1960-1961 Winter General Strike

English Wikipedia
28 November, 2010

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 Gaston Eyskens|Eyskens' government introducing a number of austerity policies under the general name ''Loi unique''. The strike began on 20 december 1960, a few days after the royal wedding between Baudouin I and  Queen Fabiola. This strike was especially hard in Wallonia.

Historical Background

This strike ended a decade of deep social unrest linked to the  Royal Question (1940-1950) linked to the war policy of  Leopold III , the secondary school war (1954-1958), and the Wallonia's industrial decline (since the end of World War II). The workers' anger spread to all industrial areas, 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 Eyskens' government, the socialists federated the party, the trade union, and the socialist mutual insurance in the  « Common Action ». The public service socialist trade union (CGSP) of the civil servants and steel-workers  were the most violent. Philip Mosley is even speaking of a longer period, beginning with Misère au Borinage, the hard strike of 1932 which Misère au Borinage is telling about  and he wrote « 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

André Renard leader of a Walloon strike

Already on 17 November 1960 at  Charleroi - thus before the beginning of the strike - André Renard, Secretary-General of the General Federation of Belgian Labour made this statement to syndicalists: « 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 thesises because they are socialist. »4

Renée C.Fox explained the affair in a few words: « 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 for  (...) regional autonomy for Wallony...5

Violence and pre-revolutionnary tension in Wallonia

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) [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 into 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-revolutionnary 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 strickers were arrested and about half were sentenced to one month or more in prison.» 6

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 7

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. » 8

Political and sociological surveys

After the strike André Renard wrote that this movement was a strike as  Georges Sorel  thought the social movement (fn]André Renard, À propos d'une synthèse applicable à deux Peuples et à trois Communautés, inSynthèses, novembre 1961. He died a few month 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).9 These articles were translated  in English by Maurice Brinton in 1965, under the title  Modern capitalism and revolution (by Solidarity London).  Cornelius Catoriadis wrote an introduction  for the second edition in 1974, where he explained, especially for the 1960-1961 general strike: « Each particular crisis may appear to be an”accident”. But in contemporary society the existence of such accidents and their periodic recurrence (although not their regular repetition): are absolutely inevitable. The crisis may be a recession more prolonged than normal. It may be an episode of a colonial war. It may be the American Negroes refusing to submit any longer to racial discrimination. It may be a major scandal shattering this or that hallowed institution. It may be that the Belgian coalmines are discovered, from one day to the next, to be no longer profitable, and that the rulers of the country simply decide to wipe out the Borinage, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants 10 , from the economic map. It may be that Belgium 's government, in order to rationalize its finances, provokes a  general strike  of a million workers which lasts a month. » 11

Ernest Mandel  also published a survey of this general strike in Les Temps modernes 12 where he tried to explain the differences between Wallonia and Flanders.

Political consequences

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 General Federation of Belgian Labour, André Cools  participated ine the ''Strike of the Century''. XWhen the Mouvement populaire wallon was founded, Colls joined its ranks. In 1963, he refused to vote legislation limiting the right to strike. He became vice prime minister in the  Gaston Eyskens 's Government (1968-1971). Cools'sprimary 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. » <ref>David Wilsford, Political leaders of contemporary Western Europe: a biographical dictionary , Greenwood Press, Westport, 1995, p. 75. [It is important to say this transformation continue after 1993).

Cultural consequences

Henri Pousseur  (1929-2009), for instance, was strongly linked to the social strikes in [[Liège]] during the 1960s 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. 14 But also a writer as Jean Louvet  in  La Louvière whose the work is full of the famous winter strike, for instance  Le train du Bon Dieu. Also the  Dardenne brothers , with for instance  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  Manifesto for Walloon culture . « Although the cultural aspect was already present in the renardisme, it was with the Manifeste pour la culture wallonne that culture truly became a priority within the Walloon movement. Conversely, some defenders of the  French Community of Belgium  have supported the idea of a fusion between the  Walloon Region  and the French-speaking Community. It's the argument of the "French-speaking Nation" defended at the time by the president of the PRL,  Jean Gol , and others who blamed the regionalists of "falling back on" a Walloon identity. Recently a  Brussels   regionalism  has arisen, in particular through the association "Manifesto" which advocates the development of educational and cultural policies adapted to the needs of the Brussels Region. The Walloon and Brussels regionalists privilege an institutional system based on three Regions with equal levels of autonomy and power. The Flemish movement has always preferred a system composed of two main regions, Flanders and Wallonia, for the joint rule of the Brussels Region. » 15
  1. 1.   Belgium, Strike of the Century, 1960-1961
  2. 2. John Carney, Ray Hudson, Jim Lewis, Regions in crisis: new perspectives in European regional theory , Croom Helm, London, 1980 p.43.
  3. 3.  Philip Mosley Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and cultural Identity, Suny Press, New-York, 2001,p. 81.
  4. 4. «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. 5. Renée C. Fox, In the Belgian Château, Ivan R.Dee, Chicago, page 13.
  6. 6. Els Witte,Jan Craeybeckx,Alain Meynen, Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Academic and Scentific Publishers, Brussels, 2009,  p. 278.
  7. 7. Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards , Brussels, 2009,  p. 278.
  8. 8. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,828702,00.html Time Friday, Jan. 13, 1961 There are no Belgians.
  9. 9. Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne.
  10. 10. It seems that Castoriadis means here not the single Borinage but the whole Walloon Sillon industriel
  11. 11. Cornélius Castoriadis Le mouvement révolutionnaire sous le capitalisme moderne translated in English by Maurice Brinton under the title Modern Capitalism and Revolution.
  12. 12. Les grèves belges: essai d'explication socio-économique.
  13. 13. Chantal Kesteloot, Growth of the Walloon Movement, in Nationalism in Belgium, MacMillan,  London, 1998, pp. 139-152, p. 150.
  14. 14.  See  Trois visages de Liège
  15. 15. An alphabetic guide to the Belgian community dispute.