The Lock-Out of the Building Trades at Geneva

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The lock-out of the Geneva building workers was discussed by the General Council at its meetings on June 14 and 21, 1870. On June 21 Marx was instructed to draw up an address to the trade unions and sections of the International in Europe and the United States. The address was approved by the General Council on July 5 and published in leaflet form in English, German and French: "The Lock-out of the Building Trades at Geneva. The General Council of the International Working Men's Association to the Working Men and Women of Europe and the United States"; "Die Aussperrung der Bauarbeiter in Genf. Der Generalrath der internationalen Arbeiterassoziation an die Arbeiter und Arbeiterinnen in Europa und den Vereinigten Staaten"; "La Grève des corps de métiers en bâtiment à Genève. Appel du Conseil général de l'Association internationale des Travailleurs aux travailleurs et travailleuses de l'Europe et des États-Unis". The German text was also published in the newspapers Der Volksstaat, No. 56, July 13 and Volkswille, No. 25, July 16, 1870 and in the journal Der Vorbote, No. 7, July 1870. In this volume the address is printed according to the English leaflet, checked with the German and French texts.






The Master Builders of Geneva have, after mature consideration, arrived at the conclusion that “the entire Freedom of Labour”[1] is best calculated to promote the happiness of the labouring poor. In order to secure this blessing to their work-people, they resolved to carry into practice, on June 11th, a trick of English invention, viz., the lock-out of upwards of 3,000 mechanics till then in their employ.

Trade Unionism being of recent growth in Switzerland, the same master builders of Geneva used to indignantly denounce it as an English importation. Two years ago, they taunted their men with a lack of Patriotism for trying to transplant on Swiss soil such an exotic plant as the limitation of the working day with fixed rates of wages per hour. They never doubted but there must be some keen mischief-mongers behind the scene, since their own native workmen, if left to themselves, would naturally like nothing better than drudging from twelve to fourteen hours a day for whatever pay the master might find it in his heart to allow. The deluded men, they publicly asserted, were acting under dictation from London and Paris, much the same as Swiss diplomatists are wont to obey the behests from St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris. However, the men were not to be cajoled, taunted, or intimidated into the persuasion that limiting the daily hours of toil to ten, and fixing the rate of wages per hour was something derogatory to the dignity of a Free Citizen, nor could they by any provocation be inveigled into acts of violence affording the masters a plausible pretext for enforcing public repressive measures against the unions.

At last, in May, 1868, M. Camperio, the then Minister of Justice and Police, brought about an agreement that the hours of labour should be nine a day in winter, and eleven a day in summer, wages varying from forty-five to fifty centimes an hour. That agreement was signed in the presence of the Minister by both masters and men. In the spring of 1869 some masters refused to pay more wages for a day’s labour of eleven hours, than they had paid during winter for nine hours. The matter was again compromised by making 45 centimes an hour, the uniform rate of wages for artisans in the building trade. Although clearly comprised in this settlement, the plasterers and painters had to toil away on the old conditions because they were not then yet sufficiently organised to enforce the new ones. On the 15th of May last, they claimed to be put on a level with the other trades, and on the flat refusal of the masters, struck work the following week. On the 4th of June, the master builders resolved that if the plasterers and’ painters did not return to work on the 9th, the whole of the building operatives should be locked out on the 11th. This menace was carried into effect. Not satisfied with having locked out the men, the masters publicly called upon the federal government to forcibly dissolve the union[2] and expel the foreigners from Switzerland.[3]Their benevolent and truly liberal attempts at restoring the freedom of labour, were, however, baffled by a monster meeting, and a protest on the part of the Swiss non-building operatives.[4]

The other Geneva trades have formed a committee to manage the affairs for the men locked-out. Some house owners who had contracted for new buildings with the master builders, considered the contracts broken, and invited the men employed on them to continue the work as if nothing had happened. This proposal was at once accepted. Many single men are leaving Geneva as fast as they can. Still there remain some 2,000 families deprived of their usual means of subsistence.[5]The General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, therefore, calls upon all honest working men and women, throughout the civilised world, to assist both by moral and material means the Geneva building trades in their just struggle against capitalist despotism.

By order of the Council,

B. Lucraft, Chairman

John Weston, Treasurer

George Eccarius, Gen. Sec.

256, High Holborn, London, W.C.,

July 5th, 1870

  1. Here and below Marx describes the builders' strike of 1868 according to J. Ph. Becker's book Die Internationale Arbeiter-Association und die Arbeitseinstellung in Genf im Frühjahr 1868, Geneva, 1868, pp. 6, 7, 38 and 39.— Ed
  2. The French text has: "International Association".— Ed,
  3. The masters' appeal was adopted on June 2, 1870, at a meeting of the Association of Building Trade Masters in the Canton of Geneva, and published as a poster. It placed the whole responsibility for the strike in Geneva on the International Association. The masters demanded that the authorities should put into effect an article in the federal constitution entitling the government to expel "foreigners violating the home and foreign security of Switzerland".
  4. The decision of the Geneva master builders to declare a lock-out of building workers evoked protests from workers of other trades. On June 19, 1870, L'Internationale wrote about a 10,000-strong meeting of Geneva workers protesting against this decision of the employers. L'Egalité, No. 23, June 11, 1870 published a protest of a 5,000-strong meeting of watch-makers ("Protestation votée en Assemblée populaire nationale tenue au Bâtiment Electoral 7 juin 1870"). On June 14 the Egalité editors published a special supplement to No. 23 on the Geneva building workers' strike. The next issue of June 18 published an address by the Geneva factory workers to the strikers, expressing solidarity with them and informing them of the aid that had been organised.
  5. See L'Égalité, No. 24, June 18, 1870.— Ed,