By Monday night, the Guardia Civil [national police] had left Calella [small Catalan town near Barcelona], leading a spokesman for Spain’s main police union, to complain that officers were “fleeing from hotel to hotel; they are like rats who have to hide”.
By now, the images of the brutality and ferocity with which Spanish and Catalan police were attacking people on October 1st, in order to prevent a referendum on Catalan independence, have circulated everywhere. So have the images of people in Catalonia pushing back lines of police. The government threw gasoline onto smoldering embers, and the general strike which occurred on October 3rd was the result. The mix of empowering and disempowering images on Sunday has been replaced by a real sense of collective power and solidarity.
— 15MBcn_int (@15MBcn_int) October 3, 2017
“On the night of October 1st, the business unions in Catalonia signed on to the general strike for October 3rd. This was the first time that the radical unions had taken the initiative and been followed by the business unions, and nobody knew quite what it meant.”
From North America, it seems hard to grasp what “general strike” actually means on the ground. In the US at least, we haven’t had officially had one since 1946, in Oakland (although the Detroit uprising of ’67, for example, was a more authentic general strikes than many things which go by that name elsewhere). [Editor’s Note: We would argue that the 2006 strikes against HR-4437 and during the Occupy Movement could be considered general strikes.] For radicals in North America, we have a sense that “general strikes” are good things, but we’re in the same position as Europeans first trying to understand the platypus – we’ve never seen it, we only know its characteristics from writings, and we have a sneaking suspicion that it’s either fake, or not as good as we want to believe. What we forget – what we as a class and a culture have been made to forget – is that there’s nothing mystic nor exotic about general strikes. Our grandparents pulled off 6 citywide general strikes in 1946, plus nationwide strikes in coal and rail. Since then, “unionism” has been channeled into a very narrow workplace contractualism that makes solidarity impossible. They’ve happened here before, and they can happen again, when we build a new kind of unionism and throw out workplace contractualism.
But let’s return to Spain, which had a massive strike wave in the 70s after the death of Franco, and where the state and capital still haven’t been able to fully exorcise the memory of militant, class-wide solidarity. There have been a number of nationwide general strikes since then, but always organized by the two business unions in Spain (CCOO and UGT). There are a number of independent, militant, and radical (often anarchist) unions, as well as regional unions in Catalonia, Andalucia, and the Basque country, but they have always had to follow the general strikes called by the business unions and fight to make them more militant. In 40 years, they’ve never been able to pull off their own general strikes. Until now.
Els estibadors de BCN, reunits en assemblea, hem decidit per unanimitat secundar la vaga general del 3-O. Per la dignitat i els drets civils pic.twitter.com/zRptqBib91
— OEPB (@CoordinadoraBCN) October 2, 2017
The independent dockworkers union (Coordinadora) voting unanimously to participate in the general strike.
The strike had been called originally almost two weeks ago by a coalition of regional and radical unions, including several that refer to revolutionary and anarchist unionism (the most well known of which are the CNT and CGT). They attempted to articulate a fine line, that they were not for the creation of a new Catalan state, but were against police repression and austerity (including when repression and austerity are carried out by Catalan police and politicians). This coalition of unions has been working together since the economic crisis erupted in 2010, with the goal of jointly organizing general strikes outside of the control of the business unions. That was the theory, but it had never been tested before, and it wasn’t clear how effective it would be.
Then came the police attacks across all of Catalonia, and the people’s response of anger and outrage. In several areas people forced police to retreat, including from the hotel where they have historically stayed when needed in large number in Barcelona (see quote above).
— CNT oficial (@cnt1910) October 3, 2017
On the night of October 1st, the business unions in Catalonia signed on to the general strike for October 3rd. This was the first time that the radical unions had taken the initiative and been followed (rather than ignored) by the business unions, and nobody knew quite what it meant. The next morning, the business unions held embarrassing press conferences where they announced that they actually they were only calling for a “civic protest” together with the chamber of commerce. They weren’t calling on workers to strike, but only to go to their bosses and politely ask them to close the business for the day. This is a new low for even reformist unions in Spain (although it’s more than unions try to do in North America). It’s not clear why the business unions changed their mind but one suspects they received panicked phone calls from their central offices in Madrid telling them not to stir the flames up too much.
