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Barcelona workers general strike for economic justice, 1919
In early February 1919, eight workers were fired from the La Canadiense electrical plant in Barcelona, Spain. They were fired for political reasons, and on February 5, 140 factory workers walked out in support. On February 8, they were joined by almost all of the other factory workers. During the same week, another factory nearby had a sit-in in support of the fired workers and textile workers also held a walkout. The La Canadiense workers were soon joined by workers from other electrical plants.
In response to the firing of the La Canadiense workers, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT, an anarcho-syndicalist union) and the Regional Labor Confederation of Catalonia (CRT) led a general strike in Barcelona that ended up involving more than 100,000 workers. The goals of the CNT were to pass an 8-hour workday, legalize the unions, and release all political prisoners.
The Captain General of Barcelona, Milans del Bosch, declared a state of emergency and under martial law arrested 3,000 workers and CNT leaders. He was supported by the Employers’ Federation and had under his command Police Chief Manuel Bravo Portillo. Bravo Portillo lead a group of pistoleros that used violence to intimidate the workers. The strike, however, persisted and eventually nearly all of the utilities workers in Barcelona had joined the strike, including railroad and tram employees.
Attempting to end the strike, Milans commanded that all workers be drafted into the army or return to their jobs. This decree was never realized. Papers run by CNT members practiced “red censorship”—they refused to print opinions against the strike—which included refusing to print Milans’ demand to draft all workers. Where the news about his command was released, however, it was largely ignored and only made the workers continue the strike with more enthusiasm.
There were some reports that the strikers used violence, but they were reported by Milans and could perhaps have been used against the strikers to ruin their reputation.
Only a month later the strike had brought the city to a halt. If it had continued, the strike would have destroyed Barcelona’s economy. The Prime Minister was pressured by Milans to use force, but after several failed attempts to stop the strike by force, the Prime Minister ended up replacing Milans and the police chief with more liberal officers. Soon after, the Prime Minister began negotiating with CNT and conceded to all of their demands.
The CNT, however, was not completely satisfied because the government of Barcelona only released political prisoners not already on trial. “Free everybody!” became CNT’s new slogan and they began a second strike for this cause. Unfortunately, this strike was stopped by police before it could become as large and successful as the initial strike.