Reflections on the shoe industry strike and assembly movement in Alicante, 1977

Highly informative and detailed article about a wildcat strike of shoe workers run by workers' assemblies which the state attacked, and which unions and political groups attempted to divert to their own ends.

Submitted by Ex-temp on January 12, 2009


Workers for Proletarian Autonomy and Social Revolution


The strike called by the assembly movement in the shoe industry, mainly in Alicante, was one of the most important struggles waged by the Spanish working class against capital after the strikes at Vitoria and at Roca in Gava.

As negotiations for anew social contract between the bosses, the government and the unions proceeded, the shoe factory workers decided to take on all the defenders of bourgeois order, spoiling the best laid plans of the vote-peddlers of the region, the local bosses and their trade union stooges. As the expression has it, if the shoe fits wear it. The entire Spanish proletariat was depending on this strike, which was carried out only through the wishes of the workers meeting in permanent assemblies, without the tutelage of parties or unions. Economic solidarity came from everywhere.

The shoe-manufacturing industry and its service industries installed in the towns around the valley of Vinpolo was founded on the super-exploitation of its workers, many of them emigrants. Even today the exploitation of apprentice and female 1abour, cottage labour and other forms of lump-labour are frequent and regulate the level of employment whatever the state of the industry. But despite the great fortunes accumulated over long years of impunity and corrupt local bosses, a new proletariat has grown up, a high percentage of them energetic and combative youth who have neither been corrupted by misery nor apparent prosperity, who are difficult to delude and impossible to manage.

After the big strike of February 1976 the workers knew exactly what they could expect from management, police and the parties. The result was one worker murdered and various wounded by the cops in Elda and Elche. A class, its consciousness awakened, learned in a brutal way that the gap between capital and labour was far too wide to hide the fact that a local strike, which was beginning to spread, could call the entire system of exploitation into question. Thousands of proletarians simultaneously discovered the intolerable nature of their social existence and the inevitability of a period of struggle.

The then existing parties (the PCE and the tiny MCE -today in decline) in following the directions of their national chiefs to stay within a legal framework, found that their attempts to avoid the struggle and to negotiate until forced to act by the workers, put them into a position of total weakness, more interested in containing rather than pushing through the workers' demands. The result was that the workers, disarmed and unorganised, took a fierce beating, after which the Comisiones Obreras (through a phantom 'co-ordinating committee' which no-one had elected) advised them to return to work. But in so doing, the parties and their trade-union equivalents lost face forever. The workers' spontaneous will to fight was a thousand times greater than theirs and the consciousness which grew out of this struggle was neither political nor trade-unionist; it was a direct revolutionary consciousness. All that remained was to organise this spontaneity. The workers found their own solution to the problem of the organisation of the struggle; creating a movement of assemblies which was based on themselves and only on themselves. Hundreds of assemblies began to discuss and formulate all the demands which, over the years, they had been unable to make due to the fraud of the unions, and which had been left to rot until the time came to work out a set of demands for the negotiating of a collective wage agreement in September.

The reaction to the political sell-out of the strike in February as well as the murder of Teofilo del Valle was tremendous. During this month the 'United Workers Front' was born which, like all re-groupments led by independent trade unionists, would deny the real reason why it was created. In September it was to constitute itself as a 'co-ordinating committee for trade union unity' along with the UGT, CC.OO and USO, thereby placing its opportunism on the other side. The UGT split from it in January upholding the boss's proposal of state negotiation of the agreement with the result that the 'co-ordinating committee' soon after dissolved. But the alliance between these professional independents of Elda, the CC.OO and the Christianity of the USO was to be maintained right up to the strike. It was partly due to this that these delegates, as also those of the CC.OO, came away less hated in Elda at the end of the strike than in other parts. These confused origins of the assembly movement gave it the image of being manipulated by the CC.OO - thus explaining the initial hostility of the local CNT group to the movement and to the strike - an image which dissipated when the movement expanded, making all the trade-marks, alliances and pretensions seem banal.

In October 1976, the first assemblies took place in the factories of Elda, Petrel and Monovar and by January in all the remaining shoe-manufacturing towns. After these, factory representatives were elected and on 4th May the first general assembly took place in Elda (3000 participants). The assembly movement was born here.

