Radical unionism and the workers' struggle in Spain - Ruben Vega Garcia and Carlos Perez

A piece on Spanish trade unionism since the Franco's death.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 8, 2011

The Spanish labor movement inherited a revolutionary legacy whose most important landmarks are the general strike of 1917, the proletarian insurrection of 1934, and the zealous antifascist reaction of 1936. However, as a result of its defeat in the Spanish Civil War, the prolonged iron dictatorship profoundly disrupted the continuity of this tradition. Curtailed by bloody repression, organized labor resurfaced in the 1960s and by the 1970s had become a decisive agent, creating intense conflict and initiating mass mobilization, in the crisis of the Franco regime that led to a parliamentary monarchy. During this period the labor movement's revolutionary perspective was replaced by the goal of political democracy. For the majority, frustrated aspirations for social and economic reform accompanied this partially accomplished goal.

In terms of the capacity for mobilization and/or the substance of the struggles, an obvious decline occurred after the peak achieved between 1975 and 1977. The combined effect of the economic crisis and the establishment of the new political system weakened the most combative sectors, bureaucratized the major labor confederations, and reduced demands for social justice. High unemployment rates, an unstable labor market (one-third of workers had temporary contracts), and a flood of plant closings and cutbacks in the industries where the labor movement was strongest created increasingly adverse conditions. A class perspective retreated in the face of individualism and/or corporatism of labor action that focused on immediate and limited demands (Bilbao, 1993). At the same time, the stability of the political system was based on a narrow conception of democracy that restricted its social content and limited mass participation.

Consistent with the evolution of the sociopolitical structure, the labor confederations became dependent on state subsidies when they adopted a moderate position that led to the demobilization and reduction of their militant rank and file. Ideological disarmament was rapidly consolidated through social pacts in which workers pledged moderation and sacrifice in exchange for vague declarations about job creation (Roca Jusmet, 1985). For the sake of competition and the national interest, they accepted the deterioration of the conditions for contract negotiations, the restructuring of companies and sec- tors through retirement and layoffs, and wage stagnation as inevitable.

In spite of everything, during the years of the socialist government (1982-1996) the labor movement as a whole became the only force capable of mobilizing resistance to neoliberalism. Cuts in the barely developed welfare state (reduction in strike subsidies, a niggardly pension system, etc.) and the effects of industrial decline have repeatedly been contested by the 24-hour general strike, an extremely passive ritual with a unanimous following. During the December 14, 1988, mobilization, the Spanish people joined the strike almost in their entirety. The absolute paralysis of the whole country or of particular districts, regions, and nationalities was achieved repeatedly. These actions did not, however, alter the prevailing neoliberal trend but only delayed or modified the implementation of certain aspects of these policies (Albarracin, 1991).

Whereas these general mobilizations depended on the major labor confederations for their success, the most radical forms of resistance often existed either in opposition to them or on their margins. Although weaker than in the 1970s, there is an alternative unionism that maintains its faith in anticapitalist principles and the class struggle. It is rooted in worker organizations that maintain their traditions and experiences of struggle. Its minority character excludes it from participating in the institutional channels of representation and receiving state subsidies. Its power resides in its links to class sectors that remain faithful to the "old truths" of working-class culture and labor-union practices focused on mass participation. Furthermore, it is combative and consistently condemns the main labor organizations for their bureaucratization and their agreements with the government. Heterogeneous in its organizational orientation and support, it has its antecedents in its rejection of the model of labor relations that emerged during the Spanish political transition.

Therefore, a survey of the Spanish labor movement shows how radical struggles engulfed the principal labor confederations. In these cases, the presence of small alternative organizations represented a challenge that either changed the direction of the conflicts or introduced internal contradictions that bypassed the normal channels, especially regarding the forms of mobilization. The recourse to street barricades and confrontations with the police represented the most common expression of this phenomenon, whose radicalism lay not in its objectives but in the forms it employed.

Under Franco, the labor movement lost its role as the necessary focus for the left, which had ceased to be the axis around which other social movements revolved. On the contrary, these movements tended toward splintering, becoming compartmentalized monopolies that lacked any global perspective. Student and neighborhood movements were very important during the final phase of the struggle against the dictatorship, but as they became depoliticized and demobilized their radical elements barely constituted a minority in them. Their relationship to the labor movement was reduced to participating in occasional demonstrations.

The ecologists and the pacifists developed an anticapitalist discourse to some extent through their sporadic but significant capacity for mobilizing around concrete demands for social justice, but this did not lead them to unite with other movements or to adopt a class analysis. At the same time, the labor movement's efforts failed to connect with these tendencies apart from its occasional participation in certain actions, the most significant being its opposition to NATO membership and the presence of U.S. military bases on Spanish soil. Similarly, international solidarity is in the hands of volunteers belonging to nongovernmental organizations, although unions have participated in demonstrations supporting Cuba, Nicaragua, and Central America in general, as well as the Sahrawis people and others. Something similar occurs with the struggles against the social marginalization of immigrants and their integration into society. They have not even been able to synchronize with the feminist movement, which has not developed to the extent that it has in other Western societies.

The labor movement has found it equally difficult to link up with recent movements that contain a strong element of anti-establishment opposition, such as those refusing military service and the squatters' movement. Although these movements are driven by a relatively small number of youths, they have nevertheless achieved considerable resonance by attacking the contradictions of the prevailing militarist creed and the property system from an ideological perspective based on an alternative ethical and value system. The repression leveled against them (jailing of those resisting military service, the dislodging and massive detention of squatters) has gained them broad sympathy, and they have achieved partial victories such as the imminent abandonment of obligatory military service and the opening of self-managed social centers in which Catalan and Basque squatters, as well as those from Madrid, engage in countercultural activities based on unconventional artistic expression and aesthetic forms.

