Coordinadora - Spanish dock workers build union without bureaucrats

Article by Don Fitz about the Coordinadora Estatal de Trabajadores del Mar, a Spanish dock workers union, which is very uncritical, but contains useful information.

Submitted by Mark. on January 6, 2008

"The unity maintained during our difficult strike [in 1976] taught us that this unity was too precious to be destroyed by endless sloganeering and sectarianism. We understood that our decisions could not be delegated to union bureaucrats.

"To hand over our proletarian responsibility to representatives is to throw away our need as a class to participate in social transformation. We realized that we would never arrive at the social revolution through leaders or liberators. Those caught up in and distracted by the obligations of their positions and the representative function they flaunt end up distancing themselves from those they represent. As they are not affected by the same problems, troubles or struggles, they end up almost unable to to recognize them. The estrangement is inevitable.

"We want this to be an organization of unity and struggle which shuns bureaucratization and bosses. All decisions are to be arrived at through the assembly. No one is obligated to belong to it, neither are they excluded from it. Being dockers is what counts." -- OEPB (Barcelona affiliate of La Coordinadora)

Spanish Dock Workers Build Union Without Bureaucrats
Containerization has devastated port labor throughout the world. Spanish struggles over containerization have been unique because a "socialist" government has spearheaded port reorganization and it has met stiff resistance from the revolutionary union of longshoremen, La Coordinadora. Coordinadora's unique combination of hiring hall job rotation, industrial unionism, and Spanish anarcho-syndicalist assemblyism has earned it a reputation as one of the most democratic labor organizations anywhere in the world.

The Technological Marvel
Maritime unions have historically been strong in Spain because ports are a nerve center for its economy. At one time, longshoring provided jobs for 20,000 men. They worked in tight-knit groups, making sure that cargo was hauled in and stacked properly. But the days of lifting bundles of cowhides, rolling barrels, and wheeling crates on dollies are two decades past. Cargo is now packed into 40' x 8' x 8' containers (the smaller sizes are 20' long). Straddle carriers, giant forklifts and cranes load containers into ships or unload them directly onto trucks and trains.

Shippers laud this transformation as a technological wonder. It has allowed them to dramatically increase the quantity of cargo moved while cutting the number of the world's longshore jobs in half. Since this means an even larger cut in the handling cost per piece of cargo, containerization has won enthusiastic encouragement from manufacturing capitalists. These lower handling costs are central to the strategy of breaking American industrial unions. Raw materials and parts can be shipped cheaply to Taiwan or South Korea or the Philippines where they are assembled under the watchful goons of anti-communism and finished products are then returned for sale to the U.S. and elsewhere. Containerization has thus simultaneously been a specific weapon of the shipping companies against longshore men and a general weapon of business against all manufacturing workers.

The other reason that dockers are unlikely to share businessmen's ecstasy over this technological marvel is its effect on worklife. Many operators sit isolated, 20 feet aloft in a crane rather than in a workgang rolling barrels and stacking crates. Partners fasten containers from each side, only able to see each other briefly when they get to the end of the container. This new type of work has reduced the number of accidents while increasing their severity. Coordinadora's paper, la Estiba ("The Stevedore"), frequently reports a docker whose leg was crushed or who was killed by a falling container.

Hiring Halls: The Weapon of Equality
The main line of defense longshoremen have always had against the bosses' latest onslaught has been their control over hiring. The Spanish hiring halls are a far cry from their American counterparts where teamster and longshore jobs are often plums for the best friends of the local job dispatchers. Dockers point with great pride to the rows and columns of tags which each bear one longshoreman's number. Those at the top of the list receive the first jobs that come in. Job dispatchers of the Office for Port Labor (OTP), a division of the Spanish Labor Ministry, then move the tags of those who are hired to the bottom of the list.

If this were all there were to the system, shippers could look at the tags and hold back on a job request if known militants were next in line. To prevent this, there is assignment of work to each employer by chance. The Valencia system involves writing a number on each shippers' job request form, putting ping pong balls with corresponding numbers in an old Clorox bottle, and shaking out the ping pong balls one at a time to decide which employer gets the next set of workers.