The fact that the unions were absent from the struggles - the so-called 'union vacuum' - helped the development of factory and regional assemblies, electing representatives, which were actively supported by thousands of companies. The assembly of representatives and the general assembly were the next step in the formation of the assembly movement and would make it a rough summer for all its enemies. What held the movement together without membership cards, rubber stamps, lawyers, bureaucrats, specialists in negotiation, professional leaders? It was a pure and simple solidarity born in similar interests, similar aims and the same animosities. Even the regional magazine La Verdad (The Truth) repeated the same lies about the class struggle and could not but admit that 'for the first time in recent decades a workers' movement with a strong autonomous and independent character has grown up, able to overcome the dual circumstances of political transition and the trade union vacuum which exists all over the country. . .' the assembly movement is already historical because it has made history. It has conquered areas of freedom which very few could have imagined possible some months ago. Its force has been the number of workers who agree with the idea of a 'pure workerism' without relying on political disguises or mortgaging trademarks. The most powerful bosses in the country are forced to recognise the assembly movement as the only valid spokesman to negotiate the shoe contract. The force of the street was able to do more than the glory (sic) of the banners'' (La Verdad, 25th August 1977).

And Cambio 16 (19th '25th September) was to dish up this local recipe to those in power: 'Why has an assembly movement of this kind grown up?' they asked. 'The weakness of the trade unions has been determinant in this process as well as a strong feeling of unity amongst the workers.'

To the extent the assembly movement consolidated its position the unions began to organise against it. This soon became clear. In the eyes of unions, workers' struggles are limited to being the tailend of a labour dispatch, the workers themselves only serving as consultants or fund-raisers. With such a view of things they only managed to recruit the scum of the factory. It was plain to see that they were full of those workers who were afraid, passive, ignorant, blacklegs and verticalists, white collar workers and bureaucrats.

The assembly movement, by June, had definitely consolidated its position. By the end of July it was recognised by all the trade union federations which, as groups, had infiltrated it ' with the exception of the UGT. After the elections which gave some sort of victory to the PSOE, the membership of the UGT had increased with the support and blessing of the bosses, and according to its own figures, could count on 10,000 members in its hide and shoe industries organisation , thus making it the largest and the most important when negotiations started. The CC. OO refused to accept the role of the UGT as sole negotiator but since it couldn't break or overtake the assembly movement decided that all it could do was to go along with it and try to take it over from within. Thus the union federation which is historically least known for its love of assemblies became their full-blooded protagonists. The FICE (the bosses' organisation within the shoe industry), refusing to recognise the negotiating committee of the assembly movement, supported the UGT. The workers rejected the proposals made by the UGT. The assembly movement, as well as the general assembly of 16th of August, unanimously decided to go on strike, starting legally on the 24th in Elda and on the 22nd in Elche. The UGT condemned the movement and was in turn condemned. The base refused to obey the officials and it became so discredited that it had to shut up completely during the strike, only breaking silence to protest about its own marginalisation and in their communique's and press to condemn the general assemblies and the pickets. In the end it proposed to the other union federations that it should negotiate alone. In recent struggles in the Basque country and Asturias the UGT has attempted a similar use of yellow unions and management tactics. It had never been so shameful to belong to a trade union as to belong to the UGT at this time. On 22nd August, the day that the strike started in Elche after an assembly of 15,000 people, the management were begrudgingly forced to accept the assembly movement, with the UGT as onlookers. Along with the Elda delegates they worked out a contract in seven points - the so-called Madrid Compromise - in an attempt to isolate the Elche workers. But in Elche the police attacked the workers meeting in an assembly and a battle ensued in which fifteen workers were injured, one of them seriously, as well as three policemen. On the 24th, the Elda assembly (12,000) and the Amansa assembly (more than 3000) overwhelmingly proclaimed their support for the strike. After them came Villena, Sax, Petrel, Manovar and Aspe. Pickets were sent to all the factories to ensure that the agreements of the assemblies were adhered to. From the first day, the workers - more than 70,000 - maintained a permanent assembly, morning and evening, meeting in football or sports arenas and this was decisive in keeping people informed, in maintaining direct discussion, morale and unity: It ridicu1ed a whole series of anti-proletarian activities whose wretched impotency was limited to the outer walls of the assemblies.