Compared with a worker culture that embodies the most combative nucleus of class unionism forged through industrial work, these groups belong to adolescent sectors affected by layoffs, underemployment, and a shortage of housing. In spite of the generational difference and their lack of work experience, they have united with an alternative unionism over various issues. In recent years, marches against layoffs and social segregation held in various European countries have included Catalan squatters. For their part, the young in Madrid publish a bulletin (Molotof) that consistently reflects the workers' struggle. In Asturias, those refusing military service and squatters have cemented a reciprocal solidarity with longshoremen by participating in their strikes.


The left unions achieved their zenith, as did the labor movement in general, during the period of transition from the previous regime. This political crisis coincided with a great demand for social justice, as the effervescence and heightened conflict had not yet been channeled by the institutionalization of labor relations that followed the legalization of class unionism. Spontaneity, mass meetings, politicization, and antagonism dominated the labor struggles of that period. These characteristics provided an ideal climate for the cultivation of the most radical tendencies even where they were a minority. The reestablishment of democratic liberties contributed to its decline because it diminished the political content of labor struggles and, given the threat of a military coup, acted as a powerful argument for demobilization. Also, legislation regulating labor representation excluded the minority. At the same time, the hegemonic labor confederations - the Union General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers-UGT) and the Comisiones Obreras (Workers' Commissions-CCOO) - imposed union models that limited the role of the councils and emphasized negotiations by a bureaucratic leadership isolated from the centers of work (Garcia-Duran, 1991).

The end of the dictatorship and the beginning of the transition were decisive not because they represented a significant moment for the workers' movement but because the fundamental contours of its future configuration emerged during that period. The labor confederations and their radical opponents have such deep roots in that period that to this day the majority of the union leadership dates to the 1970s. Spanish unionism in general has evidenced an incapacity to renovate itself generationally. Furthermore, the radical minorities, more so than the main labor confederations, were the inheritors of the ideological currents and ideas prevailing during that time, and their social base was obviously continuous with the one they had had before the decline.

During the years of the transformation of the political regime (1975-1977) ephemeral but vigorous autonomous tendencies characterized by spontaneity and mass participation blossomed among a dynamic rank and file (Colectivo de Estudios por la Autonomia Obrera, 1997). No strangers to this experience, militants from the large labor confederations participated in and often led these demonstrations, but they could not control them. They ended up redirecting and suffocating a majority of the autonomous expressions. This was easy to do because these sectors had no tradition of struggle or union militancy. The lack of organizational structures provisionally favored the council model and radicalized the conflicts in which they were suddenly incorporated through mobilization. This was a transitory phase that left little evidence of its existence in people's consciousness once labor relations were institutionalized.

Resistance to the demobilization and bureaucratization of union action was much stronger among workers who belonged to a labor cadre with important experiences of struggle and a high level of consciousness steeped in anticapitalist ideologies. Clandestine organization shaped the course of their struggles as they increased under the dictatorship and workers' demands were intertwined with democratic aspirations and revolutionary discourses. This situation created a unionism based on participation and the exercise of a workers' democracy. In these interstices radical tendencies acquired a significant presence, including the adaptation by the principal labor confederations of a different model that allowed for wider participation of the rank and file. The memory left by these experiences was a lasting one when it became a sanctuary for cadres who had a combative attitude marked by a class perspective. Henceforth, radical unionism in Spain largely adopted these principles.

Concerning the origin of its union cadre, the lack of continuity with the revolutionary current that historically had the strongest roots until the Spanish Civil War, anarcho-syndicalism, was revealing. Franco's dictatorship marked an abrupt end to one of the critical components of the Spanish workers' movement's past. At the same time, the conditions of the anti-Franco struggle allowed for the development of new vanguards that had little connection with their predecessors in terms of organizational background and ideological definition, but this did not prevent them from indirectly inheriting certain tactics: mass participation, direct action, antibureaucratism. After decades of virtual absence, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor-CNT) found itself incapable of recovering its former strength. After the 1960s, aspects of the tradition that it embodied surfaced with the creation of new organizations such as the CCOO and the Union Sindical Obrera (Workers' Syndical Union-USO).

In the final analysis, it was in the CCOO, the groups most involved in the anti-Franco struggle and those with the largest plurality internally, that the majority of the cadres of radical unionism were forged. Dissent from the trade union's position in support of the mainstream position and the successive ruptures engendered in most of the organizations to its left reflected this reality. Second, the USO, which considered itself a self-engendered socialist organization in that it originated in a Christian milieu, experienced severe internal crises that contributed to a split by its radical cadres during the transition. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT must be placed alongside these two, since its presence was revitalized during the dictatorship. Finally, the origins of radical unionism would be incomplete without the scattered groups characterized by a council or autonomous bent that experienced a brief flowering during the intense mobilizations of the mid-1970s. The final component of contemporary radical unionism in Spain is the nationalist unionism developed in various autonomous communities, which sometimes followed an independent course and sometimes joined with others.


In the struggle for labor union hegemony of the second half of the 1970s, the confederations with radical principles were soundly defeated. Others languished as did the anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT, victims of their inability to adapt after the long eclipse of the dictatorship and the internal contradictions that contributed to a split into two competing organizations after 1980 (Torres Rayan, 1993). Still others, such as the Sindicato Unitario (Unitary Union-SU) and the Confederacion de Sindicatos Unitarios de Trabajadores (United Workers' Unions-CSUT), weighed down by the contradiction of originating as factions of the unified movement represented by the CCOO, simply disappeared. In fact, they were the conduits for two small Maoist political parties whose fate they followed by heading toward self-dissolution after 1980. Vestiges remained only where they had authentic roots: the SU in Huelva, Cantabria, Valencia, and Madrid and the CSUT in Valencia and Andalusia, in this case through the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (Agricultural Workers' Trade Union).

