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International Socialism, Summer 1968


The Spanish Workers’ Commissions

Translated and introduced by George Wilson


From International Socialism, No.33, Summer 1968, pp.35-37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



This year’s May Day demonstrations in Spain publicised, for the first time for many spectators, the existence of a powerful underground labour network, the Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras). The small size of these demonstrations will surprise only those for whom Spain still incarnates the myth of spontaneity, the image of the masses ready to storm and seethe against impossible odds, with no leadership other than that which they improvise. Franco’s police were out in force on May Day, treating any demonstrators or even bystanders they caught with outrageous brutality.

A better estimate of the strength of the Commissions can be gained from the following extracts from a report published this March in Mundo, a Spanish newsweekly influenced by Opus Dei, the Catholic lay society which is a powerful force within the regime. The issue containing the report was seized and impounded by the authorities; some copies reached the public owing to a brief confusion in the censorship. The curious air of circumlocution and indirectness in some of the report is characteristic of many Spanish publications: all printed matter in Spain is subjected to immediate scrutiny at the office of the censor, who can have an entire run of a journal or book impounded forthwith. Each word, therefore, has to be weighed. The following points may be of interest for background knowledge. The Syndicates (Sindicatos) form the official system of industrial relations in Spain, the sole legal form of organisation for labour. Set up after Franco’s victory under Falange inspiration, they enrol employers and workers together, each branch of industry having its Syndicate. They are represented in the Spanish Cabinet and ‘Parliament’ (Cortes) by a system of indirect election which amounts to virtual self-selection by the ruling clique. In recent years the lower rungs of Syndical organisation have been subjected to relatively unrestricted election at factory level; the Workers’ Commissions ran slates for these elections, though some tendencies on the Left boycotted them. Many arrests have now taken place in these lower reaches of the Syndicates.

The Club referred to as an early meeting place for the Commissions (the ‘Manuel Mateo Social Circle’) was a Falange-sponsored social centre.

The Collective Contracts are a system of industrial bargaining introduced in 1958 and now covering most Spanish factories. ‘Bargaining’ may be too strong a word in view of the illegality of strike action, but at least they have afforded considerable room for workers to manoeuvre in pursuit of wages above the miserable State-decreed minimum. Wages, norms and conditions of work in general are covered by the Collective Contract system. At present there is a total freeze in Spain on all wages, including any fresh Contracts.

Opus Dei is a Catholic lay society operating in secrecy. Its distinguishing doctrinal emphasis is on technical and professional excellence. Little is known of the social doctrines current in it; its official publications reek with a traditional, clerical social teaching of the type dominant in the Catholic Church before John XXIII. Opus Dei (sometimes nicknamed Octopus Dei) controls a private university and many periodicals; some of its members are high in the Government, particularly on the planning side. It is generally understood as representing a ‘technocratic’ conception of the running of Spanish capitalism, which is one possible answer (not necessarily the most likely one) to the problem of Franco’s succession.

The Workers’ Commissions

’Whatever names he may call them, the businessman of today has to reckon with the Workers’ Commissions. Instead of his ignoring them, there is now something of a dialogue between him and them, and the beginnings of a confrontation, man to man.’ These words of a Catalan businessman, Sr Duran Farrell, were the subject of a riposte from the Chairman of the Consejo Provincial de Trabajadores (the official syndical organisation). The daily Arriba (Madrid organ of the Falange) gave us more on this topic on 1st November last, when it quoted the declarations of Sr Solis, National Delegate of the Syndicates, who referred to the Workers’ Commissions in the course of a press conference:

‘When I go to Britain I drive on the left, and when I go to the United States I respect the laws of that country. The Workers’ Commissions are not respecting Spanish legality.’ [After vague references to ‘money and orders from abroad’ and further invocations of law and order, Sr Solis continues] ... ‘If the Workers’ Commissions want to act, let them use the channels of the syndical system and work within the law.’

