Today, We Remember Striking Workers in Occupied Europe

On this day in 1941, workers in Belgium launched one of the first strikes in Nazi-ruled Europe. Tens of thousands of strikers risked dire repression to stand up against poverty wages — and showed the working class’s determination to resist occupation.

Cockerill steel works in Seraing, Belgium, where the “Strike of the 100,000” began in 1941. (Patrick Viaene / Collection Industrial Museum Ghent via Wikimedia Commons)

As countries across Europe this week held their traditional commemorations for the end of World War II, the role of organized labor in resisting fascism was all too often overlooked. But it was the most principled, militant parts of the working class that led some of the most powerful revolts against the war and its effects — including the “Strike of the 100,000” in Belgium.

On Saturday, May 10, 1941, exactly one year after the German invasion of that country, a group of women walked out of the Cockerill steelworks in Seraing, near the city of Liège. From the largest local metallurgical company, the movement spread like wildfire throughout Belgium. At the peak of the eight-day-long strike, sixty thousand workers across the industrial belt of French-speaking Wallonia were on strike. The action also spread to Belgium’s Flemish region, in towns such as Aalst.

The strikers’ main grievance was the shortage of food provisions. But their protest was the spark that ignited one of the largest-scale wartime labor protests in Belgium — and a high point of resistance in occupied Europe.

Belgium’s Labor History

But how did such a powerful strike take off under conditions of occupation?

Already well before World War II, Belgium’s trade unions had become a powerful force in the country’s institutional landscape. The three currents of the labor movement ran along the lines of the country’s modern political traditions — socialism, liberalism, and Christian democracy — and exist in this form as three confederations still today.

In the fifty years before the war broke out, the unions had won the right to organize, the right to strike, and embryonic forms of industry-wide social dialogue between the unions and companies — including through multiple general strikes in 1886, 1893, and 1936. In particular, joint committees that began to be set up in 1919 allowed for negotiated minimum wages and salary increases in line with inflation for whole economic sectors. By 1923, more than half of blue-collar workers were covered by such joint committees. With German invasion and occupation, this came to an abrupt end.

As per the Nazis’ Gleichschaltung (forced coordination) policy, the Belgian unions were forcibly merged into a single unitary union. The trade-union confederation established by the occupation government wanted corporatist cooperation between workers and bosses for the “advance of the nation.” This meant that the hard-won right to strike was abolished — and wages were frozen.

However, the end of free industry-wide social dialogue left a vacuum for the Communist Party of Belgium (PCB), founded in 1921, to organize at the company level. After a year of small-scale strikes and work stoppages in the industrial belt and other parts of Belgium such as Ghent, the militant trade unionists launched what would later be called the “Strike of the 100,000” on May 10.

Results of the Strike

In April, instead of the fifteen kilograms of potatoes per month for those in physically taxing work, only half had been delivered, while the rest of the population had to make do with just two kilograms. But after May 7, 1941, there were no more potatoes left for anyone, nor any possibility of obtaining supplies elsewhere. Official prices had increased by up to 100 percent. The striking workers accordingly demanded improvements in food distribution and a wage increase of 25 percent. The demands focused on employers, so as to avoid a direct confrontation with the occupation forces.

While strikes were prohibited and wages were set by the government, the Belgian workers nevertheless successfully mobilized and struck even under the occupation regime. They even won concessions in terms of food distribution and an overall wage increase of 8 percent. All this was done without an overall repression of the strike wave, unlike the 1941 Nord-Pas-de-Calais miners’ strike, over the border in France — one of the largest and longest strikes in German-occupied Europe — which was itself part-inspired by the events in Belgium.

The Belgian strike also had a material impact on Germany’s war economy. As German general Franz Halder said at the time: “Every day of strike action means 2,000 tons of steel lost.” According to historian José Gotovitch, the strikers’ demands were met after Adolf Hitler’s personal intervention. By the occupying forces’ own admission, the action was a direct threat to the German war effort. Eventually, the strike also led to the creation of the postwar “social pact,” which gave additional rights to trade unions and expanded social security — and governs Belgium’s industrial relations until today.

The strike was also a watershed moment for the Communist Party. As it was actively involved in the preparation of the strike and saw its success, the party subsequently committed heavily to the creation of union committees (Comités de lutte syndicale), which would play an important role in the Belgian resistance movement throughout the war. A month later, however, as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was terminated with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the occupation regime arrested over a thousand militants considered to have been involved in the strike.

Some, like the Communist leader Julien Lahaut, were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Lahaut had started working at Cockerill at the age of fourteen, quickly became involved with the trade-union movement, became an important organizer of the Strike of the 100,000, and eventually led a delegation to Brussels on May 13 to negotiate with the government. Lahaut survived the war in Germany and returned afterward as one of the most popular and vocally anti-monarchist politicians. He led the Communist Party until he was murdered in 1950. The only political assassination of a parliamentarian in Belgium’s history, his killing was revealed in 2015 to have been committed by an anti-communist network with connections to the state’s criminal investigation department and several major companies.

Remembering Workers’ Antiwar Resistance

Today, despite the obvious importance of the Strike of the 100,000, it is largely unrecognized in Belgium and unknown abroad. There are no major commemorations or monuments acknowledging this historic event. Victory in Europe Day on May 8 is no longer a national holiday in Belgium, a status it enjoyed until 1978.

That is why the country’s trade unions and civil society are currently campaigning for a stronger collective commemoration of the resistance movement, publishing personal stories of resistance heroes and pushing for the reinstatement of May 8 as a national holiday. The Strike of the 100,000 — and the role of the labor movement more generally — should be part of this effort.