As for the CNT, after the schism of 1980 both factions experienced a severe weakening of their already debilitated forces. In the long run, the diminished CNT became an anarchist group with very little participation in union activities. Its presence in labor circles was reduced, and its capacity for intervention was further limited by its own decision to exclude itself from the shop stewards' committees that were elected by the workers and possessed the legally recognized capacity to negotiate. The other faction, the Confederacion General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labor - CGT), represented a more trade union tendency, paying less attention to anarchidoctrinal purity. In the second half of the 1980s it became the alternative to the main labor confederations in major industries (the railway company Renfe, the airline company Iberia, the Metro of Barcelona) and in multinational enterprises (SEAT Volkswagen, FASA Renault, Ford, General Motors, Michelin), but its impact has been minor.

After the failure of the confederations, the implementation of radical unionism, which was always marginal in relation to the main ones, was reduced to local realities that seemed to be dissolving but, in actuality, had solid roots. Nationalist unions, local or regional organizations, and industrial groups or sectors made up a heterogeneous but persistent current that survived the defeat of the transition period by maintaining organizational continuity. Although the majority of its forces originated during the previous decade, the scene acquired its definitive configuration at the beginning of the 1980s. In 1990 these unions were able to obtain some 10,000 seats for workers' representatives in the elections, less than 5 percent of the total elected. However, their strength exceeded this percentage, since they were concentrated in the industries and sectors that were particularly important because of their size and relation to the struggle and became a point of reference for other segments of the labor movement. Examination of the configuration of this radical unionism from a regional perspective reveals its fragmentation and the diversity of its approaches.


In general, the Basque labor movement picture, like the rest of the region's political life and its social reality, is dominated by the national question (Kohler, 1990). For a century this has dominated the division of the workers' movement into two tendencies, an autochthonous nationalist one and a socialist one originating with immigrants. Given the deep conflict created by the integration of the Basque Country into the Spanish state and its pervasiveness in society, the nationalist phenomenon is an ambivalent one both in the workers' movement and in social movements in general. On the one hand, it provides a channel for revolt that considerably reinforces its capacity for mobilization, but, on the other, it introduces constant tensions between those who place independence above all other aspirations and those who have other objectives. These two factors permanently cross each other in all of the struggles undertaken in the Basque Country (Resiste, 1997). Escaping this influence is nearly impossible, since "it is extremely difficult for groups to exist that in their social activities are completely marginal from individuals that embrace nationalism. There is so much pressure on a daily basis that there is hardly any space outside of it to continue being active" (Etcetera, 1996).

In comparison with that in the rest of Spain, the situation in the Basque Country is distinguished by the vigor and radicalism of a social movement that makes the workers' movement seem conservative and completely disconnected from its dynamic. Important foci of youthful rebellion are antiauthoritarianism, of which there is a deep awareness, and antimilitarism. The cities also contain active groups of squatters (okupas) who maintain open social centers (Basque gaztetxes) in occupied buildings. In the past 20 years the ecology movement, for its part, has led mass mobilizations with a huge popular following that have been successful in their struggle against the construction of a nuclear plant in Lemoniz, a freeway in Leizaran, and a dam in Itoiz, to name a few. The self-designated Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional Vasco (Basque National Liberation Movement-MLVN) supports a complex framework of organizations that includes a political grouping, with its corresponding youth branch, a collective union composed of military resisters, feminists, ecologists, relatives of prisoners, proamnesty advocates, and a newspaper, a radio station, and a printing press. These groupings are linked through the Koordinadora Abertzale Socialista (Socialist Patriotic Coordinator- KAS), indirectly controlled by ETA. In the past few years, young people supporting independence have engaged in an escalation of urban sabotage, looking for direct street action. The effect has been a militarization of the command structure, as well as the mental structure, of the MLVN, with all struggles acquiring an instrumental character as means to intensify the contradictions to achieve one final end: independence.

The LAB, a member union of the MLVN, presents similar characteristics and considerable strength (close to 20 percent of all of the union representa- tion in the Basque Country), and its mobilization efforts frequently focus on extraunion causes. Alongside it, and with a contradictory relationship, there is a radical unionism that is sensitive to the national question, engaged in theoretical study, and strongly critical of the state and the established order but, by definition, not nationalist: the Coordinadora Unitaria de Izquierda Sindical (United Coordinator of the Syndical Left-ESK-CUIS), which broke away from the CCOO in 1979, the Izquierda Sindical de CCOO, which shared membership with the ESK-CUIS but maintained itself as a critical tendency within a major labor confederation, and the few residues of the council movement that, especially in Vitoria, achieved its zenith during the final crisis of the Franco regime. In 1997, the Izquierda Sindical finally broke away from the CCOO, the majority electing to join the ESK-CUIS while a minority joined the LAB.

This radical unionism represents an important sector of the Basque working class, but it has very little connection with the fate of labor conflicts, which have declined in the past ten years with the end of the struggles against the modernization of the iron and steel industry and the shipbuilding industry. Only the resistance against the introduction of new systems of production in multinational industries (Michelin, Mercedes Benz) and the pressure exerted against the temporary labor industries - engaged in the subcontracting of temporary workers - escaped this outcome. Also, in the vicinity of Sestao, the movement of the unemployed the Asamblea de Parados de Sestao (Assembly of Unemployeds of Sestao), extremely weak elsewhere, finds an interesting focus for its strength and fighting spirit: functioning on a council model, it has achieved some success in its intervention in the labor market to obtain employment (Asamblea, 1997).


The potent labor movement fashioned out of social and political mobilization in support of democratic objectives that characterized Catalonia in the 1970s went into complete decline with the establishment of the new political regime. The growth of the city of Barcelona contributed to its decline as the public spaces that had provided cohesion to the working class disappeared (Balfour, 1989). Equally relevant was the social and political hegemony of a conservative nationalism that had a great capacity for integrating the popular sectors.