This system of job rotation lies at the core of strikes which have shaken Spanish harbors ever since its institution shortly after Franco's death. When I was in Spain during the port strikes of the last week of 1987, dockers repeatedly emphasized to me that there is no favoritism in their work assignments. With work evenly distributed, there is no group of unemployed longshoremen who might step in when others are on strike.

While this was at least the stated goal of longshore hiring halls on the U.S. West Coast for over 30 years, there is an essential part of the Spanish system for which I know of no American counterpart. Their hiring halls include every docker -- rank and file longshoremen, delegados (delegates, who are much like American shop stewards), local president, and national officers. If you ask dockers, "How is your union different from the larger ones?" you virtually always get the answer: the officers do the same work as everyone else. Well aware that election to office is the best way to escape from the workplace in most unions, Spanish longshoremen take pride in the everyday practice of their egalitarian ideology.

Echoes of Self-management
Current conflicts between the anarchosyndicalist ideas which are central to the Coordinadora and the authoritarian outlook of the large union federations are inherited directly from the Spanish Civil War. The liberal Republican government elected in February, 1936 was unable to either bring economic equality or put a stop to the massive strikes and land seizures which were sweeping Spain. So with the backing of Hitler and Mussolini, Generalissimo Francisco Franco initiated a coup on July 19 to destroy the gains made by Spain's underclasses. When refused arms by the elected government, Spanish workers and peasants obtained weapons on their own, won over many soldiers, took back several garrisons, and halted Franco's march. In perhaps the only historic instance stance of peasants' instituting land collectivization rather than resisting it, rural Aragonese tossed out the local gentry and shared the farming of large estates. Unlike Russia 20 years earlier, Catalonian workers did not look to the state to organize industry, but seized and themselves ran factories and transportation systems. The anarchist Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT, National Confederation of Labor), which had been founded in 1910, swelled to over a million members (1), becoming Spain's largest labor organization. During the first year of the Civil War, rural anarcho-communists and urban anarcho-syndicalists were able to put the CNT theory of assemblyism into practice, assemblyism being the idea that general assemblies make important decisions and elected delegados have no power other than carrying out those mandates.

This was in direct contradiction to Socialist and Communist dogmas that top-down organization should be used to prevent rural and urban workers from going "too far," lest they alienate the timid middle classes. But Russia was the only country which would sell (not give, sell) arms to the Republican government and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) grew rapidly. In May 1937, it launched an internal counterrevolution, attacking anarchist control of communications in Barcelona and then bloodily taking lands from rural collectives and returning it to landlords. With the PCE leading it by the nose, the Republican government destroyed all hopes that the revolution would create an egalitarian society, simultaneously destroying all reasons for sacrificing for the revolution. By 1939, Franco conquered all of Spain and began the great European slaughter which drove radicals who were still alive into exile and became a prelude to Hitler's death camps.

The Shroud Lifted
For decades after World War II, Spain remained an embarrassment to capitalism's liberal facade. Dockers, like other workers, were humiliated by compulsory membership in fascist company unions. But, in the early 1970s, sporadic worker protests became more and more common. Rallies frequently held an aura of Civil War days. These assemblies took the name of "workplace commissions" (Comisiones Obreras, abreviated CC.OO). At that time, many left groups participated in the CC.OO, with the best organized being members of the PCE. Franco's belated death in 1975 transformed these sporadic outbursts into a flood of activity. Early the following year, an open-air rally of the CNT drew 150,000 in Barcelona. The Union General de Trabajadores (UGT, or General Union of Workers), affiliated with the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrera de Espana (PSOE, or Spanish Socialist Workers Party) mushroomed to 2 million members. The PCE quickly manoeuvred itself into having controlling interests over the CC.OO.

Taken aback, the first post-Franco government (UCD) announced toleration of all parties except the PCE. Longshoremen joined the 1976 strike to force its legalization. Shippers fired seven longshoremen as the government was giving in. The dockers then asked the PCE to organize a strike to help get their jobs back and were told that the time was not right.

At this time of intense organizing efforts, the anarchists won decisive influence among workers who were already leaning in their direction. Dockers formed their own union, La Coordinadora Estatal de Estibadores Portuarios [State-wide Coordination of Port Stevedores], or la Coordinadora, as it has come to be known.

