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
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
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
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
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
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
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