In contrast with the situation in the Basque Country, the national question hardly matters in Catalan unionism. Nationalism on the left resides solely with a minority faction and does not have deep roots with the workers, while the state-sponsored left adopts a clearly Catalan character. In the trade union field, the CCOO and the UGT exercise almost exclusive control, with the CCOO holding the majority because early on they adopted a definition of "Catalan" that avoided a division between natives and immigrants. A degree of autonomy from state administration and a certain ambiguity concerning the national question have permitted them to maintain this balance. Consequently, there is hardly a labor organization that is defined by its nationalism (Jordana and Nagel, 1995).

The old anarcho-syndicalist tradition, historically hegemonic among the working class of Catalonia, was in large measure suffocated by the Franco dictatorship. The brief resurgence of the CNT at the beginning of the transition was not sufficient for it to recover its previous strength. Its anarchist legacy continues, however, in a more diffused form in the substrata of certain social movements and in scattered autonomous groups. Although not linked with it organizationally, the squatters' movement, which acquired strength in the 1990s, has established a relationship with the libertarian ideology of Catalan anarchism that supports its anticapitalist ideological orientation. At the same time, there are various workers' groups that have established roots in local communities (Alt Penedes, Ripollet, and other enclaves) or in specific sectors (university collectives and health workers). Apart from their limited presence within the workers' movement, the radical organizations are so dispersed that they have resisted attempts at coordination in a federal structure. The creation of the Federacion de Trabajadores de Catalufia (Federation of Catalan Workers) constitutes the latest attempt in this direction, but its weakness is notable.


As in Catalonia, Madrid's dynamic workers' movement, which contributed so decisively in the 1960s and the 1970s to the struggle for democracy, experienced an early and steep decline. In addition, urban growth contributed to the loss of its social impact as workers' problems and disputes were diluted once they were depoliticized in a social context characterized by moderation and demobilization. The workers' movement saw its links with the sociopolitical scene severed as it was systematically silenced by the media without finding alternative outlets that would connect it with other movements or with the general population. The workers were also dispersed in terms of their residences, and all of these circumstances affected their cohesion and their capacity for expressing solidarity.

The small groups that have been able to persist have recently organized a platform for steady cooperation: the Coordinador Sindical de Izquierda (Syndical Coordinating Committee of the Left), which is composed of survivors of the radical tendencies of the 1970s, such as the SU and the council collectives introduced in the mint (Mozo Gayo, 1993) and the national telephone company, and the groups produced by recent splits in reaction against the principal trade unions, such as the Plataforma Sindical, organized in the city bus company (Villar, 1995). The latter burst on the scene in the final years of the 1980s as a combative force deriving its power from the radicalism of its approach, the steadfastness of its struggles, and the repercussions associated with its affecting so strategic a service as urban transportation. Repression and the dismissal of its leading cadres have contributed to its retreat in the past few years. In spite of its trade union character, its ideological leanings have contributed to its participation in campaigns against the Persian Gulf War and the homogenization process undertaken by the European Union.


Andalusia had a deep-rooted anarchist tradition, but the Franco dictatorship severed these roots as it did in Catalonia. In general, the loss of the signif- icance of the agrarian question and the bloody migration to Madrid, Catalonia, Germany, and other countries distinguish this period from the past. Once the transition occurred, the tardy appearance of the anarcho-syndicalists prevented their consolidation and the recovery of their former splendor. Although the Andalusian CNT did not completely disappear, its importance within the workers' movement was so reduced that it was displaced from its historical base, the landless laborers of the Andalusian countryside of large landed estates.

Considering the weak position of these workers, the landless laborers' movement found itself inactive during the dictatorship because of its incapacity to organize even minimally against the repressive and authoritarian practices of the state. During the transition it was vigorously revived, as the traditional situation concerning land distribution through the expropriation of the large landed estates persisted in the rural environment. Its methods of struggle are the symbolic occupation of rural estates, demonstrations demanding agrarian reform, enclosures, and hunger strikes. Furthermore, it has had charismatic leaders reminiscent of the old apostles of anarchism, although it has found itself displaced by the CCOO and, especially, the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (Union of Rural Workers-SOC). In the long run, the state has bought social peace in the Andalusian countryside through subsidies that guarantee subsistence, achieving the demobilization of the landless laborers and the neutralization of their social demands and thus perpetuating injustice at the same time. In this way, the system introduced by the socialist government marked the decline of the movement (Kohler, 1993).

Regarding industry, there is a dispersed core corresponding to the dockworkers of the Bay of Cadiz, influenced by the CNT and the Colectivos Autonomos de Trabajadores (Autonomous Workers' Collective). In Huelva, the SU has maintained considerable strength, while local groups in Jerez and Mailaga have offered little consistency. After frustrated efforts to create regional union structures to assemble these radical tendencies, there is now an Andalusian Inter-Trade Union that includes, while preserving their autonomous status, the CGT, the SOC, the SU, the Sindicato Unitario Andaluz de Trabajadores (United Andalusian Syndicate of Workers), and one dedicated to education, USTEA. No organic unity appears possible, however, given its heterogeneity and the presence of a state organization such as the CGT.