The negotiating committee was never merely a committee of 10 or a committee of 20, or a bureaucratic committee in which the unions could stifle or sell out the strikes called by the assemblies. It. was made up of temporary and revocable delegates, elected by a movement without leaders. Its different capacities to wage particular struggles only represented the unequal development of the assembly movement in the different shoe industry zones in Spain.

Certain delegates from E1da, the weak point of the strike, only wanted to strike as a last resort. They had to accept the wishes of the assemblies because in the end they were no more than emissaries. These men were moderates, skilfu1 in being cautious, and this along with a lack of courage made them far too flexible in the negotiations. They wavered as to the action to be taken, they could easily capitulate if the assembly hadn't controlled them, were incapable of coming to a decision and taking fast action, were more inclined to negotiate than struggle and were overwhelmed at the weight of being representatives of an energetic and conscious mass. Afraid of being overtaken they never stopped calling for calm and serenity. They were able to delay the strike by accepting that the agreement be national and not regional, 'discussing the form it should take within the assemblies' as they themselves put it, but in the end they were forced to accept a strike which the majority of them thought to be inopportune. They concentrated everything into the negotiations and had meetings with all the shits; parliamentary delegates, mayors, labour delegates, the Governor etc. and ended up running along behind the bosses. The bosses on the contrary, from the smallest to the largest, opted for a unified action, were hard and intransigent, unwilling to negotiate in the event of a strike - a completely logical attitude if we consider that they were defending their interests, diametrically opposed to those of the workers.

The CC.OO saw that the will of the mass was irresistible. They thought that a little bit of strike action would calm their spirits and reinforce its own position over the UGT and help get workers' votes for the PCE in the forthcoming municipal elections. However, given its alliance with the bourgeoisie and the government and being faithful to parliamentary cretinism they had to cool off the strike, slow it down as much as possible so as to avoid a total break-down in the negotiations. Given their position, as assembly members who were never really such, the CC.OO behaved in the most demagogical and inconsistent manner. Ten days later they showed their true colours. At first their support for the delegates of Elda was cautious. . . 'the true representatives to negotiate with the bosses' (Vinpolo Obrero No.3, regional publication of the CC.OO). But then, on the day before the strike started in Elda, it put out a communiqu' signed by 'Representatives of the assembly movement, the general secretary of the CC.OO and the executive committee of USO' which was despicable and plainly recuperative. It said, 'repression would not in any way resolve the conflict but would only tend to radicalise it and thus create a climate of tension which would benefit nobody'. The radicalisation of the strike was what they feared most and the CC.OO confirmed this by quickly opposing the developing radicalism of the assemblies. In any case this CC.OO attempt to falsely pass themselves off as representatives - poorly covered up by the USO - signing an agreement on behalf of certain delegates who had not been authorised by the assembly was of little consequence given that the workers went ahead on their own. The communiqu' was really directed towards the management in an attempt to increase their own self-esteem. When the management called in the federations in order to end the conflict the CC.OO immediately accepted. In the end, CC.OO, USO and SU and other less important organisations formed a 'support committee' in an attempt to recuperate the strike. This was a comp1ete failure but it did manage to impede active solidarity in other industrial sectors.

On the 26th, a factory in Murcia joined the strike, then another in Albatera and yet another in Salinas. Many factories sent solidarity communique's and money for the resistance funds. The assembly delegates visited all the strike towns where the assembly movement had spread like wildfire. The bosses proceeded with the closure of the factories and dismissals while the negotiating committee reduced its list of demands to five: 30 days holidays, two extra months wages, 5000 pesetas increase all round on the principle of equal work, equal status and equal wages, 100% wages in the case of illness and a 40 hour week.

