Interview with a CGT member about the union, 1998

Interview with a CGT member about the union, 1998

An interview with a member of the Spanish syndicalist union, the CGT. We do not necessarily agree with many points in this article, but reproduce for reference.

Although our way of organising might be different from yours we share, as workers, the same problems: unemployment, bad employment, social exclusion. Our enemies have increased. When the AIT was formed, we fought against capitalism and the state. We now have a third and highly treacherous enemy: the bureaucracy of the official unions. It is in part due to the negligence and compliance of the UGT and CCOO that in Spain, out of nearly thirteen million workers, half of them are affected by unemployment. That is, over three million (one in four) unemployed and a similar number have precarious short-term contracts. There are one million families with no employed members. Two million jobless workers have no social benefits or income. I believe that Britain has similar figures, especially in the north. The collaborationist trade unions have joined forces with company owners to improve competitiveness in ever-more difficult international markets in order to maintain jobs, while renouncing previously hard-won gains.

Sustaining struggle
This is where anarcho-syndicalism comes in - an anarcho-syndicalism similar, but not the same, to that which had a glorious existence in the early days of the labour movement. Many of us in Spain have spent years trying to re-build anarcho-syndicalism, but often we have mistakenly tried to reproduce the strategies used in the past when work and employment were central pillars of society of working class society at least.

What we need now is an anarchosyndicalism centred not only in the world of labour but also on the distribution of wealth at all levels of society. The old principles of anarcho-syndicalism are still essential direct action, federalism and mutual aid are more than just organic strategies or methods of struggle. They are the libertarian component of the working class movement.

The workers' movement in Spain has been sustained over the last few decades not just by the anarcho-syndicalists but by many other spontaneous and grassroots movements active in both labour and social struggles. It is on these libertarian principles that we must base ourselves if we want to adapt our most efficient tool - the trade union - to the changes in the capitalist system of production.

Evolving in modern society
Syndicalism must evolve. We must try new scenarios for direct action in order to find a way to spark a revolt - a social response against the capitalist system of consumerism and production. We must address ourselves to the consumer, as we used to do to the producer - a plurality of consumers who logically consume differently according to their means.

Syndical action (anarcho-syndicalism), in its struggle against social processes, has to break the identity of the consumer. Our lives, the way we live, should not be limited by the salaries that we earn and should not be limited by consumerism.

As anarcho-syndicalists our objectives remain the same, but what has changed is the scenario. This is no longer totally linked to salaries and employment (or the equivalent of employment equals salary equals ability to consume) and must be wider ranging. The breath of our action must cover the entire workforce: wage workers, the unemployed, the yet-to-be employed, the so-called inactive housewife. We must invent and apply new ways to satisfy our needs by reappropriating and distributing the socially produced wealth.

I am hoping that the alliance here will propose interesting ways of achieving these goals. To end, I'd like to read a quote by Diego de Santilla: "I didn't come to anarchism after reading books or pamphlets by Kropotkin or anyone else. I came to it because of the moral integrity of the workers who I had met and dealt with. This integrity was our treasure, and we won't be anything if it ceases to exist.

The role of the CGT in Spain
On Franco's death in 1976 there was a political vacuum in industrial organisation in Spain. Workers flocked to join the CNT anarcho-syndicalist union which had managed to maintain a minimum underground structure in Spain as well as the official exiled structure in France throughout the years of dictatorship. This reemergence of anarchism caused the Spanish Minister for the Interior, Martin Villa to, remark, when questioned about ETA, that his biggest concern was in fact the CNT. Soon however, doctrinal differences became apparent (as always with the CNT) and at the Congress of Madrid in 1979 the union split into two factions which in due time became known as the CNT/AIT and the CNT/U. In the early '80s motivated by the chance of having confiscated property returned by the state, the CNT/AIT took the CNT/U to court for 'usurpation'. After three court cases the CNT/AIT finally won the rights to historical patrimony of the CNT name and property. In 1989 the CNT/U were forced to change their name to CGT.

In March 1998 Christopher Robinson, a Canadian who has lived seventeen years in Barcelona and Madrid, attended a conference of syndicalists in Bradford as an official observer for the CGT. John Lawrence took the opportunity to interview Chris on the role of the CGT in Spain. The following is the substance of their conversation.