The weakness of traditional Galician politics, with its intellectual roots, contrasts with the strength of a nationalist unionism that harbors radical currents. Its strength is comparable to that of the major state confederations. Its makeup is the result of a complex succession of groups of diverse backgrounds and a recent recovery of the unity that existed before it suffered a split (which occurred for political reasons rather than union ones) during the mid-1980s. In the final years of the dictatorship various nationalist groups created the Inter-Trade Union, adopting an analysis that considered Galicia a nation subjugated by colonial domination. Subsequently, it attracted collectives that originated in the CSUT and others that split from the USO before it broke up into two unions of equal strength. It regrouped again in the 1990s under the name of the Confederacion Intersindical Galega (Galician Inter-Trade Union Confederation-CIG) (Arranz Pefia, 1993). Although it upholds council principles, its primary characteristic is nationalism, which explains its insistence on achieving an autonomous framework for labor relations and the prerogative of conducting its own affairs with nationalist unions from the Basque Country and the Canary Islands. Its dockworkers and fishermen have played a distinguished role in intense struggles.


The parallels between Galicia and the Canary Islands are striking: a nationalist unionism of a radical bent and considerable strength contrasts with a nationalism that is politically weak, created during the waning years of the dictatorship and displaying divisions emerging primarily from political differences that have been transcended in recent years. Establishing them- selves on a complementary sectional and territorial level, the Sindicato Obrero Canario (Canarian Workers' Union-SOC), of vanguard origin and fighting for independence, and the Confederacion Autonoma Nacionalista Canaria (Nationalist Autonomous Canarian Confederation-CANC), a supporter of self-determination with its roots in council principles based on class autonomy, in reality differ very little, and this has facilitated unification for integration into a Canarian Inter-Trade Union (Intersindical Canaria) com- posed of the SOC, the CANC, and the STEC.


Radical unionism in Asturias is represented by the Corriente Sindical de Izquierda (Union Tendency of the Left-CSI), a faction that split from the CCOO in 1981 and whose stronghold is the nucleus of workers in the city of Gijon. Its small membership contrasts sharply with its extraordinary importance in the Asturian workers' movement since its inception. Its assembly approach and decisive mobilization strategies have put it at the forefront of the struggles in defense of work, its signature being imprinted on the majority of the prolonged conflicts that have had the most important repercussions (Vega Garcia, 1991). Its role in the resistance against deindustrialization, the forcefulness of its demonstrations, and the successes achieved in its defense of work have made it an exemplary union for the majority of the antiestablishment left, including the military resisters and squatters, international solidarity collectives, and others. Besides the CSI, the survival of the education union (SUATEA), inheritor of the powerful unified movement of educators existing in the final stages of the dictatorship, and the continuation of radical sectors in the CCOO are also noteworthy.


In the rest of Spain, radical unionism is much weaker and diffused, largely limited to small industrial collectives or sectors working in considerable social isolation. In Cantabria, the SU has survived on a local basis (Torrelavega) with a large paper company, Sniace, as the principal focus of its activities. In Valencia, a small nucleus of CSUT and SU survived for many years before it was reintegrated into the CCOO, while the dockworkers in the Colectivos Autonomos have persevered. The CCOO, however, have suffered a leftist split, and a new group, the Trabajadores por la Unidad de Clase (Workers for Class Unity), has appeared. In Zaragoza industrial groups have been engaging in actions since the 1980s in the urban transportation sector and in a household appliance factory. At the same time, the CGT and leftist sectors of the CCOO operate in the principal factory of the region, General Motors. In Valladolid, the CGT has been influential in the principal factory, FASA Renault, and since 1978 there have been radical groups called Unidad Obrera (Worker Unity).

The establishment of a superstructure capable of unifying the various radical organizations that operate in the context of the Spanish state is infeasible given their territorial dispersion, their organizational fragmentation, their diversity of approaches and objectives, and the unpleasant aftertaste left by past political postures. Originating in many cases in factions that broke away from the principal confederations, they find autonomy a precious advantage. At the same time, the strongest among them present a nationalist vision that leads them to reject any subordination to state demands. Achieving autonomous frameworks for labor relations in those territories in which they operate constitutes an objective for the nationalists, but it is not always seen with sympathy by those who come from other traditions suspicious of nationalism.

Since 1984, after the failure of the confederations that attempted to monopolize all of the state (the disappearance of the SU and the CSUT and the breakdown of the CNT) and the stabilization of radical unionism's organizational picture that followed the splits within the principal confederations, these forces maintained periodic contacts through the Encuentros de Izquierda Sindical (Encounters of the Union Left). In spite of its notable continuity (27 events so far), these meetings have no other purpose but maintaining communication among forces that consider themselves similar, rejecting any coordination or necessity for any permanent organization. Founded by about 20 organizations the majority of which continue to participate, it has had some recent additions, among which the CGT stands out because it is the only one that operates all over Spain. In the past few years its subjects for discussion and reflection have revolved around problems emerging from unemployment, the European Union, modernization, the legal framework for labor and social issues, and the political and union situation.


Throughout the 1980s, in the general context of a weakened labor movement, there were struggles against the industrial restructuring initiated by the socialist government, which affected sectors that had heavy union influence. These conflicts frequently achieved great intensity in the communities most affected but had few repercussions outside of them. Iron and steel workers, dockworkers, and metallurgical workers vigorously defended their jobs and opposed the abolition of their compensatory payments (early retirement relocations), counting on the support of their immediate social context. The territorial impact of these adjustments would be challenged by general strikes that would engulf the Spanish landscape: Sagunto, El Ferrol, Vigo, Gijon Bilbao, Getafe, Cadiz, Reinosa, and others. After a period when the economic situation permitted a pause in this type of conflict, basically related to the deindustrialization process, the 1990s saw a repetition of some of the conflicts experienced during the previous decade and the initiation of new ones. Characterized by defensiveness and reaction against closings, layoffs, restructuring, and the introduction of new work conditions or against the effects on the region of the decline of traditional industries, they constitute examples of resistance against the globalization of the economy and neoliberal policies.

