International Federation of Miners

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International Federation of Miners

Belgium 1890


On 20-23 May 1890 an international congress of coal miners convened in Jolimont, Belgium. This congress led to the founding of the International Federation of Miners (IFM), one of the first international trade secretariats. Among the key issues debated at Jolimont were the eight-hour workday; the international strike; and calls for the coordinated international restructuring of output to stabilize prices, wages, and employment (the so-called Lewy Plan). Initially the British unions dominated the organization, but their hegemony weakened once the United Mine Workers of America joined in 1904 and the German unions began to consolidate.


  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine is introduced.
  • 1880: South Africa's Boers declare an independent republic, precipitating the short First Anglo-Boer War.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1890: Police arrest and kill Sioux chief Sitting Bull, and two weeks later, federal troops kill over 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games are held in Athens.
  • 1900: Commonwealth of Australia is established.

Event and Its Context

At the end of the 1880s, the western European and British trade union movement began to grow rapidly. Against the backdrop of improved economic growth, many workers became more militant. This militancy came to the fore in a series of major strikes, including those by London's dockers and Germany's Ruhr miners in 1889. In the period 1887 to 1892, trade union membership doubled in Britain and tripled in France. In Germany, more strikes took place in 1889-1890 than in the previous five years.

The coal miners' unions benefited from this development. They too began to grow, and, increasingly, to collaborate at the national level, the British unions in particular. The British unions were significantly larger than their western European counterparts. Because wages and working conditions on the Continent were less favorable than those in the United Kingdom, both British and Continental miners had an interest in international collaboration. Improved transportation had created an international coal market, and so miners in various countries became one another's competitors. The British therefore wanted international collaboration because strong Continental trade unions would drive up wages in mainland Europe and so weaken the threat from western European mining companies; Continental miners favored collaboration in the hope of benefiting from British support in their struggle to strengthen the unions and achieve a better standard of living.

When on 14 July 1889—exactly 100 years to the day since the storming of the Bastille—two international labor congresses (those of the Possibilists and the Socialists) opened simultaneously in Paris, miners from various countries naturally participated. On the margins of the main congresses, they organized their own meeting in which Belgian, British, French, and German delegates resolved to hold a politically independent international miners' congress in the near future.

William Crawford, secretary of the British Miners' National Union, assumed responsibility for organizing this congress. Eventually, on 20 May 1890 over 100 delegates from five countries descended on the offices of the consumer cooperative in Jolimont, a small town in Belgium. Thirty-six British trade unionists representing a total of 340,000 members were present, along with 50 Belgian, seven French, five German and one Austrian delegate, who together represented around 65,000 members.

This, the first-ever International Miners' Congress, took place in a context of repression and police surveillance. The group's leaders decided to hold all discussions in public because they feared that police spies were present in the hall. There were persistent rumors that the Belgian government wanted to deport the British and German delegates. The delegates to the congress, however, received an enthusiastic welcome from the local townsfolk. The correspondent for the London Times wrote, "The miners and their families from many miles around came to see and welcome the delegates. Many were unable to gain admittance. The hall was packed to a dangerous extent."

Thomas Burt, one of the main leaders of the miners of northern England, opened the congress with a speech. It was followed by one and a half days of reports from the various mining districts of England, Wales, Scotland, Saxony, Westphalia, Bohemia, Wallonia, and France. These served once again to illustrate the fact that British miners were much better off than their Continental colleagues. Delegates then went on to conduct lengthy debates on key strategic issues. On the final day of the congress, 23 May, those present unanimously resolved to set up an International Federation of Miners (IFM). The statutes of the new organization were to be drawn up at a subsequent congress set to convene on 1 April 1891.

This second congress took place in Paris. Delegates failed to reach agreement on the voting procedure to be used. The powerful British unions favored a procedure in which the voting power of representatives would reflect the number of union members they represented; naturally, this would have left Continental unions with a purely symbolic influence within the IFM. The weak Continental trade unions therefore favored a procedure in which voting reflected the number of nationalities. It was not until 1892, at the third congress in London, that the factions reached agreement. The British delegates won the day after threatening to pull out of the federation. Delegates created an international committee to prepare the groundwork for the annual congresses; the committee was structured to vote based on nationalities.

The statutes approved in 1892 formulated not only the federation's principal aim—"To bring together the Nationalities of the World"—but also certain specific demands, such as a reduction in the number of hours of underground labor "from bank to bank" and an improvement in mine safety by appointing inspectors to be selected by the miners and paid by the state.

The eight-hour workday was a central issue at the earliest IFM congresses, partly because it split the British delegation. This was clear as early as the 1890 congress. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) strongly favored statutory regulations, and miners' delegates from the North of England argued that working hours were not a matter for the state but for the unions and that self-help was much to be preferred to state-help. The Continental unionists, whose organizations were much too weak to enforce an eight-hour workday on their own, supported the MFGB. A large majority eventually approved a resolution calling for a statutory eight-hour workday, even though it was opposed by nine delegates from Durham, Northumberland, and Yorkshire.

