, for obligatory labour, just as convicts are handed over to gold miners companies in Russia;

And (3) introduce draconian laws to punish those railway workers who are on strike, as well as those who persuade them to stop work.

You can judge yourself these laws by this one subsection of the Kuyper Act. It seems absolutely incredible, but we translate verbatim:

“The civil servant of any public service,” says this bill, “and any person permanently or temporarily hired to work on a railway – if, in order to obstruct this service, he refuses after having received a legal order to carry out the work which he had undertaken to do according to the character of his contract – may be punished with a maximum of six months imprisonment or a fine of 750 francs.

“If two or more persons carry out this obstruction as a result of a common agreement, the penalty shall be a maximum of four years imprisonment, without the alternative of the fine.

“The leaders and instigators of such a conspiracy shall have the same punishment, which can rise to six years, if they have succeeded in their object of creating an obstruction of the service.

“Whoever by his speeches or writings has advised him to stop such work shall be guilty of instigation and shall be punished with a maximum of five years imprisonment or a fine of 750 francs.”

It is to oppose these iniquitous laws that the transportation general strike is proclaimed. “Protest against these laws, and increase our wages before the bourgeois have cut off the means of defence” is the slogan of the strike.

The workers are unanimous in their revolt.

The diamond cutters have just joined the railway workers.

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Workers of all nations, workers of all parties, your heart must have seethed when reading these despicable plans of the bourgeois schemers.

It is time, high time, that you rise up against these scoundrels who give themselves the high life and live on your sweat, your blood, your children’s blood.

Make common cause with the strikers of Holland. They are your brothers and – they are not spineless; they know how to proceed!