In October 1991, this cycle began with a massive general strike in Asturias protesting the dismantling of its textile industry. Subsequently, the iron and steel workers and miners led huge demonstrations against the adjustments in their sectors, with the miners going beyond the directives of the major labor confederations by engaging in radical street actions and prolonging the strike. For similar reasons, the Asturian example would be followed by the Galician area of El Ferrol, first, and, subsequently, in Galicia, the Asturian area of Aviles, Cantabria, the locality of Torrelavega, the Basque community and Navarre, Cartagena, the mining zone in Leon, and the industrial sector of Catalonia by reproducing the model of the 24-hour general strike. Often they involved interclass fronts led by unions that had achieved a broad social consensus and whose demands for social justice were centered on concrete objectives: maintaining existing industries, introducing measures for economic revitalization, developing social policies for the most disadvantaged.

If the success of these general mobilizations requires the support of the major labor confederations based on a united union position, since the radical organizations, by themselves, lack the capacity to obtain the support of non- labor sectors, the same is not always the case when it is a question of smaller labor collectivities. The most intense struggles, which at times served to trigger the above mentioned general strikes, frequently depended on the stimulus of the minority unions, which were able to advance radical strategies that the hegemonic labor confederations had to accept or be overtaken by events. Other conflicts were generated by the dynamic radicalization produced by the climate of opposition originating from the social issue that created them: in Cartagena (Murcia) and Linares (Andalusia) and among the dockworkers of Cadiz and the miners of Leon, authentic outbreaks of spontaneous protest occurred.

In all cases, the capacity for struggle and the possibilities of success have depended directly on the support of the surrounding community and the prestige of its union leaders. Both factors become decisive once the political authorities and the mass media disqualify any legitimate protest by trans- forming social and labor problems into mere questions of public order to be settled by police repression. Unfounded charges of collusion with independent Basque terrorism are made with the clear intent to isolate the protesters. With the same objective, the most distinguished leaders are attacked through personalized campaigns that attempt to deny their social base and the actual reasons for the mobilizations by portraying them as the product of demagogic manipulations.

The case of the Madrid city buses is distinguished by the hegemony achieved by the Plataforma Sindical (PS) and the sustained resistance of the demonstrations against the formidable pressure of the political authorities and the mass media. Focusing the social demands on work conditions, labor stability, and wage levels and not on the defense of jobs was another distin- guishing characteristic, and the union actions adopted stand out because of their council character and the challenge they posed to the principal labor confederations. Appearing in 1987, with a majority of its membership coming from the CCOO, the PS led a protracted strike that achieved victory in 1990 in spite of being confronted by a bloc made up of the city council (business owned and directed by the right), the government (socialist), the press, and the major labor confederations. A similar conflict occurred two years later that would be defeated after the firing of the core leadership of the strike (Camina o Revienta, May 1992).

Notwithstanding the decline suffered, the PS has maintained its majority in the election of representatives: 28 offices and 66 percent of the votes in 1995, even after the disastrous decapitation of 1992, demonstrating a solid foundation that reduced the major labor confederations to a marginal position in a company with 6,000 workers. These roots lie in praxis that is radically antibureaucratic and participatory and follows an assembly model, with a well-regarded leadership and a formidable propaganda effort for maintaining worker cohesion. Daily informative bulletins and constant meetings in which the workers' wives participated accompanied the strike. The workers' wives were considered integral to the project, and it was understood that their consciousness raising was essential for maintaining the spirit of the struggle. "The union begins and ends with the council, and without it, it is nothing," since "personal relations unite more than ideological similarities" (Villar, 1995).

In the area of Morrazo (Galicia), fishermen affected by a long work stoppage resulting from the negotiations for a fishing agreement with Morocco, in whose waters they worked, demanded an increase in their unemployment payments. They engaged in a series of demonstrations that included sabotage, the cutting of communication lines, and other forceful measures. They operated by a general assembly of all of the workers involved in their sector, whose representatives were able to negotiate after the authorities initially refused to recognize a petition initiated outside of union channels. Although led by nationalist labor militants (CIG), the above mentioned council model provoked resistance against it, even within the core of this union. Nevertheless, it had considerable effectiveness in maintaining cohesion and a spirit of struggle through radical methods. The consequences extended to the strengthening of solidarity with the people of the Sahara to whom the waters of the disputed fishing area truly belonged, denouncing the Moroccan state for its illegal occupation of the territory.

In Sniace, the largest company in the Torrelavega area, the SU took the initiative in lengthy resistance against its closing. In a tense relationship, alternating between collaboration and confrontation, with the principal labor confederations, it sustained the struggle for years until an acceptable outcome was achieved. The mobilization of those affected, which included repeated confrontations with the police and direct attacks on the interests of the owning banks as well as the jailing of 800 individuals, contributed to the support they received from women and student groups. During critical moments it was possible to paralyze the region with a general strike to which the police responded by occupying the city (Pdgina Abierta, no. 25).

Also threatened by closure, workers at the Japanese multinational Suzuki plant in Linares (2,400 direct jobs) responded with demonstrations that, in many cases, originated on the margins of trade-union initiative and counted on the active participation of women. Confrontations with the police have contributed to numerous injuries. Again, the protest took the form of a regional general strike (March 22, 1994). There has not, however, been a significant presence of radical groups on the margins of the principal labor unions.

The Asturian company Duro-Felguera created the conditions for another desperate conflict in defense of work, originating with the firing of 232 workers. In especially adverse conditions (firings ratified by the courts, division of the employees between those who lost their jobs and those who remained, conflict between the striking collective and the union leadership) a radical mobilization that employed sit-down strikes, hunger strikes, road blockades, barricades, and sabotage against the company's bank shareholders' interests had widespread social support, represented by demonstrations and general strikes in the Valley of Nalon as well as examples of solidarity from the rest of Asturias and other regions. Its resistance achieved the political involvement of the Asturian and central governments, which presented petitions. The partial solution to the problem allowed 39 fired workers to remain because the agreement concerning relocations was not observed. Their numerical weakness did not impede the continuation of the struggle for two more years, including acts of sabotage and a sit-in in the cathedral of Oviedo that lasted nearly a year. Although the leaders of this collective belonged to the CCOO, their relationship witI this trade union was very problematic, since its strategy and affinities placed it much closer to the Union Tendency of the Left. The conflict appears to have found a solution after four years as a result of an agreement with the Ministry of Industry.