On the following day the management continued their offensive. The FICE ordered the suspension of wages and banking arrangements as long as the strike lasted, intending to involve all management and the banks. It called for the intervention of the government and began organising camouflaged blackleg 1abour, something, which was discovered and stopped by the pickets. Meanwhile certain local government officials led a second ill-conceived attempt to end the strike. The press sided openly with the management and condemned the presence of unemployed and other workers in the assemblies, proposing - as FICE and UGT had done - factory assemblies and secret voting instead of general assemblies and the show of hands as the workers had adopted. Their letter columns were filled with sad letters from small bosses.

On the 29th, the workers assemblies of Arnedo (Lagrono) and Yecla (Murcia) joined the strike. In Baleares, Val d'Uxo (Castillon) and Cocentaina notices of strike action were posted. The resistance funds grew and a strike economy was created; a real discovery on the part of the strikers that this constituted the future means of abolishing storekeepers and middlemen. They began to buy from co-operatives and agricultural workers and received help in kind. They gave out credit vouchers and saw to it that no one spent this money on superfluous articles or in the bars, in accordance with the decisions of the assemblies. The assemb1y movement published 7500 copies of an information bulletin daily during the strike.

On the same day the PCE shed crocodile tears for the small manufacturers. . . 'we have no interest in seeing small enterprises going under . . . we finish by asking for a certain sense of responsibility and a willingness for dialogue' (declarations of the local committee of Elche on the 29th). And the Stalinist deputy for Alicante, Pilar Brabo (l) old before her time, told the press that the strike would end forthwith.

The assembly movement preferred to answer the bosses: 'The management has launched a new offensive against us, trying to divide us and using secret ballots within the factories for this end. Faced with these manoeuvres we cannot allow ourselves to be so easily fooled, we must make it clear that the secret ballot is anti-worker and anti-democratic for the working class' (daily bulletin of 30th August). The assemblies of the strikers set out a list of demands and when, on the 30th, they unanimously reaffirmed their intention of continuing the strike, panic spread throughout the bourgeoisie and the unions. The parliamentary deputies prattled on impotently and offered themselves as intermediaries, only to be turned down. The PSOE through the mouthpiece of the idiotic Garcia Miralles, a last minute socialist and an opportunist from way back, called on the trade union federations to intervene and condemned the pickets; It is worth noting that the strike pickets had a function of human regeneration since they stopped some workers from selling themselves cheaply and betraying their class. The bourgeoisie was doubtful about sending the police into the assemblies, afraid of bringing them out onto the streets and thus provoking a chain of solidarity strikes. They used the unions and parties while these, their pawns, became irritab1e and piqued.. 'these intransigents have set up barricades. . .the maximalist positions are absolutely undemocratic.. . . the dogmatism of reason is a cruel dialectic' wrote the comical newspaper La Verdad (The Truth) on 28th July1977. The desire of the workers to totally control their own affairs and to refuse to be anyone's pawns was anathema to the bourgeoisie. The less comical Informationes put it: 'the problem is that the continuation of the assembly system denotes a lack of representation of the union federations which have been unable to get anything like a majority of members amongst the workers in this sector. Precisely because of this the delegations which the unions send to the negotiations with the management have no real mandates and they must on these assemblies. . . and with hundreds of participants no negotiation is possible either on union ground or any other ground' (30th August 1977).

The middle classes were frightened... They could be heard on the daily radio and TV news programmes arid on some street corners. All the hypocrisy and stupidity, which is referred to as public opinion was heard, all the cowardice and mediocrity of an entire epoch, the fear and baseness of the most conservative and reactionary section of society, the small and medium sized businessmen, the thousand faces of exploitation, the philistinism and hypocrisy of the petite bourgeoisie, their hatred for the proletariat. The middle classes cushioned the bosses. The bosses tried to direct the pressure of the workers against the middle classes and the middle classes, through their political parties (PSOE and PCE) and the unions they ran, in turn buttressed the pressure of the workers.

On the 31st, the PCE herd a regional meeting where they condemned the 'maximalism' of certain representatives of the assemblies and their set of demands, thereby deciding to end the strike. Bonilla, secretary of FICE, called on the government and the trade unions to intervene. On the following day the CC.OO put out a call to return to work, a call, which was voted out by the assembly of Elche. In the assembly at Elda a PCE militant proposed a secret ballot in the factory. The administration decided to make it obligatory.