Coordinadora immediately outdistanced the UGT and CC.OO each of which sought to organize Spanish ports. It won over 99% support in the two largest ports of Las Palmas and Barcelona. Of the three medium-sized ports, Coordinadora has 80% support in Bilboa and over 90% support in Valencia and Cadiz. The UGT and CC.OO each predominate in one of the 17 or 18 smaller ports, with Coordinadora averaging over 90% support in the others.

An Attempt at Cooptation
The government decided it would be prudent to woo collaboration from the UGT and CC.OO by returning to them large quantities of property which Franco had stolen [from the unions]. Barcelona Coordinadora naturally asked to receive the building owned by [CNT] longshoremen up to 1939. Not comfortable dealing with such a volatile workforce element, the government waddled. Barcelona dockers then physically occupied the building. This is somewhat reminiscent of U.S. sit-down strikes of the '30s, lunch-counter civil rights sit-ins, and student anti-war occupations of administration buildings. The difference is that the Barcelona longshoremen never left. But they did work out a compromise to pay the government rent.

The government soon set up a system of comites de empressa (literally, "enterprise committees," but, more often translated "works committees"). They consist of delegados who are elected by a complex proportion which has the worker/delegado ratio increase as the number of employees increases. The larger unions worked out a deal whereby the government would reimburse each elected delegate for 40 hours of work per month to free him to do union tasks. Spanish port strikes erupted when the government repeatedly ignored Coordinadora's request that its delegados be reimbursed likewise. The 1980 struggle was costly. During mass picketing at Las Palmas (the large port in the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of North Africa) a non-union truck driver ran over and killed Belen Maria, a striker's 17-year-old daughter. The government gave in; but, her picture still reminds everyone entering the Barcelona union office of the price Coordinadora paid for equal treatment.

While these port struggles were going on, the CNT, which was the source of many of the dockers’ basic ideas of union organization, became embroiled in a bitter internal distpute over the comites. The official CNT position criticized the comites for being a labor bureaucracy which is not obliged to call for, or follow directives from, a workplace General Assembly, is free to negotiate deals behind workers' backs, is not subject to recall, has greater job security than other workers, and wins the privilege of not working on the shop floor for 40 hours every month. Some CNT members acknowledge that these drawbacks are severe, but feel that, since the comites are where negotiations are occurring, remaining aloof from them would relegate the CNT to being a political sect with a paper program rather than a labor organization with guidelines for actively participating in workplace struggles. They developed an approach of trying to get a few CNT members elected to each comite so they can report back to the members how the UGT and CC.OO are planning to manoeuvre. They argue that this is not incompatible with advocating that ultimate power should rest with each workplace general assembly.

Two CNTs
After those advocating staying outside of the comites won a majority at the fifth CNT congress in 1979, many who intended to participate in them held a conference in Valencia in 1980. The anti-comite majority was often referred to as the CNT-AIT because of its affiliation with the AIT (International Workers Association) while the Valencia minority was called the CNT-V. But, an opposition within the larger CNT began advocating work within the comites and left in 1984, being called the CNT-O. It was particularly strong among transportation and factory workers in Barcelona. Later that year the CNT-V and CNT-O held a joint conference with a small group of Catalan nationalists (CNT-PC, for Paix Catalan) to created a "unified" CNT (CNT-U) [now called the CGT -- General Confederation of Labor]. Today the size of these two CNTs is a source of vigorous disputes, though my sources believe each has about 10,000 members (2).

Despite the heat generated by their differences, the two CNTs actually have a lot in common. While the UGT and CC.OO find nothing wrong with the comites being the decision-making body at each workplace, both CNTs want ultimate authority to rest with the assembleas generales. Either CNT would have regular assembleas as well as allowing for special ones to be called by 10% of the workers or one elected delegate. Both have the same internal structure: there are geographical as well as union representatives at CNT congresses. They believe that geographical groupings, which focus on issues such as women's liberation, anti-militarism, and environmentalism help give the unions a broader perspective for reorganizing society. Simultaneously, they feel that their industry-wide organizations will both provide a basis for social restructuring and prevent the geographical groupings from degenerating into political interest groups.

