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Barcelona citizens general strike for democracy and economic justice, 1951
In December 1950, the municipal authorities in Barcelona increased the cost of tram fare by 40%. Working class families were outraged. The cost of living had been rising and the price of food was at an all-time high. On February 8, 1951, an anonymous leaflet circulated throughout Barcelona, calling for a boycott of the city’s trams to begin on March 1 until the fares were returned to their regular price. As the date of the boycott approached, citizens from across the city began to make their anger known. On February 22, groups of individuals united in protest and used explosives to dislodge the tramlines. In the week that followed, groups of angry citizens gathered to throw stones at the trams and marched through the streets. The police arrested many of them.
By March 1 the boycott of the trams was in full force. Tram workers stayed home and many individuals walked to their offices and shops. That night hundreds of people took to the streets across the city. The municipal police stormed the downtown area in an attempt to break up the groups of protesting citizens. Though many were arrested, the police could not quiet the masses.
On the morning of March 6, 1951, the Central National Syndicate (CNS), the only legal union organization in Francoist Spain, held an assembly to discuss the tram boycott. Some 2,000 CNS delegates attended, many of whom were in the lower ranks and disagreed with the CNS rhetoric yet belonged to the group because it was the only legal union in Spain. Dissident members of Franco’s Falange party were also in attendance, as were Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) militants. All in all, the assembly held many anti-Francoist elements.
Claudio Emilio Sánchez, the Provincial Syndical Delegate and a supporter of the Franco regime, led the meeting along with members of the CNS hierarchy. In his opening address, Sánchez announced that the boycott of the Barcelona tram system had ended and declared that tram fare would return to its original price. To many of those in the hall, Sánchez’s speech meant nothing. Though the boycott had been successful in returning tram fare to its original price, living costs were still too high.
At the close of his address, Sánchez called upon the union delegates to symbolically board the trams. Those lower ranking CNS members, dissident Falangists, and PSUC militants that had been a part of the tram boycott took this opportunity to call for a general strike to protest the Franco regime, poor wages, and the high cost of living, and to demand the release of those imprisoned during the tram boycott. The CNS leadership and syndical authorities left the hall. Those who remained refused to leave until their fellow citizens were released from prison. Commandeering the room, they held their own meeting in which they outlined their demands for the Civil Governor of Barcelona, Eduardo Baeza Alegria. A delegation left the hall to deliver the group’s demands to Baeza’s office. Upon returning to the hall with the Governor’s assurance that the imprisoned comrades would be released, police came to disperse the group.
The meeting of March 6 resulted in the systematic targeting of workers in Barcelona’s industrial plants. On March 7, groups of anti-Francoists, many of whom had attended the meeting of the previous day, distributed notices to factories across the city announcing March 12 as the start date of the general strike. PSUC produced many leaflets as well and handed them out to engineers in Barceloneta and workers in textile firms.
On March 10, Governor Baeza met with the chief of the municipal police and delegates from the state syndicate, labor, Social Brigade, and state police. They agreed that the general strike would not be allowed to happen and any protests would be suppressed at all costs.
The morning of March 12 began with small groups of anti-Francoists, and in some cases single individuals, going from factory to factory and announcing the start of the strike. By 9 a.m. all work in the textile, engineering, construction, and chemical industries had stopped. Those who held jobs in offices and shops downtown stayed home and consumers refrained from purchasing items in the stores. The strike disrupted gas, water, electricity, postal, and phone services as well.
Crowds of industrial workers and their supporters gathered in the city center, voicing their demands and calling for the resignation of the city council. The trams, which had been the outlet of the mass’s energies earlier that month, were once again stoned, overturned, and set alight. Angry citizens broke the windows of Town Hall. Initially, the police made no move to arrest the strikers, however as the day progressed they arrested hundreds of individuals. Still, protestors continued to pour into the streets. That night, the Minister of the Interior, Blas Pérez, ordered the closure of three major factories after Baeza issued an investigation into the continued defiance of workers and the identity of the strike “promoters.”
The following day the governor deployed state troops. Four warships carrying marines docked in the harbor and arrested thousands more strikers.
On March 14 the general strike collapsed as workers returned to their jobs. For many the threat of lay-offs was too great and, with thousands already starving, to risk unemployment seemed ridiculous. Though some workers continued to stay home from their jobs in an attempt to sustain the protest, by the end of the week most Barcelonan’s had returned to work.
Though the general strike was unsuccessful in bringing about the demands that Barcelona’s citizens had created, it did set the stage for massive civil unrest across Spain. Over the next year, waves of general strikes were initiated in surrounding areas including Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Alava, and Navarre.