International Workingmen's Association 1870

The Lock-out of the Building Trades at Geneva


Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: by Marx July 5, 1870;
First Published: in The General Council of the First International 1864-72: Minutes, Progress Publishers, 1962-;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Fellow Workers,

The Master Builders of Geneva have, after mature consideration, arrived at the conclusion that “the entire Freedom of Labour” is best calculated to promote the happiness of the labouring poor. In order to secure this blessing to their work-people, they resolved to carry into practice, on June 11th, a trick of English invention, viz., the lock-out of upwards of 3,000 mechanics till then in their employ.

Trade Unionism being of recent growth in Switzerland, the same master builders of Geneva used to indignantly denounce it as an English importation. Two years ago, they taunted their men with a lack of Patriotism for trying to transplant on Swiss soil such an exotic plant as the limitation of the working day with fixed rates of wages per hour. They never doubted but there must be some keen mischief-mongers behind the scene, since their own native workmen, if left to themselves, would naturally like nothing better than drudging from twelve to fourteen hours a day for whatever pay the master might find it in his heart to allow. The deluded men, they publicly asserted, were acting under dictation from London and Paris, much the same as Swiss diplomats are wont to obey the behests from St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris. However, the men were not to be cajoled, taunted, or intimidated into the persuasion that limiting the daily hours of toil to ten, and fixing the rate of wages per hour was something derogatory to the dignity of a Free Citizen, nor could they by any provocation be inveigled into acts of violence affording the masters a plausible pretext for enforcing public repressive measures against the unions.

At last, in May, 1868, M. Camperio, the then Minister of justice and Police, brought about an agreement that the hours of labour should be nine a day in winter, and eleven a day in summer, wages varying from forty-five to fifty centimes an hour. That agreement was signed in the presence of the Minister by both masters and men. In the spring of 1869 some masters refused to pay more wages for a day’s labour of eleven hours, than they had paid during the winter for nine hours. The matter was again compromised by making 45 centimes an hour the uniform rate of wages for artisans in the building trade. Although clearly comprised in this settlement, the plasterers and painters had to toil away on the old conditions because they were not then yet sufficiently organised to enforce the new ones. On the 15th of May last, they claimed to be put on a level with the other trades, and on the flat refusal of the masters, struck work the following week. On the 4th of June, the master builders resolved that if the plasterers and painters did not return to work on the 9th, the whole of the building operatives should be locked out on the 11th. This menace was carried into effect. Not satisfied with having locked out the men, the masters publicly called upon the federal government to forcibly dissolve the union and expel the foreigners from Switzerland. Their benevolent and truly liberal attempts at restoring the freedom of labour, were, however, baffled by a monster meeting, and a protest on the part of the Swiss non-building operatives.

The other Geneva trades have formed a committee to manage the affairs for the men locked-out. Some house owners who had contracted for new buildings with the master builders, considered the contracts broken, and invited the men employed on them to continue the work as if nothing had happened. This proposal was at once accepted. Many single men are leaving Geneva as fast as they can. Still there remain some 2,000 families deprived of their usual means of subsistence. The General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, therefore, calls upon all honest working men and women, throughout the civilised world, to assist both by moral and material means the Geneva building trades in their just struggle against capitalist despotism.