Attack of the Social Democracy
While the CNTs were squaring off against each other, the social democrats were preparing to take on the Spanish working class with longshoremen targeted for special treatment. The first post-Franco "center-right" UCD government had led the 1980-81 attack on dockworkers with unsuccessful hopes of "privatizing" Spanish ports. Rather than having work shared through hiring halls, they wished to make all dockers private employees of individual shippers.

In 1982, PSOE assumed power, probably with the votes of many dockers who expected that harassment of their union would abate. It did not. PSOE's Felipe Gonzalez had to deal with the fact that strong hiring halls and repeated port turmoil made Spanish docks inefficient by standards of the world market. Within a few years of becoming Prime Minister, Felipe demonstrated that a social democratic government could pursue "privatization" with a vigor that would make Margaret Thatcher blush green with envy. The years immediately preceding PSOE's "reorganization" plan saw a series of strikes that were the most typical of Spain's port conflicts. In 1983, the Sealand Company began to use non-registered dockers to unload fish in the southern port of Algeciras. The local media fantasized that the strike was being manipulated by Barcelona dockers at the expense of Algeciras jobs. In the middle of this campaign, the UGT persuaded several dockers to march in a back-to-work parade carrying banners reading "Algeciras, Si; Barcelona, No!" Several nation-wide port shutdowns convinced Algeciras longshoremen that they were not being sacrificed to the Catalonians, and Sealand finally signed a 1985 agreement to use only hiring hall dockers. That this turmoil endured for three years shows that longshoremen have not achieved total unity. The possibility of some dockers grabbing at the lure of permanent employment with one shipper is an omnipresent threat to the port workers. At times, the number of Barcelona dockers working outside of the hiring hall has approached 30%. The frequency of Spain's port strikes comes largely from the shippers wanting to test whether docker unity can be broken.

Like Dracula drooling at a cut finger, the PSOE government could not resist using every such division in the working class to pimp "efficiency" and "reorganization" gimmicks. Particularly hard hit has been the shipbuilding and related industries of northern Spain where the government schemed for tens of thousands of jobs to disappear. Of course, this meant increasing unemployment, whose official rate shot up from 14% to 21% during the first four years of Gonzalez' "socialism." Though the social democratic UGT had opposed the "fund to promote employment" (FPE) plan (a hoax to "buy" jobs for three years unemployment benefits) during the UCD government, its union bosses were pushing the same plans for layoffs suggested by Felipe Gonzales in 1985. This is the same Felipe who campaigned on opposition to membershlp in NATO and turned around to promote Spanish militarism and posed in army suits to spiff up his image with the right crowds.

Law and Liberty
The first climax of PSOE's anti-working class thrust was the 1984 Orwellian-titled Ley Organica de Libertad Sindical (Law of Trade Union Freedom). The law aimed to serve freedom by enslaving workers to the Socialist- and Communist-dominated labor federations. Article 6 required unions to receive 10% of the votes cast nationally to stand on local slates for comites. Of course, since only the UGT and CC.OO obtain this many votes in the country at large, the law is merely a flimsy disguise for making them the "official" unions of the state. Were it to be strictly applied, the law would mean that, if the UGT and CC.OO did not receive a single vote at an enterprise where workers wished independent representation, they would be forced to choose between the official unions. However, the militancy of Spanish workers has prevented the sort of enforcement the PSOE would like.

Other provisions of the Ley Organica fueled the CNT-AIT's claim that the comites were arms of the state. It bought the loyalty of the UGT and CC.OO for about $2.5 million each. It affirmed the right to strike for the "major" unions. And it changed the length of office for delegados from two to four years.

Beaming with pride at its 1984 efforts to pacify Spanish labor, PSOE singled out dockers for a 1986 legal attack. A new "reorganization" scheme would replace the OTP (Office for Port Labor) with 27 regional consejos estatales (state councils). The divide-and-conquer strategy would force separate agreements in each port, thereby allowing shippers to increase their business where the union proved weakest. Even the more important, the law could reduce the hiring halls to providing only one of four types of docker. A more privileged category would be steady employees of the major shipping companies. Companies would be free to hire "occasional workers" during periods of intense port activity. A fourth category would be part-time workers in a sort of state-run "training program " The shippers dreamed of a laissez faire labor world where groups of longshoremen would compete among themselves within each port while ports competed with each other. But in typical Spanish legal fashion the statutes were quite ambiguous and seemed to invite a whole new round of strikes to specify how they would be implemented.