JL: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I am particularly interested in your views on the CNT-CGT split, how it came about and what the present situation is.
CR: First of all I'd like to stress that anything I say here is my own personal opinion and not offered as on official CGT position. I have been highly critical of the CGT myself and it can be difficult to be always objective. People are so used to hearing affirmations of principle from both parties, while honesty can tend to dwell on the negative, and so help to re-affirm dogmatic views. People don't realise that you're touching nerves - in this country (UK) people seem to take sides like choosing a football team.

JL: Are you saying that people here identify too closely with what should be seen only as internal wrangles?
CR: Partly. Though there are important theoretical differences. History will probably record that the split was caused by the issue of whether or not to participate in Workers' Committees, as the CGT does. But personally I think the main reason was personal differences.

JL: What is the CNT's objection to Workers' Committees ?
CR: The Workers' Committees are an opportunity to work together with other unions. Elections are invoked by the workers and the delegates deal with management. Some people might interpret this as a compromise with the state and I suppose it is a clear invitation to bureaucracy, too. One problem is with the horas sindicales - fifteen to twenty hours away from normal work in factories, given to the elected members of the Workers' Committees and paid for by the companies. CGT delegates do this, but some unions go further, like the UGT (socialists) and CCOO (communists) who survive largely with pay-offs from companies in return for sell-outs on the committees. The CGT strongly opposes this. Having said that, it wouldn' t surprise me if someone somewhere said "Yes but the CGT in such and such a place signed something to the effect that . . ." and so on. The thing is, we are a union based on libertarian principles and we don't have an internal doctrinal police force. In short, the CNT view the Workers' Committees as indirect non-action whereas the CGT feel that, if used carefully, they can be an effective form of direct action.

JL: Can you tell me something about the CGT's work and organisation?
CR: We currently number about 35,000 members, mostly in cities and small towns working in a mixture of industries, for example car factories . Actually we're strongest in big factories, and in banks, telephone companies, RENFE and other rail companies in which we have received 10% or more of the delegates in the Workers' Committees. We also have isolated strongholds like cinema workers in Barcelona, health workers in Malaga, teachers in Granada and even forest firefighters in Valencia! This is a reflection of the work of our militants. If we are not strong in, say, cinema workers in Madrid, it is because we don't have any active members in that sector. We have the same organic structure as the CNT; the nucleus is in local trade unions organised around a trade, for example education of transport. These local trade unions also have secciones - univesity professors in education of Metro Workers in transport, for example. Each trade union joins the others in their municipality in a federation and the several federations join a regional confederation. On a parallel level, each trade union forms part of a national federation of that particular trade.

JL: Do you have full-time paid officials ?
CR: In the national permanent secretariat there tend to be one or two full or part-time paid officials, paid a worker's salary, invariably below what they were making before. Also different federations and confederations have full and part-time paid officials according to their needs. And then there's the liberados on the factory committees, as I mentioned earlier.

JL: Given that there are two high profile anarcho-syndicalist organisations, how would, say, a young person attracted to anarchism decide who to join?
CR: Both have members who are students, unemployed or retired. People who consider themselves libertarian and want to join something libertarian are often attracted to the name 'CNT'. Obviously the CGT are more prominent in terms of numbers - I last heard the CNT/AIT have around two thousand members. In my experience in Madrid, young people will often join an organisation al azar (by chance), but they often find the CNT/AIT too rigid and dogmatic while the CGT is too pragmatic and 'uncool', so they end up joining the Autonomos with the circled A, hammer and sickle, and star!

JL: You have touched on the pragmatism of the CGT. Is there a danger that this can lead to a loss of anarchist principles? For example, is there any truth in the allegation that the CGT has a police trade union?
CR: I can only speak for the post-Franco years, when the CGT have never allowed police to join. It was clarified in a congress around 1980 that no member of military, repressive or armed forces like the police, including Guardia Civil, Policia National, Policia Autonoma, Policia Municipal, Guardias Jurados (sworn security guards) can join the CGT and that's how it is in the statutes. This particular story originates in a small town in Catalunya when a small group of municipal police set up a Sindicato de Policia and applied to join the local federation of the CGT. Entrance was refused. Since then they have imitated our logo (clenched fists) and added their own initials. These people have no bilateral contacts at any level with the CGT. On their web page on the Internet they call themselves anarchosyndicalists, admit that they were refused entry into the CGT because of our statutes, but declare that they have nevertheless based their model of organisation on the CGT. This is upsetting, of course, but what do you expect us to do? Take them to court? Set them on fire? I don't think we should waste our time on such things.

