1960–61 Winter General Strike

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Walloon workers' demonstration in Brussels in the winter of 1960

1960–1961 Winter General Strike was the most important strike of the 20th century in Belgium and was called the Strike of the Century.1 Its triggering factor was Eyskens' government introducing a number of austerity policies under the general name Eenheidswet / Loi unique. The strike began on 20 December 1960, a few days after the royal wedding between Baudouin I of Belgium and Queen Fabiola of Belgium. This strike was especially hard in Wallonia.

Historical background

This strike ended a decade of deep social unrest linked to the Royal Question (1940–50) linked to the war policy of King Leopold III, the Second School War (1954–59), and Wallonia's industrial decline after the end of World War II.

Industrial unrest spread to all industrial areas of the country, including Flanders and especially Ghent and Antwerp. "The movement quickly turned into a general strike in the region but only a minority support in Flanders (...) After the strike, comparisons were drawn in Wallonia 'between the remarkable success of the general strike' there and its 'relative failure in Flanders'. Some elements in the Walloon labour movement conclude that its activities would be condemned to years of stagnation if it remanded tied to the concept of a unitary Belgium'."2

The mineworkers, steel-workers, and public servants became the spearheads of the movement. Facing the Catholic-Liberal coalition government under Eyskens, the socialists federated the party, the trade union, and the socialist mutual insurance in the Common Action. The Centrale Générale des Services Publics (CGSP; "General Public Services Union") of the civil servants and steel-workers were the most militant. Philip Mosleycitation needed spoke of a longer period, beginning with the Misère au Borinage, the hard strike of 1932 which was the subject of the famous film, and wrote that "matters worsened in 1956 with the Marcinelle disaster, whose victims included many immigrants, and then with release of initial closure plans for Walloon mines. In scene reminiscent of Storck's Borinage film of 1933, social unrest in the area near Mons escalated into general strike of 1960 and 1961."3

Renardism and the linguistic question

Already on 17 November 1960 at Charleroi - even before the beginning of the strike - André Renard, Secretary-General of the General Federation of Belgian Labour made this statement to union members:

They made us believe in the socialist opening in Flanders. Just look at numbers. For me, the combat remains whole, but I choose the best ground and the best weapons. For the moment, the best ground and the best weapons are in Wallonia, the best road passes by the defense of the Walloon interests. I am at the same time socialist and Walloon and I embrace the Walloon theses because they are socialist.4

The situation was explained by the academic Renée C. Fox:

At the beginning of the 1960s (...), a major reversal in the relationship between Flanders and Wallony was taking place. Flanders had entered a vigorous, post-World War II period of industrialization, and a significant percentage of the foreign capital (particularly from the United States), coming into Belgium to support new industries was being invested in Flanders. In contrast, Wallony's coal mines and time-worn steel plants and factories were in crisis. The region had lost thousands of jobs and much investment capital. A new Dutch-speaking, upwardly mobile "populist bourgeoisie" was not only becoming visible and vocal in Flemish movements but also in both the local and national policy [The strike of December 1960 against the austerity law of Gaston Eyskens] was replaced by a collective expression of the frustrations, anxieties, and grievances that Wallony was experiencing in response to its altered situation, and by the demands of the newly formed Mouvement populaire wallon (fr) for (...) regional autonomy for Wallony....5

Violence and pre-revolutionary tension in Wallonia

Moral voices, like that of Cardinal Van Roey, legitimised in a sense the threat to use violence.6

In their Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, Alain Meynen described the violence in Wallonia in some short impressive sentences:

The socialist public sector union ACOD (Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten (nl)) [in French CGSP, Centrale Générale des Services Publics started off with a strike of government personnel on 20 December 1960 and immediately drew tens of thousands of Walloon private sector into the action. It plunged the country into crisis for a full five weeks. Some 700,000 strikers opposed the government and many spilled out onto the streets for mass demonstrations on an almost daily basis. Over 300 demonstrations marked the tumultuous times. The most important public institutions were completely paralysed for weeks on end and some strikers' unit turned into semi-autonomous strike committees that tried to organise the social life of their backers. There were signs of pre-revolutionary tension in Wallonia. Walloon socialist mayors professed solidarity with the strikers and refused to execute the orders of the central government. Barricades throughout the Borinage Walloon industrial belt isolated many places. The government used sheer violence and ideology to turn the situation around. Powerful moral voices, like Cardinal Van Roey, condemned the strike movement and even called it criminal. In a sense, it legitimised the threat to use violence against the strikers. From the start, violent repression had been part of the government scenario. Over 18,000 state policemen had been mobilised to dismantle the strike pickets and guard key areas. The army reinforced the state police forces. Up to 15,000 troops guarded industrial buildings, bridges and tunnels, train stations and post offices. The strikers matched the increase of violence of the security forces. In Wallonia, army troops had to wade through caltrops, trees, concrete blocks, car and crane wrecks to advance. Streets were dug up. Liège saw the worst fighting on 6 january 1961. In all, 75 people were injured during seven hours of street battles. Two injured strikers died a few days later. The following weekend sabotage increased in the provinces of Liège and Hainaut. A train was derailed and there were attacks on bridges and high-voltage lines. Some 3,000 Belgian troops were brought in from Germany to protect rail and electricity infrastructure. On 9 January the security forces started arresting strikers manning the pickets to prevent any attempt of revolt. Some 2,000 strikers were arrested, and about half were sentenced to one month or more in prison.7

They pointed out also the differences between Flanders and Wallonia:

The strike laid bare the different labour approaches of Flanders and Wallonia. South of the linguistic border, the strike quickly spread to all sectors of social life and the Liège steel workers used it to boost the structural reform programme of the socialist FGTB union. The Walloon workers were also threatened by the decline of Wallonia's industry, including the closure of coal mines. They wanted fundamental reform and demanded that the financial companies be stripped of economic decision-making powers.8

In Saint-Servais (Namur), Socialist Deputies from Wallonia held a meeting without the Flemish Socialist members, issued a communiqué without precedent in Belgian political history. The communiqué noted that government policies accentuate and accelerate the deterioration of the economic situation of Wallonia, and declared that if these policies are not changed, the Walloon people will have no alternative but the revision of the unitary institutions of the country in order to choose itself the means for its economic and social expansion.9

Political and sociological surveys

The journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.