Other struggles have achieved a generalized social protest dimension with the workers' movement at its core. In Cartagena, the convergence of adjustments in the principal industries of the zone provoked demonstrations that created an upheaval throughout the city, ending with a general strike in December 1992. A month later this climate resulted in an assault against the headquarters of the governing party (the socialist PSOE) and the torching of the regional parliament. In Cadiz, the announcement of the restructuring of the dockworkers led to mass protests, including a demonstration of 100,000 people. After weeks of blocking traffic and confrontations, the superficiality of the mass media and the government's intransigence in its negotiations contributed to a radicalization of the movement that ended on September 15, 1995, with violent incidents all over the city, the destruction of bank branches, the torching of PSOE's headquarters, and vandalism in the streets and against businesses. The presence of the CNT and the CAT was felt in these demonstrations, which found a parallel in Seville for the same reasons, while the principal labor confederations, the UGT and the CCOO, were bypassed for some time before signing agreements that diminished the impact of the adjustment (Goldner, 1996). In the mining industry of Leon, successive reductions in that sector confronted a determined challenge. On the last occasion (autumn 1996) a concerted response contributed to the blockage of roads and a confrontation with police units in the midst of local mass support, including that of the town councils led by the ruling party, achieving partial victory.


If any labor collective has distinguished itself in the past few decades for the combativeness, consistency, and intensity of its struggles, it is that of the workers of the Asturian Gijon Shipyard. For 15 years they maintained a struggle for the survival of their sector that was settled with notable success and was influential far beyond their own industry. Before their involvement in the defense of their own jobs, these workers had had broad experience of struggles that included a strike in protest of the last death sentences under Franco, a three-month conflict in 1976 demanding the rehiring of those fired for trade-union or political activities, two strikes defending the jobs of workers in another industry, and a trade-union praxis characterized by its council orientation and mass mobilization. When the time came to confront the crisis and the restructuring of the sector, their point of departure was the possession of an unyielding class perspective, an intense politicization, and an alliance composed of a radical core of trade-union cadres. The CCOO and the CSI provided the organizational framework capable of resisting the demobilization strategy of the UGT (Vega Garcia, 1998).

The council model and open support of the seconding of the mobilizations without fear of the radical forms of protest, along with a systematic distrust of government plans and promises, constituted the common ground on which the alliance was based. The strategy it developed was based on an understanding that the conflict was a resistance struggle that did not forget its unquestionable political dimensions. The divisions created among the employees as a result of a harsh trade-union confrontation of contending strategies constituted a serious difficulty for maintaining a long-term mobilization dynamic. In spite of everything, the profile offered by the segment of workers that sustained the struggle and its direction throughout the entire previous decade were decisive for its internal cohesion, almost limitless confidence in collective action, and tenacity. It was remaining steadfast for a prolonged period that contributed to the success of their mobilization efforts. These workers, frequently active in sociopolitical associations and organizations, were integrated into their social environment, and it provided them indispensable protection. At the same time, they paid serious attention to informing those on the outside about the problem. In an attempt to confront the political authorities' and mass media's portrayal of them as the ones to blame, the dockyard workers' trade union engaged in incessant conversations with neighborhood associations and institutions, repaired the damage caused during the demonstrations, donated cash and goods to a neighborhood homeless shelter, and held an open house at the workplace in October 1996 that attracted about 5,000 visitors.

The struggles engaged in by the dockyard workers between 1982 and 1996 were a source of almost constant tension that involved local and autonomous political forces and institutions. In their search for social collaboration, the workers awoke the solidarity of a majority of the population in the neighborhoods that they lived in, and in the final stages they concentrated their protests, which unfolded against the city's industrial crisis, on their problem by engaging in general strikes. Their objectives went beyond a simple rejection of the policy of industrial modernization by making an effort to guarantee the standard of living of the affected collective and the maintenance of employment, even against the wishes of the owners, once the company was restructured. The success achieved by the dockworkers in the defense of immediate interests such as jobs, the investment of surplus, and the conditions of retirement has served as an example for other labor collectives facing similar problems. In the long run, the workers not only saved their jobs but also ensured the survival of their industry against the wishes of its owners. Their pressure caused the authorities to institute political measures such as contracts for ships for the dockworkers, credit concessions, and debt cancellation. After a decade of violent confrontations, they were able to produce a change in the actions of the company shareholders in such a manner that they actually began to function in co-partnership, with the result that no important decision is made without the input of the workers' representatives. This outcome resulted in investments in technological modernization that permitted them to overcome their lack of competitiveness, and this reactivation created new jobs. Thus, the rejection of long work hours, the demand that new workers hired have the same conditions as established employees, and the professional training given to new comrades reveal the continuation of a class perspective and a spirit of solidarity in spite of prolonged defensive struggles.

What we are observing, finally, is a unique experience that offers numerous lessons. These lessons can be synthesized as follows:

Solidarity, in the long run, is profitable. Those who support other people's causes will receive much more support when they need it than those who do not. Being in the minority, the dockworkers found more social support and approval than their comrades in the iron and steel industry, who were inclined toward self-sufficiency.

When receiving outside help for a prolonged struggle, moral support is as important as material. Isolation breeds demoralization; a relationship with the workers' social environment is decisive. No prolonged conflict can survive in an actively hostile environment. A few workers well integrated into the social fabric who participate in associations, militate in social movements, and relate to their neighbors are in a better position to struggle.