JL: What struggles is the CGT involved in at the moment?
CR: Obviously we're opposing the privatisation of RENFE and we' re also trying to reduce overtime and reduce the working week in all sections of the economy. In Spain in major companies ninety million hours of overtime are worked yearly. In banks workers do twenty million hours of unpaid overtime, and in small companies there are uncountable hours of overtime worked, both paid and unpaid. Many workers do want to work overtime, but our stand on the issue has gained us respect. Other unions respond with all talk and no action, while the CGT has taken legal action and won several cases. It is said that the CGT is el Syndicato del 'no!'. Much of our work on Workers' Committees is to reject sell-outs by the CCOO and the UGT and wherever possible mobilise workers, often successfully, against them.

JL: Can you tell me something about the situation in your home city of Madrid ?
CR: Madrid has always been problematic. We seem to live more intensely any strife in the CGT throughout the country - it's very exaggerated between us. However in the last couple of years I have seen a detente as people put their goals in order. At the same time that Madrid never had a strong anarcho-syndicalist tradition, it has grown tremendously in the last five years, from 1,000 to 1,500 members. This is worrying because at times members have joined en masse, such as disenchanted members of the CCOO. They of course have to follow our libertarian statutes, but I suppose it's not always easy. Recently six hundred printers were virtually forced to leave their CCOO union and they joined us en masse. We are aware of the dangers of growing too fast, but I think this diversity of opinions within a libertarian framework is a faithful reflector of the CNT in the '30s. No one really thinks there were millions of anarchists singing their babies to sleep with 'a las barricadas'

JL: Is there anywhere where the CGT has working relationship with the CNT?
CR: In some specific areas where the CNT organise we work together, for example Cadiz Docks and in Madrid postal workers and airport workers. Unfortunately I don't see full co-operation happening soon because both unions have members with extreme personal differences. There shouldn't exist two anarcho-syndicalist federations in the same country, in my opinion. People outside Spain might not realise that people like myself who are members of the CGT are at the same time perfectly capable of praising any action by the CNT/AIT who are very active in promoting anarchism, if in a non-syndicalist way.

JL: A letter to Freedom from the Manchester Solidarity Federation alleges that the CGT is "conducting high level secret negotiations with the CCOO (former Stalinists) and the UGT (socialists) of PSOE unions with a view to amalgamation. " What do you say to that?
CR: That's completely laughable. It's written by someone who doesn't know what they're talking about. CCOO and UGT leaders would never dream of amalgamating with the CGT. On a national level, and at most local levels, our relations with them are bad, virtually non-existent. Our goals and strategies are radically different. Their leaders are trying to maintain the status quo and their cushy jobs while we want to create a new society. Although in membership the CGT is comparatively small, in militancy we are relatively strong, so a hypothetical amalgamation would be like injecting a libertarian virus into an authoritarian structure. It would make it easier for us to spread our views and actions and would shake its foundations.

JL: Has the CGT got any presence in rural areas ?
CR: If you're asking about organising peasant farmers, the answer is 'very little'. Peasant farmers are an endangered species in this country. Historically it is true that the original CNT had different trends, with industrial workers in the north interpreting anarcho-syndicalism differently from farm workers in the south. And I suppose that nowadays there might be sympathy from farm workers, once again showing that Marx was wrong in expecting a revolution to come only from industrial city workers. But social conditions in the countryside have changed drastically in Spain since the turn of the century. Whereas unemployment is still high in the south, social exclusion and extreme poverty exist in both northern cities and southern farming villages and is often worse in the former. Farm workers still maintain specific demands like the reforma agraria, but they and their children now read the same papers, watch the same TV programmes and follow the same education systems as people in the cities. Perhaps you could say that economic globalisation is bringing about a single thinking process in the worker's psyche.

JL: What do you think of the slogan 'no compromise with the state in any shape or form ' ?
CR: Beautiful words which had meaning, have meaning, and will have meaning with different interpretations at each historical point of time.

JL: Thank you, Chris.

From Freedom, Spring 1998