No one had to wait long. The government initiated a massive publicity drive to win public support for port "modernization." Coordinadora asked for space to describe how the law would pit longshoremen against one another. Outraged that Spanish media would not present their side Barcelona dockers drove a caravan of loading equipment out of the harbor. As the police ordered them to turn around they responded that if they were not allowed to pass they would drive the lifts into the water. The police backed down; the dockers tied up Barcelona traffic for two hours; and Spanish media presented Coordinadora's interpretation of the law.

The tremendous morale boost of that demonstration notwithstanding, the law was a profound victory for the employers. Later that year, the huge shipping company, Contenemar, decided that it was time to flex employer muscle in a big way. It initiated an unabashed drive to sign up Barcelona dockers without going through the hiring hall. Once again, Spanish ports were shut down in particularly bitter strikes. Fascist groups provided several dozen strikebreakers. Union demonstrators broke through police lines, dragged the scabs off of forklifts, and threw them into the water. But the fascists were back under heavier police guard the following day and it was only the ability to close down ports across the country that pressured Contenemar into signing a 1987 agreement to phase out non-registered dockers.

Uncertain Future
The government became determined to institute the "reorganization" in late 1987 and stonewalled Coordinadora, refusing to let the union participate in any discussions of its plans. After repeated attempts to negotiate, the Coordinadora called a one-day port strike which halted Spanish shipping on December 28, 1987. If the government continued to be unresponsive, the union promised a week-long strike beginning January 4, to be followed by a one-hour-work-the- next-hour-don't-work strike indefinitely. (This type of strike maximizes the disruption of port activity while minimizing the lost pay of dockers.)

The January strike proved unnecessary when the government reversed itself and agreed to negotiate. Many dockers felt that the agreement reached in February successfully staved off the threat of total privatization while others thought it gave away more than was necessary. Details of the accord are not clear, but the union was able to wrest a promise from the government that it will include Coordinadora in any future planning of port reorganization. Companies have pledged to have some hiring hall dockers in all jobs. Companies also gave up their demand to differentiate between hiring hall dockers and fijos ("fixed employees, whose jobs are not rotated, such as crane drivers) so that the agreement covers both. There is great room for an unfolding conflict -- while dockers won a pledge for future negotiations to be on a national level with all employers simultaneously, the proportion of privately employed dockers (not through the hiring hall) will be settled separately at each of the consejos estatales. Barcelona will allow 10% of private employees and another 20% who may be hired from times varying from 1 to 3 years. Other consejos have probably negotiated similar proportions. Several ports were uncomfortable with this "creeping privatization" as well as with provisions for forced early retirement with 100% compensation. La Estiba has published objections that the agreement was done too rapidly and amended after approval by the general assemblies. However, the contract only lasts for one year and the track record of the shippers suggests an uncontrollable urge to overstep any toehold in privatization they have.
Who is the User and Who is the Used?

Anarchists have long been characterized by their hostility to the state. Many feel that anyone who is involved with the state in any way is inevitably used by the state for its oppressive ends. Coordinadora and Spanish anarchism are faced with this critical question: Is it possible for the working class to use institutions of the state without setting themselves up to become pawns of the state?

Spanish dockers have been involved with the state on several levels:

* The government registers dockers by civil service examinations and there is no evidence that the union resists the state's selecting of longshoremen,
* In contrast to the U.S., where job dispatchers are often union members or co-selected by the union and employers, the Spanish longshore dispatchers are state employees,
* For years, Coordinadora has insisted upon a nation-wide agreement which includes the OTP; and
* At least in Barcelona and Valencia, elected delegados [i.e. of the comites] function as the coordinating committee for the union.