1. Pilar Brabo is a notorious CP member - trendy, vicious and nauseating. (TN)

The 3rd of September was crucial. The assembly movement was at a crossroads and despite the fact that a delegate from Elche told the workers that 'any decision which you take is not a defeat', it was clear that the choice was either accepting arbitration and putting the contract back 6 months or continuing the strike with all the consequences which this has ' facing the police and calling for a general strike. This round was crucial and the PCE threw itself into a frenzy. The UGT could always recuperate their lost ground through the votes of the scared and scab workers, which all the hardening of attitudes in such a strike could not help, but produce. The moderate base of the now frightened CC.OO shifted their ground to that of the more coherent UGT, while other more active unions had displaced them on the left. This time the CC.OO came out completely against the strike. In a new communiqu' distributed in the assemblies, on the streets and in the factories it put forward the most reactionary arguments, even those which a week before it had attacked. Thus it is that those who acquire their influence by shady deals cannot maintain their influence without them. A later note from the local PCE committee of Elche was made public by the press and contained all the cynicism and usual justifications of those who wanted the strike to end because it threatened their interests. 'A responsible workers' party cannot permit that the workers be used as cannon fodder etc. etc.' Certainly they had lost a certain esteem in the eyes of the bosses because of 'the irresponsible attitude of extremist groups and unions who, using the feelings of the workers, tried to distort the strike. In the last assembly they had even come to the point of calling for a general strike in support of the shoe factory workers'.

Certain members of the negotiating committee feared a violent strike and could not face giving up the last hope for peace. While the workers were fighting, they were trying to negotiate. At the moment of greatest tension during the strike the delegates lost themselves in infighting in order to avoid a motion. The assemblies were more radical than they were. The bosses knew it and accused them of being excitable and of not controlling the assemblies, when it should have been the assemblies, which controlled the delegates. No one could deny the impulsive and subversive character of the strike or separate it from a revolutionary situation or give it a methodical or strictly limited character of an ordinary and domesticated strike called by the trade union federations. The revolutionary energy could not be bottled up.

On the 3rd, Bonilla, the secretary of FICE, and Roque Miralles, the delegate from Elda, privately decided to advise those they represented to surrender and negotiate.

On the 5th, at the Elda assembly, Roque proposed a secret ballot and the return to work on the basis of Bonilla's promises. Since you can never be as scurrilous as the real scoundrels, Roque was fooled and fell into ridicule while Bonilla made no effort to put what he had said into effect. But Roque's intervention was decisive in breaking the strike at Elda. They voted and a majority at Elda decided to return to work. The same happened in Monovar, Petrel, Sax and Villena. In Elche and Aspe the majority decided to continue the strike. The bosses opened up the factories and promised that there would be no reprisals. The general assemblies of Elda and Elche, given the results of the voting, were noisy and the speeches of the CC.OO were heckled. In Elche they were booed and thrown out of the assembly. Piles of CC.OO and UGT membership cards were torn up. The assemb1y at Elche decided to backup the decision of Elda in solidarity, since at the beginning of the strike the reverse had occurred. On the following day Yecla and Almansa returned: The day after that it was the turn of Arnedo. Only one company in Elche, 'Clan SA' decided to continue the strike alone due to particular demands they were making, although they were support ed by the assembly movement resistance funds.

An exemplary strike ended in a surprising way. But the workers didn't return to work defeated. Right from the first day many a company director complained about the slow pace of work. 'For miserable wages, miserable work' said a delegate from Elche. The confrontation had not been avoided it had merely been appeased. The return to work was a victory, which the bosses didn't know how to use. The assembly movement remained intact.

In the future the workers must mount pickets against the sabotage of the parties and their affiliates, the unions, so that autonomy does not arm its enemies. Just as they must use censorship against the press which publishes distorted and anti-worker information, paralysing bourgeois information with a print workers' strike if necessary. It should be considered that there is no press, which is not party to the reaction, and no party, which is not reactionary.

The weight of the negotiating committee delegates was too great. Defeat came from not calling the moderate delegates into question in the assemblies. Their prestige was negative and the exclusive attention, which they gave to the negotiations within the assemblies, gave them - and not the majority within the assembly - a crucial importance at the end of the strike, an importance that they didn't fail to use. The assembly should have recalled them when the management refused to negotiate.