Building on this resolution, Keir Hardie, leader of the Scottish miners, wanted the congress to go even further. He put forward a resolution urging the congress to issue an ultimatum to the various national governments: either they promise before 1 May 1891 to introduce an eight-hour workday or the IFM would call an international miners' strike. French and Belgian delegates, in addition to the Scottish contingent, supported the resolution. The English delegates protested, however, because Hardie had submitted the resolution without prior consultation. The German delegates pointed out that it would be impossible for them to offer their support as this would mean violating German law and exposing themselves to the risk of imprisonment on their return. They would therefore abstain from voting. When the Welsh delegation said it too lacked the authority to make such an important decision, Hardie withdrew his proposal. Instead, the delegates resolved to include the issue on the agenda of the next congress, in advance of which "all nationalities and districts shall have the question fully laid before the men."

The issue of a statutory eight-hour day was on the agenda of all 24 congresses held by the IFM before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. These agendas gradually became longer and focused more on specific occupational problems. Peter Rütters summarized the issues raised at these congresses:

  • Working conditions: eight-hour working day and a weekly hour cap, a living wage, holiday entitlement, sanctions imposed by employers, openness about deductions from gross pay, eviction from company houses
  • Health and safety: mine inspections, prohibition of child and female labor in mines, hygiene, medical care, hookworm diseases
  • Labor relations: collective bargaining and arbitration, right of association
  • Social security: employer liability in the event of accidents, invalidity benefits and pensions, health insurance, minimum level of benefit
  • Regulation of production: international regulation of production (the so-called Lewy System), coal extraction based on demand; state control/nationalization of mines

One important problem was the close-knit nature of national coal markets. The rapid growth in output at British and German mines ensured that strikes elsewhere would fail. Starting in 1893, Belgian and French delegates therefore tried to win IFM support for the Lewy Plan to regulate European coal production. The Lewy Plan envisaged setting up an international coal cartel in which trade unions, mine owners, and governments would participate; the cartel would set output levels for the various countries and thereby stabilize wages, prices, and the market. The proposal, however, attracted little sympathy.

The domination by British miners continued for several decades but weakened slightly in the course of time. First, Continental trade unions, particularly in Germany, gradually grew and consolidated. Second, the United Mine Workers of America joined the IFM in 1904, after months of correspondence and a visit to the United States from six of the organization's representatives. The UMWA had been founded in 1890 and, after a difficult start, experienced rapid expansion in the late 1890s. By just after 1900 it had around a quarter of a million members. Two UMWA delegates, John Mitchell and William Dodds—the president and secretary of the UMWA—attended the IFM congress in Paris in 1904, the first time the UMWA had sent delegates to an IFM congress. They promised generous financial support to the organization. U.S. competition in the international coal market and the rapid growth in European migration to North America were important reasons for forging transatlantic contacts.

The IFM's organizational structure remained weak for a long time. It had little in the way of an administrative apparatus, and it had just two officials, namely a secretary and a treasurer (both were British until 1914). Coordination was relatively easy because so few countries were members, but the IFM had only a modest regular income. If funds were needed for specific activities, members—especially the MFGB—helped out with ad hoc contributions. The organizations affiliated with the IFM retained full autonomy, and the IFM was unable to make any independent decisions. The annual congresses continued to be its principal activity. Nonetheless, the IFM was one of the first effective international trade secretariats, and apart from during the two world wars, when it was either dissolved or its activities were restricted, it has been in continuous existence to the present day.

Key Players

Burt, Thomas (1837-1922): Burt was a British miner; secretary of the Northumberland Miners' Mutual Confident Association, 1865-1913; liberal Member of Parliament, 1874-1918; and president of the International Peace League, 1882-1914.

Crawford, William (1833-1890): Crawford was a British miner; secretary of the Miners' National Association, 1877-1890; liberal Member of Parliament, 1885-1890.

Hardie, James Keir (1856-1915): Hardie was a British miner; cofounder of the Scottish Miners' Federation in 1886; chairman of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-1900; founder and editor of The Miner, 1887, and subsequently of the Labour Leader; leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, 1906-1908.

See also: Dockers' Strike; Miners' Strike, Germany; United Mine Workers of America.



Herrmann, Karl Georg. Die Geschichte des Internationalen Bergarbeiterverbandes, 1890-1939. Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus Verlag, 1994.

Lazorchick, Daniel C. Miners' International Federation. An International Labor Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1962.

Rütters, Peter. Der Internationale Bergarbeiterverband, 1890 bis 1993. Entwicklung und Politik. Cologne, Germany: Bund-Verlag, 1995.

—Marcel van der Linden

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