by Jasper Goss*
Outside of the Netherlands, few will be immediately familiar with the event referred to as the “February strike”. The strike was an action taken on 25 February 1941 initiated by unionized workers on the public trams and docks of Amsterdam in response to growing fascist-sponsored pogroms against Jews and the establishment of a ghetto in the month before. More broadly, it was a defiant act of resistance against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
During the day, the strike rapidly grew, as workers from other public services joined, followed by workers in the private sector. Schools were shut, business shuttered. The following day, the strike spread from Amsterdam to other cities including Kennemerland, Bussum, Hilversum and Utrecht.
By the 27th the Nazi response was swift and the strike was suppressed. While the strike failed in its immediate goal to protect the Jews of the Netherlands, it was the first act of collective civil resistance in occupied-Europe against fascism. Participants in the strike would later join the underground resistance movement. It would inspire further strikes against the Occupation not just in the Netherlands, but in Greece, Denmark, France, Norway and Belgium.
In the Netherlands, the strike is commemorated annually. In 2016, we should honour and remember the February Strike, not just because those who took action that day were later harassed, arrested, tortured and even executed. We should not draw attention to the deeds of the strikers as some historical event, far from today, to be ritualistically dusted off for our collective nostalgia and quickly forgotten.
Rather, we should look at the actions themselves: in the face of overwhelming superiority, with the full force of an occupying Reich and its local fascist collaborators aligned against the strikers, they chose that moment to exercise resistance.
It can never be too late to resist, to change the flow of history, to call on others to unite. The seed of resistance can spread far – an action suppressed can nevertheless later inspire others to act. The resistance movements to fascism during the Second World War were confronted by brutal repression, but their actions led to the defeat of fascism itself.
In this context, on the anniversary of the February Strike – we must ask ourselves, as trade unions, as members of the labour movement: what are we doing? Are we ready to take the risks necessary to confront the austerity-fueled resurgence of racism and national chauvinism across Europe and other parts of the world? Are we ready, with sober senses, to confront the material conditions and political policies which have led to the abandonment of progressive politics by many workers in favour of the right and the far-right? Are we genuinely ready to confront the loss of the right to strike, which for years has been circumscribed and whittled away?
For what the current epoch represents is a threat to the very existence of trade unions as progressive social actors able to transform power relations in favour of workers’ interests. The significant growth of racism and anti-refugee movements is symbolic of the long-term decline in the power of labour movements since the 1980s.
This is not to argue that trade unions will disappear through some political suppression akin to the fascism of the 1930s. The long history of workers’ resistance suggests this is unlikely. What is possible, and current trends suggest this, is that the labour movement will be neutered, rendered politically and industrially ineffective, even irrelevant.
The forces aligned against the labour movement are not interested in negotiating a fairer share of the world’s wealth. Corporate interests, confronted with stagnating profitability in the private sector, are determined to strip public wealth and public services to provide guarantees for their profits. When confronted with the systemic tax avoidance of corporations, lobbyists now openly advocate that corporations should not pay tax. Since the global financial crisis, austerity policies have decimated public services and fueled unparalleled levels of state transfers to the private financial sector. Right-wing politicians regularly spread outright lies and mistruths.
It is any wonder that racism and nationalism find fuel for their incendiary politics?
As 75 years ago, during the war, as during the struggles against apartheid-South Africa, as during the civil rights movements in the USA – trade unions can play a leading role. Demanding societies where all equally enjoy the right to education, health care, housing, energy and water through public provision is a necessary strategic element to defeating racial inequality and injustice.
In an epoch where we are confronted with the largest refugee crises since the Second World War – the question is not whether we can afford to deal with the problem, the question is whether we can afford not to.
If we as trade unions fail to connect the growth of racism and xenophobia to the material conditions of inequality produced by the privatization of public services, corporate-driven trade agendas, tax avoidance, corruption and austerity politics, then workers will remain adrift.
Fighting racism and defending refugees means expanding public services and bringing democratic control to our societies.
In the hand-bills calling for the citizens of the Netherlands to strike in February 1941, the following appeared:
“Be aware of the tremendous might of your unified action”
Today, let us celebrate their tremendous might. Tomorrow, let us not forget the potential of our tremendous might.
* Jasper Goss is PSI’s coordinator for trade union development.