Works of Frederick Engels 1889

The Ruhr Miners’ Strike of 1889

Source: The Labour Leader, June 1889
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The German miners’ strike is an immense event for us. Like the miners in England in the Chartist times, the colliers of Germany are the last to join the movement, and this is their first start. The movement began in the Westfalian coalfield in the North — a district producing 45 million tons annually, and not yet half-developed, coal having been bored at a depth of 500 yards. These miners — hitherto good subjects, patriotic, obedient, and religious, and furnishing some of the finest infantry for the VII. army corps (I know them well, my native place is only 6 or 7 miles south of the coalfields), have now been thoroughly aroused by the oppression of their capitalists. While the mines — almost all joint stock concerns — paid enormous dividends, the real wages of the men were constantly being reduced, the nominal weekly wages were kept up, in some cases even raised in appearance, by forcing the men to work enormous overtime — in place of single shifts of 8 hours they worked from 12 to 16 hours, thus making from 9 to 12 shifts weekly. Truck shops, disguised under the name of “Co-operative” shops, prevailed. Cheating, on the quantity of coal got by rejecting whole truckfuls of coal as being bad or not properly filled, was the rule. Well, since last winter, the men have given notice several times that they would strike unless this was remedied, but to no purpose, and at last they did strike, after having given due notice of their intention, and the owners lie when they maintain the contrary. In a week 70,000 men were out, and the masters had to feed the strike, for they paid wages once a month only, and always kept one month’s wages in hand which they now had to fork out to the strikers. The masters were thus caught in their own net. Well, the men sent that celebrated deputation to the Emperor — a snobby, conceited coxcomb of a boy — who received them with a threatening speech; if they turned towards the social democrat and reviled the authorities, he would have them shot down without mercy. (That had in fact been tried already at Bochum, where a sublieutenant, a lad of 19, ordered his men to fire on the strikers, most of them fired in the air.) But all the same, the whole empire trembled before these men on strike. The military commander of the district went to the spot, so did the Home Secretary, and everything was tried to bring the masters round to make concession. The Emperor even told them to open their pockets, and said in a council of ministers “My soldiers are there to keep order, but not to provide big profits to the mine-owners.”

Well, by the intervention of the Liberal Opposition (who have lost one seat in Parliament after another by the workmen passing over to us) a compromise was effected, and the men returned to work. But no sooner were they in than the masters broke their word, discharged some of the ringleaders (though they had agreed not to do so), refused arranging for overtime by agreement with the men, as agreed upon, etc. The strike threatened to break out again, but the matter is still in suspense, and, I am sure, the Government, who are in a devil of a funk, will make them give in at least for a time. Then the strike spread to Coalfield No. II. and III. This district has been kept, so far, free from Socialist contagion, as every man who went there to agitate, when caught in the meshes of the law, got as many years’ imprisonment as he would have got months’ anywhere else in Germany. The Government alone made concessions to the men, but whether these will suffice remains to be seen. Then the men in the Saxon Coalfield, and in the two Siberian Coalfields, still further east, took up the tune, so that in the last three weeks there have been at least 120,000 colliers on strike in Germany, and from them the Belgian and Bohemian miners caught the infection, while in Germany a number of other trades who had prepared strikes for this spring season, have also left work. Thus there is no doubt the German colliers have joined their brethren in the struggle against capital, and as they are a splendid body of men, and almost all have passed through the army, they form an important addition to our ranks. Their belief in emperor and priest has been shattered, and whatever the Government may do, no Government can give satisfaction to the men without upsetting the capitalist system — and that the German Government neither can nor will attempt. It is the first time that the Government had to pretend to observe an impartial position in a strike in Germany: so its virginity in that respect has gone for ever, and both William and Bismarck had to bow before the array of 100,000 working men on strike. That alone is a glorious result.