This last point suggests that the union has taken a structure created by the state and incorporated it for its own organization. There are plentiful historical examples of workers using cracks in the ruling class's control of the state to their advantage. Perhaps most familiar to American radicals is how John Sayles's film Matewan portrays a sheriff (and a mayor) who, in a sincere desire to be "neutral," end up fighting for the miners against the company.

Unquestionably, politicans serving the interests of the capitalist class is true as a long-term tendency which can occasionally work in the opposite direction on a lower level. After the American Civil War, the many blacks elected to local office helped to protect freedmen for several years prior to the triumph of the Klan. Less well known are the Zhubatov unions of Russia which were set up by Tsarist agents but were often taken over by revolutionaries and used for goals totally opposite to those intended by their founders. Moving to the Spain of the 1970s, the fascist FNS unions set up by Franco often became a focal point of radicals, who organized to enter and disrupt them.

Egalitarianism in Practice
Involvement with the Spanish state has not led Coordinadora to compromise its principles of egalitarianism. Longshoremen often sharply disagree with each other and with their negotiating teams, as the pages of La Estiba amply demonstrate. But no one disputes that fundamental decisions rest with the rank and file, and more importantly, that membership on a negotiating team is not a bureaucratic appointment which excuses one from work on the docks. A major reason for the Spanish government's setting up the comites de empresa was the hope of derailing the growing assemblyism of the late 1970s. Its goal was to create an elite grouping of negotiators who would use their election as an escape route from the shop floor. Such an elite could be expected to manipulate and betray the rank and file in order to preserve their positions in the labor bureaucracy. The UGT and CC.OO have eagerly adopted the goals of the state as their own.

In sharp contrast, Coordinadora has coopted the state's comite system and used it as a mechanism of democratic self-management of the union. There is no better illustration of this than their use of the delegado system. The government would have a fixed comite consisting of elected delegados who settle all disputes without other workers knowing what's going on. But in Coordinadora, any union member can both sit in on any delegado meeting and vote in it. This is an old Spanish anarchist tradition intended to ensure that decision makers are not separated from the rest of the membership.

When I first saw this in practice during the December 28, 1987 strike, it seemed that there was little point to electing representatives if anyone who showed up at meetings could vote. It took me some time to realize that this was one way for Coordinadora to turn the comite into a vehicle for carrying out the mandates of the asemblea general. Accepting election as a delegado means volunteering to do a great deal of work for the union -- showing up at a delegado meeting is a way of volunteering to do the work of helping to hammer out the details of implementing decisions of the asemblea. "Packing," a delegado meeting with those who would vote a certain way would be seen as infantile. It would also be an exercise in futility since the next asemblea would simply reverse any decision made. In actuality, it is extraordinarily improbable that such power politics would enter dockers' heads because after the meeting is over, everyone goes back to the hiring hall and waits for a job where survival depends on coordination and trust Most people do not scheme how to outmanoeuvre a crane operator who swings 20 ton containers over their heads. Spanish libertarians who participate in the comites soon find out that the government has no provision for recall of delegados. (This can hardly be attributed to oversight, given the Socialist and Communist passion for creating a class of labor piglets whose lifework is manipulating the lives of others.) By the middle 1980s the CNT-U [now CGT] developed the practice of requiring all who run for election on its slate to present the local with an undated letter of resignation. If the delegado is voted out, the local CNT officer dates the letter and the delegado is "resigned."

The longshoremen have an equally interesting method of removing a delegado -- he is simply voted out and the solidarity of the docks convinces him to step down, regardless of what slate rules and regulations may dictate. This happened early in Coordinadora's history, when it decided to have frequent zone and national meetings which would be funded from the money the government reimburses delegados for union work. Longshoremen voted that delegados would donate governmental money to the union, thereby requiring them to do their delegate work on top of the full month's longshore work.

(This decision was consistent with the old anarchist practice of having much of the coordinating work done by a few highly dedicated activists.)

The union felt strongly enough about needing the money to recall two elected delegados who refused to go along with the vote of their asemblea general. The government reimbursements are important for financing meetings between representatives of Coordinadora's five port zones. Meetings can be as infrequent as monthly, or can be several times a week during negotiations or strikes. The National Coordinating Committee consists of the National Coordinator and one representative chosen by each zonal meeting. It is responsible for overall communication and nation-wide negotiations with the shippers and government.

