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This Day in Labor History: May 14, 1889

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On May 14, 1889. leading coal workers meet with Kaiser Wilhelm to settle a strike that had brought 100,000 coal workers off the job in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. This was the largest coal strike in German history, at least to that time. This forced the Kaiser to abandon Bismarck’s repressive policies and introduce labor reforms.

Conditions for coal miners were very bad, as they were throughout the world in these years. Accidents were common and pay was very poor. Workers finally had enough. They wanted the eight-hour day, which had become nearly a mantra for workers in the U.S. and Europe in the 1880s. They also wanted pay increases of 15 to 25 percent. What was interesting here is that Germany had a large socialist political movement under the Social Democracy banner. But this mostly middle-class movement had no real connections with the coal miners and were completely taken by surprise when this strike started. Miners hadn’t shown much interest in this middle-class socialism. A lot of that had to do with the fact that most of the miners were Catholic and the socialists were anti-religion, long a problem for socialists. It’s an understandable problem, but it’s hard to connect with workers who go to church when you are anti-religion. In any case, of course the Social Democrats then not only said they had nothing to do with the strike but outright opposed a movement they weren’t leading. Well, whatever. The workers didn’t care. When the strikers did appeal to the Social Democrats for strike funds, the party told them no and to go make a deal with the employer. Very helpful middle class socialists!!

Now, this was not a particularly well-organized strike. Unions were still in many ways proto-unions in these years. There certainly wasn’t some big pot of union dues to help workers get by. Moreover, employers were outraged. How dare workers make demands on them! Moreover, they had a strong ally–Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck often gets credit for being a forward thinking person in terms of state-building, but being anti-labor and anti-social welfare as any capitalist could ever dream of was included in that vision. He was 100 percent on the side of employers. In fact, he saw the strike as an opportunity. He hoped to not only crush the strike, but then to pass new legislation that would strip any possibility of social legislation even more.

By May 4, the police were starting to use violence against the strikers. When a mine in Westphalia fired 80 union miners, the rest of the miners erupted in fury that the cops put down with serious force. Soon what was basically a general strike had set in. Different parts of Germany had slightly different conditions. In the middle of May, basically everyone was on strike, but in various regions people went back earlier rather than later. It was essentially over by June 6, when the miners in the Saar district finally went back to work. The reason that happened was Kaiser Wilhelm’s intervention. He agreed to meet with three worker leaders. He worked out a compromise. In most mines, the hours of the workday were reduced from 10 to 9, compulsory overtime was ended, and there was at least some pay raises. Yes, the Kaiser was more sympathetic to the workers than the damn socialists. Wilhelm did tell the workers to steer clear of the Social Democrats, but they were disgusted enough by this point to not balk at that demand.

This was a huge event at the time. After all, workers had proven that not only could they band together and strike, but they could get the Kaiser to move to help them, or at least acquiesce a bit. This cannot be overstated. When you are a worker, to see those in power do anything based on your demands is an extremely empowering moment and in a nation such as pre-World War I Germany, when the Kaiser is all-powerful, that’s even more so. As Frederich Engels stated, “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.”

In the aftermath of the Kaiser’s agreement, employers felt betrayed. They also had no intention of actually living up to the agreement. Mostly, they just ignored it. They instituted a blacklist against leading strikers. That meant decades of continued struggle between miners and mine owners through the Ruhr Valley, starting again with another big strike in 1891. Bismarck most certainly encouraged the mine owners to blow off the Kaiser. However, Wilhelm did show increasing interest in the plight of workers and became a supporter of mild forms of labor and social legislation to allow workers to take action in a non-revolutionary manner. Bismarck fought him all the way.

I borrowed from Vernon Lidtke’s Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany to write this post. There’s surprisingly little public discussion of one of the most important strikes in German history, at least on the English-speaking internet.

This is the 440th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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