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Strike of the match packers in Kristiania (1889) - “A match,” muses the German saying when left, “breaks – but not thirty.” That is banal and convincing at the same time. This miniature eulogy for strength in community can be applied to so many things. For example, labor disputes. For example, a labor dispute in a match factory.



It is an October day in 1889. In Kristiania, Norway, now Oslo, the gates of the Bryn and Grønvold match factories open in the early hours of the morning. Like every morning, when you pass through those same gates, the mouths of the workers employed here open. At the beginning of a 12 to 14 hour working day surrounded by toxic phosphorus secretions there is the obligatory dental check-up. Anyone who has holey teeth, and there can be quite a few in 1889, has to turn back. Tooth decay is phosphorus' friend. The highly toxic white phosphorus, which was used to produce matches until 1906, enters the jaw through hands, food and damaged teeth, affects the bones and ultimately leads to necrosis, the decay of the jawbone. For the employer, this chronic threat of phosphorus poisoning means the undesirable loss of workers. For the employees themselves, they mean pain, lifelong disfigurement, illness or death.


And yet it was not the particularly dangerous handling of white phosphorus under miserable sanitary conditions that initiated the Norwegian match packers' strike on October 23, 1889, but rather the announcement of a cut in the already low wages by up to 20 percent. She persuades almost 370 women to stop working in the two factories and fight for fairer pay, shorter working days and better sanitary working conditions. Perhaps they were inspired by newspaper reports about the match girls striking in London. A year earlier, in 1888, they had gone on strike in London's East End for better working conditions.


What began spontaneously and completely unorganized should become a cornerstone of the Norwegian labor movement. The strike arouses great public sympathy. The workers quickly receive support and, above all, strike instructions from various directions. The Norwegian Women's Affairs Association intervenes, well-known women's activists such as Ragna Nielsen and Margrethe Vullum jump to the workers' side, and the editor of the socialist newspaper Social-Democrats Carl Jeppesen offers his help. A strike committee is founded and a strike fund is opened to compensate for lost wages. Demonstrations and benefit concerts are organized, money is collected and at a large, well-attended workers' meeting the health dangers of the work - primarily phosphorus necrosis - are brought to the attention and awareness of the shocked public. Carl Jeppesen also strongly advocates for women to organize themselves into a union: “Without an association they cannot improve their position, only through an association do they get the power and strength to achieve something.” Or in short: a match breaks , but not thirty.


With the founding of their own union on October 28, 1889, the match girls from Bryn and Grønvold made strike history. Even though the workers' achievements during the strike, which lasted until December, were more than modest at the time, their industrial action is now one of the most famous in the history of the Norwegian labor movement. As one of the first labor disputes that knows how to use (or learns to use) both public media opinion-forming and the union as a form of organization, it sets the tone for the country's trade union movement.


Kerstin Roose
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