Their waffling only cemented the moral and practical leadership of the radical unions. Nobody in Catalonia talked about a “civic protest,” everyone was talking about THE General Strike. In smaller towns or areas where the radical unions had a small presence, the “Referendum Defense Committees” that had formed over the last week became “Strike Committees” and engaged in flying pickets. Anywhere where the radical unions did have a presence (including several of the small towns), they were the clear leadership of the movement, organizing flying pickets as well as mass marches in order to both halt production and prevent police maneuvers.
— CUP Olot (@CUPOlot) October 3, 2017
In the small town of Olot (pop. 33,000), ignored by the business unions, the CNT have methodically built themselves into a major radical force. The results are visible in the General Strike.
Although the spectacular images of protest seem to have all been spontaneous, we know that there is a relationship between spontaneity and organization. The ability for the CNT and the other radical unions to take leadership of the situation was based on their very patient day-to-day organizing in workplaces and communities – as revolutionaries.
This is an important point for us in North America, because when we say “revolutionary unionism,” we can’t just settle for building some general kind of unionism that will hopefully later, someday, eventually, maybe become revolutionary. As another IWW member put it recently:
We are not trying to build a union and figure out how to make it revolutionary, but rather we are trying to support a liberatory revolution and figuring out what role workplace organizing today plays in that. Another way of saying this is that we’re trying to build an organized front within the workplace for a revolutionary movement. Specifically, we have some perspective and analysis of how working class revolution happens that implies “unionism” plays some important role in such a project at this historical moment.
The CNT have a clear program for building revolutionary unions, and a clear articulation for how building revolutionary unions now plays a role for a future liberatory revolution. Since the 2008 crisis began and the Spanish and Catalan governments have insisted on more austerity (backed every time by the business unions), the CNT has methodically inserted itself into both workplace and social struggles, and built a strong and well-rooted presence in many important workplaces in Barcelona (the airport, the docks, the metro) as well as in many smaller towns in Catalonia, such as Olot. (The same pattern is true across most of Spain.) They have also engaged very deeply with independent workers groups such as Las Kelly’s (hotel cleaners) or Deliveroo riders – both of which groups were sold out by agreements made by the business unions but have continued their struggles just the same. (The CNT is the focus here because, of all of the radical unions, they are the most similar to the IWW, and we are coordinating together internationally – but the coordination in practice with other unions is an extremely positive and exciting development.)
“The King of Spain just gave a speech which calls for more repression. The struggle is unlikely to die down soon. It’s a complicated struggle, but the elements of class solidarity, rejection of the police, and distrust of politicians are clearly major positive factors to pay attention to.”
These are important lessons for revolutionary unionists in North America (or almost anywhere outside of Spain) to learn, or re-learn. We need to combine a revolutionary vision with a coherent program for revolutionary organizing in every part of society, including by building strong organizations in the workplace, especially as business unionism in North America continues to collapse. We don’t have this program yet, and we won’t have it tomorrow. We can’t simply elaborate it in our heads, nor by importing a program from another context. The program we need will be built through engaging in mass struggles, as well as building clearly revolutionary unions at the point of production; it will be built by thinking big about what’s possible, and what kind of struggles will get us there. We don’t have this program yet, but we can begin putting it together, learning as we go. We should try to imagine revolutionary unionism being as relevant in St Louis as it is in Barcelona; if we can’t, we aren’t serious, we’re just role-playing.
In Catalonia, and all of Spain, the tension continues to simmer. Nobody knows what will happen next. The King of Spain just gave a speech which calls for more repression. The struggle is unlikely to die down soon. It’s a complicated struggle, but the elements of class solidarity, rejection of the police, and distrust of politicians are clearly major positive factors to pay attention to. The business unions have embarrassed themselves thoroughly and will be completely marginalized in the coming struggles. The CNT and the other radical unions are clear players for hegemony in this struggle involving hundreds of thousands of people. None of their members have ever been in this situation before, and they might make mistakes, but any mistake they make will be worth more than 1,000 correct decisions made by internet commentators.
Let’s keep our eyes peeled. The lessons that our comrades in Catalonia and Spain learn in the coming days will be important for all of us.
No cops, no bosses, no borders!
By Brandon. Not an official statement of Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement