Barcelona workers win general strike for economic justice, 1919

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Timing
Time Period:  
5 February,
1919
to
3 April,
1919
Location and Goals
Country: 
Spain
Location City/State/Province: 
Barcelona
Goals: 
The demands of the strikers were the “release of political prisoners, the rehiring of all strikers, wage increases, an eight-hour day, and half a month's indemnization [repayment] for time lost during the strike.”
 

During the first decades of the 20th century, Spain saw the rise of several radical left and right groups that continually vied for power against the largely ineffectual civilian government.
On the left the groups included the socialist Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and its more radical rival the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT).
In the military, rivalries between different corps and conservative groups such as the Juntas de Defensa (Juntas) contributed to deep tensions between and within the military, workers’ groups, Catalonian separatists, and the civilian government, which was constantly under threat of a coup. This period was marked by a low level of cooperation between social groups on all fronts.
In 1917 the UGT and CNT attempted an indefinite general strike to bring about democratic reform. This strike was a total failure in terms of its goals, resulting in drops in both unions’ memberships. The strike brought an end to close cooperation between bourgeois and proletarian political groups, and demonstrated the willingness of the CNT to plan for and resort to violence.
In 1919 -- two years later -- the Regional Labor Confederation of Catalonia (CRT) and the CNT in Barcelona proved the ability of Spanish workers to nonviolently achieve significant reform. The 1919 general strike saw all of its original goals fulfilled—including the first general guarantee of an eight-hour workday in the world.
In January 1919, General Milans del Bosch, the Captain General of Catalonia, acted in fear of the rising power of the CRT. He persuaded Spanish Prime Minister Álvaro de Figueroa to suspend constitutional privileges in Barcelona. General Milans also allowed the formation of anti-labor, pro-military urban militias in the city known as Somatenes.
The CRT responded by calling a strike primarily to demonstrate its ability to fight back against the threatening and repressive regional government.
Before the CRT’s demonstrations began, however, on 5 February eight workers at La Canadiense electrical plant were fired for appealing to the union of utility workers to join the strike.
The same day, 117 employees in the billing office of the factory walked out and met with the regional governor who promised to intercede on their behalf if they agreed to return to work. When they returned to the factory, however, they were blocked from entering by a police cordon and were all fired.
On 8 February almost all of the other La Candiense workers began to strike. During the same week, another factory nearby had a sit-in in support of the fired workers and textile workers held a walkout. The La Canadiense workers were soon joined by workers from other electrical plants.
With the momentum from the Canadiense firings further propelling their plans, the CRT called its general strike, calling on CNT and other unions to join. Despite the fact that all of their leaders were in prison, the CNT responded with massive support. 100,000 workers joined the strike in Barcelona.
The goals of the CRT and CNT, which was led in the absence of its board of leaders by Simo Piera, were to pass an 8-hour workday, legalize the unions, and release all political prisoners.
General Milans 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 led a group of pistoleros that used violence to intimidate the workers.
The workers, 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, General Milans commanded that all workers be drafted into the army or return to their jobs. This decree was never carried out.
Newspapers owned by CNT members practiced “red censorship”—they refused to print opinions against the strike—and the newspapers refused to print Milans’ demand to draft all workers. Where the news about his command was published, however, the news encouraged the workers to continue their strike with more enthusiasm.
According to General Milans, CNT elements of the strike ordered several bombings during the campaign. No deaths or injuries were reported, however.
In a month the workers had brought the city to a halt. If the strike had continued, it would have destroyed Barcelona’s economy. 70% of Catalonia’s overall production ground to a halt.
The Prime Minister was pressured by General Milans to permit more violence, but after several failed attempts to repress the strike, the Prime Minister ended up replacing the civil governor and the police chief with more liberal officers who were less under the influence of Milans.
On 17 March these new officers and Prime Minister Romanones’ personal secretary began negotiating with the strikers and eventually conceded to all of their demands. Martial law was lifted and Salvador Seguí, the head of the CRT, convinced strikers to return to work.
Regional military leaders, however, were unhappy with the civilian government’s conciliation and refused to release prisoners held by the military.
Workers demanded that the government “Free everybody!” and began a second strike. The remaining prisoners were quickly released.
The military then reinstated martial law, arrested the strike committee, and tried to force union members to break their union cards as they were registered. The workers therefore continued their second strike.
On 31 March Miguel Burgos, a secretary of the CNT, was killed in prison, perhaps while attempting to escape although this may have been staged.
The streets began to be heavily patrolled by the Somatenes and the second strike was broken by 3 April.
Finally, the military seized the opportunity to expel the civilian officers from Barcelona, effectively declaring its ability to overrule civilian appointments.
Despite the enormous success of the initial strike in 1919 Barcelona, the tension grew between the military, CNT, and civilian government. Prime Minister Romanones resigned. CRT and CNT leaders remained imprisoned after the strike and the military gained both local power and nationwide political momentum towards military dictatorship.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Previous strikes had taken place in Barcelona, including a failed attempt in August 1917. (1)

Sources: 
Aspden, Alex. "1919: La Canadiense and Barcelona general strike." libcom.org. 10 Sep 2006. libcom.org, Web. 20 Feb 2010. <http://libcom.org/history/articles/barcelona-canadiense-general-strike-1919>

Boyd , Carolyn B. "Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain: CHAPTER SIX The 'Bolshevik Triennium,' 1919-1921." The Library of Iberian Resources Online. 10 Sep 2006. American Academy of Research Historians of Medieval Spain, Web. 20 Feb 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. "Anarchism in Spain." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 May. 2013. Web. 17 Jun. 2013.

"The Canadian strike." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. April 12, 2013, 14:17 UTC. June 17, 2013, 19:58 < http://es.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Huelga_de_La_Canadiense&oldid=66182877 >.

Additional Notes: 
More research may reveal more violence, including by campaigners.

Several months after the end of the second strike, employers staged a lockout of 150,000 employees in an attempt to make them turn in their CNT membership cards. This lockout was a failure. More research might show that this action was continuous with the campaign described above, which would push the campaign into 1920, or reveal a separate campaign.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (07/06/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sophia Naylor, 20/02/201; Michael Alex Hall, 18/06/13