The psychological aspect and the level of consciousness are crucial. To resist fatigue and pressures of all kinds for a long time one must be completely convinced and have very clear objectives. For this reason, propaganda and the councils play a fundamental role. Propaganda makes its effects felt both internally and outside. Internally, it contributes to cohesion among the workers, carries the arguments, and increases the determination to struggle. Outside, it allows for the countering of media bias and the campaigns against the demonstrations that always emerge. At the same time, a council is irreplaceable, since it is within it that a spirit of struggle and unity is forged. It protects against bureaucratization by maintaining a bond between the union members and their base.

In spite of the importance of the psychological, the material aspects also count. Demonstrations need financing, and a strike fund is indispensable. The most necessary and practical means of supporting the struggle is finding economic solidarity, since the funds provided by some trade unions for their affiliates are insufficient. Reliance on trade-union funds will lull workers into passivity, making them dependent on contributions managed by bureaucratic organizations. They need to depend on their own ability to seek financial support from the social environment in which they operate.

The struggle needs to be an active one if it is to survive. The worker needs to be involved. He must not stay home or delegate his tasks to trade-union organizations. Workers need to understand that what will happen is in their hands and their action can change the situation. A bureaucratic mentality that delegates responsibility to the leadership can function on a day-to-day basis but not during difficult situations.

Although it is important, unity is not a necessity; one can struggle effectively from disunity. To do so requires clarity of ideas and objectives, the will to resist, and flexibility. Although sectarianism between trade unions weakens everyone in that it hinders workers' unity, the desire for unity at any cost can lead one to sell out or agree to demobilization when differences of opinion arise.

The consciousness of the union cadres is decisive for maintaining a social and class perspective. Their task is consciousness-raising among the rank and file that helps them to conceive the struggle as a collective one. They should develop what benefits everyone and not only those directly affected, avoid corporatism, and fight the uncooperative and individualist tendencies that always emerge.

The radicalization of the struggle implies a grave risk, since the authorities may reduce the problem to a question of public order. But this can be avoided without renouncing the objectives and acceding to the calls for moderation by diversifying the discourse and combining various types of demonstrations, ensuring that radical actions - inevitably those of a minority - can count on support by mobilization of the masses.

During moments of a generalized retreat of the workers' movement, a motto from the Spanish Civil War rings true: "To resist is to win." If the mobilization can be maintained, the possibilities for success increase. If one can resist the harassment, the layoffs, the accusations, one can, in the end, even achieve respectability. What occurred in Gijon Shipyard may appear surprising; for 10-12 years layoffs rained on its workers, but after a few years their image had been transformed in such a manner that spokespersons from diverse political organizations, institutions, and associations that once had attacked them now publicly declared them exemplary. This respectability was achieved not by moderation but by maintaining radical positions.

Similarly, a prolonged struggle can achieve seemingly unattainable objec- tives. The dockworkers started from a desperate situation with a conflict that appeared lost in advance: an undercapitalized company with obsolete equip- ment and owners who wanted to shut it down. In the end, though, they achieved employment, investment, modernization, and even a board of directors that believes in a future for dockworkers. Manning the barricades contributed to the transformation of a company that was in ruins into a modern and competitive one. To paraphrase another slogan, this one from the French May '68, the real was to demand the impossible.

A major reason for success revolved around the question of how to combine labor mobilization with political pressure, taking advantage of the contradictions that always emerge. For many years, the lack of managers with the will to act as such contributed to their replacement by the political authorities, who intervened in favor of defending the dockworkers by searching for shipbuilding contracts and forcing the owners to assume their social responsibility.

Economic data can be challenged, since they are often unreliable. Those produced for the Spanish shipbuilding industry in technical reports and supposedly trustworthy plans for modernization suffered from serious errors. Technocrats are also ideologues who do not deserve our absolute confidence.

The past is an asset in constructing the future. Experience, the development of our struggles, the victories achieved, the consciousness acquired, and the cadres created all have significant influence on the decision to act collectively.

Taken from Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 27, No. 5, Radical Left Response to GlobalImpoverishment (Sep., 2000), pp. 111-133



12 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by akai on August 8, 2011

Isn't Ruben Vega Garcia on the payroll of a CCOO foundation? I think even at one time the director? I think one has to read between the lines in this history.

Juan Conatz

12 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 9, 2011

Between the lines of what?


12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on January 18, 2012

I think the reading between the lines means -- to me, as I skimm the article -- the author's criticisms of anarcho-syndicalism.

I found this to be off mark (amongst others):

The labor movement has found it equally difficult to link up with recent movements that contain a strong element of anti-establishment opposition, such as those refusing military service and the squatters' movement. Although these movements are driven by a relatively small number of youths, they have nevertheless achieved considerable resonance by attacking the contradictions of the prevailing militarist creed and the property system from an ideological perspective based on an alternative ethical and value system. The repression leveled against them (jailing of those resisting military service, the dislodging and massive detention of squatters) has gained them broad sympathy, and they have achieved partial victories such as the imminent abandonment of obligatory military service and the opening of self-managed social centers in which Catalan and Basque squatters, as well as those from Madrid, engage in countercultural activities based on unconventional artistic expression and aesthetic forms.

I very clearly recall in the immediate post-Franco, CNT above ground period, many debates inside the CNT. A key number of them focused on how "marginals" (their term, not mine) were all flocking to the CNT.That the CNT, which would have thousands, in some cases tens of thousands, come to their rallies, and was seen as the catch-all home for the libertarian movement, not just the traditional anarcho-syndicalist aspect. The pages of the high quality and influential magazine "Bicicelta"
ran debates and discussions on this for many an issue. Links to digital copies of "Bici" can be found: http://www.anarkismo.net/article/13709