The maiority of Coordinadora's budget goes to paying for food, lodging and time lost at work for representatives to attend these meetings. Representatives tend to be delegados who will be compensated for time lost at work due to zone or national meetings but will not be compensated for local union work. Rotating the delegados who attend these wider meetings provides an opportunity for many to become acquainted with the concerns of those in other ports.

This sharing of thoughts is vital to Coordinadora's survival because each local is totally autonomous. The concept of a national body putting a local into "receivership" (grabbing its bank account and appointing its officers) is unknown. It is impossible for the national union to force locals to go out on strike. Consequently, the only way a national port strike can occur is for each autonomous union to recognize that a threat to another port is a threat to itself. The strike over unloading fish in Algeciras and use of non-registered dockers in Barcelona did not happen because the National Coordinating Committee "called" them. These port shut-downs were so successful because the coordinating bodies had numerous meetings for longshoremen throughout the country to become familiar with the dangers in particular ports.

Zone meetings only allow for a few more representatives from a port that may be 100 times the size of a smaller port and the resulting vote distribution may seem quite undemocratic. But democracy in the sense of gaining 50%-plus-one votes cannot apply to port strikes. Every major port must be shut down for the strike to win. Zone meetings are not so much for dockers to have a formal vote as a time to figure out if the feeling of militancy is simultaneously high in every port.

Aware of the dangers of interport rivalry, Coordinador's zonal meetings are a communication system which use strong feelings between longshoremen as a basis for solidarity between ports. There is an interesting parallel in the way the union selects its National Coordinator. There is such a dislike of power politics that he is chosen in a two part process: first, a national vote decides the port he will come from; and, second, dockers from that port elect him (3). The longshoremen prevent the "electioneering" that accompanies nationwide elections by having the officer determined only by people who have worked with him on the docks.

Working Together
Of those unions which predominate in any sector of a nation's industry, Coordinadora may be the world's most democratic. This is not to say it is without serious problems. Any union under the combined attack of business, the government, and the Socialist and Communist labor bureaucracies must worry about its chances for survival. Internal disagreements about the 1988 port settlement will certainly make Coordinadora's next few years critically important.

One problem which I sensed could well be a characteristic of Spanish anarchism rather than specific to the dockers' union. This was a lack of [practices to] draw the maximum number of people into the daily functioning of the union. Coordinadora seems to have inherited the practice of much of union affairs being handled by a relatively small number of dedicated activists. Of course, it is nothing like the UGT and CC.OO, which are staffed by full-time union bureaucrats who do not return to rank and file labor. Nevertheless, Coordinadora could benefit by the libertarian practices of...limiting the number of successive years a person may hold office, having different people chair meetings, attempting to involve every member in some type of committee or other ongoing work, and systematically seeking the input of quieter people....

If total abstention from the state and its institutions is a rigid anarchist dogma, it is a dogma whose time for discarding has arrived. Many other anarchist ideas are not a source of division between libertarians. The 1977 Spanish pamphlet, What is the CNT? advocates that " is the assembly of all members, not the committee, which forms the union." It goes on to explain that, "Direct action means that the CNT resolves its conflicts directly with the body concerned and rejects intermediaries or professionals who act on behalf of the membership." There are the sorts of principles that can unify libertarian socialists and anarchists.

Special thanks to Stan Weir who explained to me the ins and outs of longshoring and the capitalist fascination with containerization.

First published in the Workers Solidarity Alliance magazine Ideas & Action, issue 11, summer 1989.

Coordinadora Estatal de Trabajadores del Mar website

1. In July of 1936 the CNT had about 1.7 million members. The membership mushroomed to 3 million during the civil war.

2. CNT payment of dues to the national bodies is voluntary. Although each of the CNTs had about 10,000 members paying voluntary assessment to its national committee, the membership of the local unions was greater than this. As of 2000, the CGT was the larger of the two unions, with about 30,000 members.

3. Actually, this is another old Spanish anarchist practice. The CNT historically did not have nationwide elections of its national committee. The national congress would select the location and then the local unions in that locale would elect the national committee.