After the strike André Renard wrote that this movement was a strike as Georges Sorel thought the social movement10 He died a few months later (July 1962). But he gave his name to the Renardism which is also, both ideologically and pragmatically, the programm of the most important part of the Walloon Movement since the general strike of the winter of 1960–1961.

Under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan Cornelius Castoriadis published in Socialisme ou Barbarie articles under the titles La signification des grèves belges (nummer 32, 1961), Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne (nummer 31, 1960–1961) and Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne (suite) (nummer 32, 1961).11 These articles were translated in English by Maurice Brinton in 1965, under the title Modern capitalism and revolution (by Solidarity London).

Ernest Mandel also published a survey of this general strike in Les Temps modernes12 in which he tried to explain the differences between Wallonia and Flanders.

Political consequences

Holcim cemetery in Obourg (near the Borinage) in the sunset

By 1960, the Walloon movement had become a mass movement led by the Walloon wing of the General Federation of Belgian Labour. Through the foundation of the Mouvement populaire wallon during the Great Strike that took place in the Winter 1960–1961, the Walloon working class now also demanded federalism as well as structural reforms.13 This strike is the origin of the Renardism combining Syndicalism and Walloon militancy.

Actively involved in the General Federation of Belgian Labour, André Cools, participated in the Strike of the Century. When the Mouvement populaire wallon was founded, Cools joined its ranks. In 1963, he refused to vote legislation limiting the right to strike. He became vice prime minister in the Eyskens's Government (1968–71). Cools' primary objective as president of the Belgian Socialist Party was to assure it a dominant role in the economic regionalization of Wallonia. With him and Guy Spitaels, "in the early 1980s, the PS played a leading role in transformation the unitary structures of the Belgian state into a federalist system. The transformation was largely accomplished by 1989 and completely formalized in 1993."14

Cultural consequences

Henri Pousseur (1929–2009), for instance, was strongly linked to the social strikes in Liège during the 1960s.15 The playwright, Jean Louvet, for La Louvière wrote about the winter strike in various forms, for instance Le train du Bon Dieu. The Dardenne brothers did likewise, for instance in Lorsque le bateau de Léon M. descendit la Meuse pour la première fois (1979), Thierry Michel with Hiver 60, Chronique des saisons d'acier etc.

Louvet was one of the key figures signing the Manifeste pour la culture wallonne. Although the cultural aspect was already present in the Renardism, it was with the Manifeste that culture truly became a priority.

See also


  1. ^ "Belgium, Strike of the Century, 1960–1961 : The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest : Blackwell Reference Online". 
  2. ^ John Carney, Ray Hudson, Jim Lewis,Regions in crisis: new perspectives in European regional theory, Croom Helm, London, 1980 p.43. ISBN 0-85664-835-3
  3. ^ Philip Mosley Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and cultural Identity, Suny Press, New-York, 2001,p. 81.
  4. ^ (French) «On nous a fait croire à la percée socialiste en Flandre. Il suffit de voir les chiffres. Pour moi, le combat reste entier, mais je choisis le meilleur terrain et les meilleures armes. Pour le moment, le meilleur terrain et les meilleures armes sont en Wallonie, la meilleure route passe par la défense des intérêts wallons. Je suis en même temps socialiste et wallon et j'épouse les thèses wallonnes parce qu'elles sont socialistes.» Robert Moreau, Combat syndical et conscience wallonne, Charleroi, Liège, Bruxelles, 1984, p. 119
  5. ^ Renée C. Fox, In the Belgian Château, Ivan R.Dee, Chicago, page 13, 1994 ISBN 1-56663-057-6
  6. ^ Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, Alain Meynen Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards
  7. ^ Els Witte,Jan Craeybeckx,Alain Meynen, Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Academic and Scientific Publishers, Brussels, 2009, p. 278. ISBN 978-90-5487-517-8
  8. ^ Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Brussels, 2009, p. 278.
  9. ^ "Belgium: There Are No Belgians". TIME.com. 13 January 1961. 
  10. ^ André Renard, À propos d’une synthèse applicable à deux Peuples et à trois Communautés, in Synthèses, novembre 1961.
  11. ^ "Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne Article de Cornelius Castoriadis paru in Socialisme ou Barbarie N°32 en 1961". 
  12. ^ "Ernest Mandel (1961): "Les grves belges: essai dexplication socio-conomique"". 
  13. ^ Chantal Kesteloot, Growth of the Walloon Movement, in Nationalism in Belgium, MacMillan, London, 1998, pp. 139-152, p. 150.
  14. ^ David Wilsford,Political leaders of contemporary Western Europe: a biographical dictionary, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1995, p. 75. ISBN 0-313-28623-X [It is important to say this transformation continue after 1993]
  15. ^ The "Trois Visages de Liege," (...) full of provocative sound collages [evokes..] not only moments in sonic civic history, but the sounds of its historical events as well: wildcat strikes and their ensuing violence in 1960, protests against new laws being enacted, etc. See Acousmatrix 4: Scambi/Trois Visages de Liege/Paraboles Mix

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