Herman Gorter 1903

The Great Strike on the Railroads of Holland

Source: International Socialist Journal, March 1903, translated from Neue Zeit by A. M. Simons;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

We thought we were far behind in the International labor movement. The “great industry” has very slowly developed in Holland. The domination of the small businesses, anarchist propaganda, the power of religious ideas, the dull indifference of the mass — all these operated to hinder the development of the labor movement.

One year ago the situation appeared almost hopeless. But the proletariat is an unknown quantity. All the powers of the future slumber in it and it is as impossible for one to determine the exact moment in which water will turn into ice, or lightning to strike from the clouds, as to determine beforehand the moment of the outbreak of the accumulated revolutionary energy of the proletariat. There are critical times that pass over dully and heavily and again a little breath, an imperceptible disturbance of equilibrium suffices to gather together the clouds for a mighty tempest.

The experience of the last year has greatly changed the view of the Social Democracy in regard to the general strike. To be sure we had already given up the original position of absolutely rejecting the general strike, but the indifference and even the half conviction of the justification of this powerful means of class struggle has grown in just the degree that the idea of this weapon has entered into Social Democracy. Even if we consider the general strike of all laborers as sought after by the Anarchists, Utopian, and if we reject the idea that the general strike is the only weapon, the panacea of the proletariat (for whither shall come the necessary organization, training and discipline for the general strike without the experience gained in the daily political and economic struggle?), we have, nevertheless, learned to recognize it as a powerful weapon whose application we must learn to study and which will be more and more favourably looked upon by all Socialists.

The general strike of the Dutch railroad workers whose first, and perhaps only, act has just concluded may be considered a typical case. It began as a pure expression of solidarity by the strikers, but by its conclusion it had led not alone the assisted comrades, but the railroad workers themselves to a full victory, and as a result had brought to maturity another strike, that of the Amsterdam municipal workers, that in all probability will be crowned with a similar result.

For several years the Amsterdam Dock and Transport workers have had a strong economic organization. Out of numerous raw elements the principles of organization and solidarity have been disciplined into battalions obedient to the will of the majority and their representatives. Truly battalions for from their very foundations battling has been the life of this organization. It is made up of many trades including the “Bootwerker”, the warehouse workers and the people engaged in the handling of goods around the numerous water-ways, and warehouses, such as dock laborers, etc.

According to the decision of the international congress of transport workers held at Paris these bodies were combined into a federation. In 1903 there was another collision between these unions and the warehouse corporations, known in Dutch as the “Veemen”. The strike ended with the victory of the warehouse workers, who were assured among other things that from now on they would never be compelled to work with non-union laborers.

One of the “Veemen” did not keep this promise, but at once introduced nonunionists, which were favored in every possible way. Naturally this did not please the organized workers. It soon came to an active disagreement and one fine morning the warehouse workers of this “Veem” laid down their work and demanded the discharge of two non-union workers. When this demand was refused the workers concerned unanimously ceased work. A freighting firm introduced fifty-six strike breakers, whereupon the representatives of the federated unions met and resolved that no union man should touch any of the goods handled by the strike breakers. These goods were declared “dead”. As the fifty-six strike breakers were not discharged this blockade hung over the warehouses of all the “Vermeen” who handled goods for the boycotted firms.

Meanwhile new vessels were continually coming in loaded with wares for the boycotted firms, and so the strike continued to grow.

A complication of much greater significance very soon appeared, owing to the following circumstances: One dock in Amsterdam is set apart for bulky goods, as for example Spanish iron ore, to be loaded directly from the ships into the railroad cars. At this dock hundreds of railroad workers, switchmen, machinists, etc., are engaged in the assemblage of the goods destined for Germany. The question now arose: what will these men do if they must handle cars loaded by strike breakers? To be sure this question did not concern the federated dock laborers but the union of the railroad men.

In contrast to the dock workers, whose history — at least during the last few years has been a succession of victories — the railroad workers have been able to assert themselves only under great difficulties. With the rise of the first Socialist movement the first organization of the railroad workers had also arisen, but employers and anarchistic influences split them. After a very long apathy we see them now, like the whole Socialist movement, again gaining in strength. In the first place the machinists and firemen formed a very strong organization. The conductors and other trade workers followed and joined with the former in a federation, and finally the whole movement found a new and firm center in a union of the governmental employes, which in Utrecht had developed from an almost imperceptible beginning to a powerful fighting organization.

Now, on the 29th of January, when the switchmen were ordered to handle boycotted cars, they refused service and their action was followed by the whole 500 railroad workers who were occupied on this dock, and who also laid down their work. The representatives of the unions involved met with the directors of the Holland railroad corporations, but without result, so that the same evening, in an assemblage of railroad workers in Amsterdam, the strike was decided upon by a vote of 702 to 28, because the directors had refused their demands. The same conclusion was reached on the same night by numerous assemblages in many larger and smaller cities.

