Anarcho-syndicalism in Puerto Real (review)

Anarcho-syndicalism in Puerto Real

From Shipyard resistance to direct democracy and community control

This short pamphlet consists of a talk given at an anarcho-syndicalist dayschool in London in 1993, by Pepe Gomez, a militant of the CNT in Puerto Real / Cadiz. There are other elements to this pamphlet but its real value lies in setting out, from the mouth of an anarcho-syndicalist, what anarcho-syndicalism is all about.

This is directly opposite from what most critics of anarcho-syndicalism claim anarcho-syndicalism is. People like Murray Bookchin, who should know better, describe anarcho-syndicalism as an "archaic ideology rooted in a narrowly economistic notion of bourgeois interest" (From "The Ghost of Anarcho-syndicalism" in Anarchist Studies 1). Groups like Class War also dismiss anarcho-syndicalism as having no relevance because of the decline of traditional industries and the need, for them, to focus on the "community". Council communists tell us that when the time comes the workers will spontaneously form the necessary organisations of struggle, without anyone having to do any work beforehand. Sounds good, when did that last happen?

The struggle described in Puerto Real was only successful because the CNT, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, had built up a solid presence over the previous ten-fifteen years, in Puerto Real, the shipyard area just outside of Cadiz in the south of Spain. Shipyards in Spain, just as in the rest of Europe, face "rationalisation" and closure. The difference between Puerto Real and say, Tyneside, is that workers on Tyneside were limited by the vision of the Labour Party, that nothing can be done within a capitalist system, ships can be produced much cheaper in Korea where workers get paid a lot less.

Such people exist in Puerto Real too, half the shipyard workers were in either the Socialist UGT or communist CCOO unions, who tried to do a deal with the bosses without any concessions. But the vision of the CNT carried the workers, many CCOO members tore up their union cards. By accepting the bosses' arguments, as the socialists and communists did, you fight with one hand behind your back - you admit that profitability and and the needs of the bosses are good reasons to destroy your livelihood. Standing true to the anarcho-syndicalist spirit, the CNT fought back with everything they had, regardless of whether they might win, but because they knew that fighting back is the only way to go forward.

Every Tuesday, workers blockaded the port and the only bridge to Cadiz, even blockading the king at one point. Running battles with the police and other forces of oppression were regular. Every Thursday, the CNT called village assemblies involving the whole population, where decisions were made, delegates elected, and the conduct of the struggle discussed.

In the end, the Puerto Real shipyard was given some work, including some from contracts at European Union level. The workers won an exemplary settlement in terms of pension rights where retirees at 55 had their pensions 100% linked to workers wages. There was also a rotation of people, so that if there was not enough work, some would work for 2 months, then others would take their place, but all workers received full wages. The shipyards are still functioning, and the CNT Puerto Real has made links with other militant shipyard unions all over Spain.

This direct democracy was very real, and the CNT were conscious to try and break the dependency culture that social democratic politics encourages. Their success is self evident - even though the struggle was won in 1988, the village assemblies are still going strong, and working on a whole range of issues, involving a broad range of local groups. These include struggles against local taxes, the construction of a golf course, struggles around the environment. This is anarcho-syndicalism in action - workers organising in their own interests, both at work and where they live. The combination of workplace militancy and a supportive, almost insurrectionary local population, is unbeatable. If only workers in Britain had tried it.

This article originally appeared in Black Flag #206, Autumn 1995