The strike showed the stupidities of the parliamentarians and the union chiefs. It is impossible that the working class is so stupid, cowardly, corrupt and mediocre as their 'representatives'. This is the best proof that they are usurpers and only represent the interest of socially decadent classes.

The strike also answered the question of whose interests the unions serve. They serve for nothing other than to create disunity and break strikes. They introduced themselves into the various committees to sabotage the strike, were disunited and overtaken, claiming to represent 20% of the shoe industry workers, but ended up controlling no one, not even their own members. The union bureaucrats, to their horror, already imagined the parties losing the middle class vote and their organisation in ruins, the government closing the doors on them as they divided out the spoils of the old CNS. The smaller federations followed the old tactic of denouncing the manoeuvres of the larger ones in order to capitalise on their disrepute. But they were far too successful. If their attacks on the UGT and the CC.OO were taken seriously and even with a certain relish within the assemblies they could not gain anything from it other than their own weakness since every time they mentioned the word 'union' they were jeered at.

The parties lost a large portion of their power of illusion. The very support of their political existence, the bourgeois illusions of the workers, was undermined. Their images only collapsed 40 years after they had renounced taking power and along with their unions are reduced to a purely conservative role. The development of the unions follows a pact between the government and the parties in order to substitute the inefficiency of the old vertical unions. The old unions from before the monarchy already worked within the CNS. The development of trade union power allowed a stabilisation of capitalism, substituting class struggle by a certain form of the exploitation of labour power. Without the stabilising and narcotic power of the unions the rule of capital would be incomplete. The unions know only the laws of the market and their business is as owners of workers. They are a part of the power, which determines the conditions of the workers. Union membership is the bureaucratic baptism of blackleg labour. For capital it is easier to impose its conditions by union agreements than by government decrees. Reformists, through and through, they are the best supports of the management which has also become reformist and democratic. They are not so much degenerated workers' organisations as mechanisms to integrate the proletariat into the exploitative system. They put halters on the will to workers' emancipation. Because of this, every revolt, every authentic strike is first of all directed against them.

The assembly movement is an example. It is the true representative of the proletariat because it is proletarian. Its very existence is already a victory, which its enemies cannot forgive. The extent of the assembly movement, which runs throughout Spain forces the unions, allied with the government to embark on a rapid counter-offensive that clearly shows up their natural function as guardians of the capitalist order. Union strategy has one aim: to demolish the strikes called by the assemblies, finish with assembly delegates which would be substituted by company union committees elected within the companies, finish with direct democracy within the assemblies and substitute it by the bureaucratic dictatorship of the unions. They don't try to hide this conspiracy, dozens of meetings between the bosses, the government and the unions have been held with just this objective. In this specific case they won six months of arbitration in order to organise the counter-strike.

Up to now the assemblies have only marginalised the unions. Today it is necessary to destroy them. The autonomy and emancipation of the proletariat depend on it.

That which was the assembly movement is not the revolution but it is revolutionary. The assembly movement is the first workers' council of the second Spanish revolution. Despite what other previous forms the modern workers' movement has taken, forms which had to dissolve themselves in the strike in order to avoid being recuperated by unions or parallel groups (e.g. the representative committees in Vitoria) the assembly movement should be permanent and insoluble precisely be- cause it cannot be recuperated. It must have the enormous ambition of not permitting anything into it, which is not itself. It must proclaim the unconfessable demand of wanting everything. Its enemies already know that there is no security in this suspicious peace if not in war.

The proletariat must see that in this world all other classes are superfluous. To speak of revolution when everyone else is speaking of democracy, and not to be frightened by the economic catastrophes of bourgeois life. When capitalist survival ends, real life begins. The assembly movement is the negation of present society. And it should know that its tune creates the basis of a radically new social organisation as well as the means to achieve it.
Down with class society.
Down with unions and parties.
Long live the social revolution
Long live the assembly movement

20th September 1977

Text taken and slightly edited for accuracy by libcom from the book "Wildcat Spain encounters democracy, 1976-1978" from