The strike was declared as a purely sympathetic strike. To be sure a few demands for the betterment of their own condition were made — this was very natural — but the motive of it from the beginning to end was that of helping the threatened comrades in other branches, and on the attainment of this end they again took up their labor.

Fortunately for the extension of the strike, especially among the unorganised workers amounting to 9,000 out of 17,000 railroad workers, there was a long accumulated hatred against the railroad corporations, based upon low wages and inhumanly long hours of labor and a determination to crush out every germ of organization by general rules. The federation was led by “anti-parliamentary” Socialists, while the railroad workers’ was led by Social Democrats and the larger proportion of their membership were Social Democrats. Both of these otherwise bitterly fighting factions co-operated harmoniously in this case, and this co-operation brought about the grandest results.

On the day after the meeting the unions were once more approached by the employers. By that time there was a very noticeable stoppage of traffic and the employers took on a new tone. First concession: recognition of the organization from now on. This in itself was an important victory. Further: in the disputed dock nothing more shall be done, with full compensation to the strikers, until the conclusion of the strike. Finally, and this was the most important of all, employers agreed to request the government to abolish the article of the railroad regulations which compelled the railroad employes under all conditions to accept goods for transportation. Meanwhile, the strike continued in and around Amsterdam. If the government denied the suspension then the strike would extend at one stroke over the whole country.

In the evening assemblages were again held. One may imagine what rejoicings there were. Victory was in sight. Amidst these rejoicings all the unions pledged their support, and at midnight every depot in Amsterdam was vacant. The next morning not a train came into Amsterdam. A zone was created into which no locomotive dare come. Telegrams in great numbers poured into the headquarters of the railroad workers from the railroad employes in all parts of the country pledging themselves to lay down their work at the first signal. In many places the strikes broke out spontaneously.

The great question was now what will the government do? Will they agree to the suspension of this article and grant to the laborers that the wagons filled with boycotted goods shall not be touched nor switched nor sent through to Germany? Feverish suspense reigned. The directors of the railroad, together with a committee of the workers, had gone to the Hague to consult with the ministers. Meanwhile the military was poured into Amsterdam from all directions. Disturbing news items were heard to the effect that trains were to be forced through the guarded zone. But even before the dispatches announcing this decision had been sent to the different organizations, the answer of the general directors of the railroads came: “We grant to your members the right not to switch the wares of ‘Vermeen’ whose dock laborers are on strike and maintain all the other concessions of yesterday”. Everything was won. The next day at four great assemblages of the laborers the decision was adopted to again take up work. The indisputable result of this battle was a complete victory for the dock workers. The strike breakers were sent home, all strikers were reinstated, their right not to work with strike breakers expressly recognized, and the other points in dispute submitted to a court of arbitration.

But the battle, however, was not closed even with this. The railroad workers still stood with their weapons at their sides. Everyone waited to see what the government would do. They had avoided any direct answer to the railroad corporation, declared the question to be a private affair of the railroad, and refused to interfere. But from the bourgeois standpoint such a position cannot be maintained. The bourgeois press of all political complexions shrieked for laws against the railroad workers and demanded the bringing in of the militia to serve as strike breakers.

On the other hand, the labor organization grew as never before, and the willingness for battle was greatly increased by the result of the election and by the result of the railroad strike, so that just now the thousands of municipal laborers in Amsterdam are threatening to strike. The government will soon be driven out of its passive position. But whether it will enact any oppressive legislation or attempt to legally regulate the wage contract, or whether it will seek to split the labor union of railroad workers with the help of the unorganised laborers and the Catholic Labor unions, no one can tell as yet.

Little consolation can be derived from the fact that the government has called out the reserves for the two years past so that all the garrisons have three times their customary strength. Amsterdam especially is bristling with soldiers. The Social Democracy as a party has not yet entered into the battle — not even the Parliamentary fraction — since the Chamber has not yet met. To be sure our comrades, and especially the members of the Chamber, have everywhere been fighting in the front ranks. Now it must depend upon the attitude of the government as to what the party will do. Domela Nieuwenhuis and the Anarchists sought to make capital out of the strike, but they have scarcely been able to obtain many results. For it was just the firm, well-built organization against which they have always clamoured, to which the successful result of the strike is due.

For the carrying out of such a sudden and unexpected extensive strike requires a schooling, and an organization such as is seldom to be found to-day. Now I would certainly not say that such a schooling and organization was already existing in Holland to-day.

But if the weapon of the general strike is to be utilized, then the organization must be so built up that this weapon will stand ready for instant use. For the certainty of success in a general strike lies in its suddenness. Ever more numerous and greater will become the great strikes and outbreaks of this character which shake the social life of the nation to its foundation. It is not the case of the theory forming the reality, but the reality being recognized and grasped by the theory. Most important of all, we see similar phenomena in Belgium, Sweden, France, Austria, America and Switzerland. The antagonisms grow sharper and greater. The range of single struggles between capital and labor gains in extent and the great strikes draw into the struggle bodies of otherwise indifferent laborers.