Solis made these remarks exactly four days after a ‘day of working-class action’ had occurred, affecting some areas of Spain, especially the most industrial centres. On 27 October, organised and led by the Workers’ Commissions, there took place a combined action of the working-class masses in certain Spanish cities, beginning at 7.30 in the evening, which mobilised a considerable number of workers, to be counted in thousands. According to some European newspapers, in Madrid alone more than sixty thousand workers participated in the demonstration on this day. This is the estimate given by Le Monde and Nouvel Observateur: the figure given by some other journals in Europe, of Left-wing loyalties, seems exaggerated. They spoke of 100,000. According to reports in the above two newspapers, 30,000 metal-workers subsequently engaged in a collective demonstration of solidarity with those arrested on 27 October.

The Birth of the Commissions

A number of factors have contributed to the rise of the Commissions. The Law on Collective Contracts was undoubtedly an influential indirect cause. Although conceived as a means to improve the workers’ standard of living, its effect was not only to raise the labourers’ wages but also to put employers and workers around the same table to study the problems of the enterprise. Out of such meetings for the purpose of drawing up contracts, the spontaneous creation of commissions became a possibility ... It was in the spring of 1962 – a season rich in industrial conflicts in the Asturias, Catalonia and the Basque country – that the formal initiation of the first commissions took place. These had characteristics similar to the Commissions now functioning. In this period the workers elected, by simple majority in the places of work, those they considered to be their representatives.

The Commissions took longer to get going in Madrid. At first they sprang up in abundance, quite spontaneously, but died off as easily as they were born. Some of the members of the first Commissions felt that they could be put on a more permanent and stable basis, and so the first contacts were made among engineering workers at Pegaso, Standard, Marconi, Perkins, CASA, etc. These contacts seem to have been considered necessary in order to ensure more effective pressure, and to obtain further better wages and a better collective contract in the engineering sector. These facts were published at the time in the national press, without it being suspected what binding force lay behind the petitions and the unity of the workers in coming together at the same time. Later, according to the industrial information which may be gathered through an attentive reading of the press, the Commission of the Madrid Metal Industry arose out of a meeting of some 600 engineering workers, including leaders, accredited representatives, and militants in the Syndicates. This meeting was held at the offices of the Provincial Metal Industry Syndicate and in the presence of the vice-secretary of Social Security for the province and other responsible persons from the official Syndicates. After this beginning further Commissions were created, such as that for Paper, Printing and Graphic Trades, under the auspices of the Inter-provincial Collective Contract for the graphic trades and of the Workers’ Assemblies that used to meet at the ‘Manuel Mateo Social Circle.’ This meeting was also attended by officials from the Syndicates, such as the president of the central Social Section [workers’ side of the Syndicate, as opposed to the Economic Section formed by the management] of the Paper and Graphic Trades’ Syndicate, Sr Zaragoza, Deputy to the Cortes, etc. In the same way, through very similar channels, there arose the Commissions for the Building Industry, for Chemicals, for Banking, Transport, Teaching, etc.

Their Development

The Commissions were formed in provinces with a working-class tradition, where economic development is intense enough to facilitate the combination of the workers. They began hi the mining basins of the North, in the industrial concentrations of Bilbao, Barcelona, etc. After this beginning, they developed and expanded in Madrid, as we have already described, until that city became what may be called the ideological centre of the Workers’ Commission movement. They are apparently also very strong at Seville, where they appear to function as a bridgehead for the movements of the agricultural workers, owing to the traditional role of linkage and leadership given by Seville to the other provinces of Andalusia; in Galicia, where there seems to be some possibility of mixed Commissions involving both industrial and rural workers; and in Valencia, where there is a great abundance of independent centres of activity in neighbourhoods of a long working-class tradition. However, it is perhaps in the Barcelona area that the Workers’ Commissions find their greatest quantitative expression, as a result of the large number of industrial towns in the ‘belt’ of Catalonia. By contrast, the city of Barcelona itself appears not’ to offer a favourable soil for the growth of Commissions. The evidence is that their activity in the Catalan capital is of slight importance only. From the reports of the news agencies, and from the activities that have materialised on days of common action such as 27 October last, as well as from other labour demonstrations, we can say that Workers’ Commissions exist in more than fifty industrial centres in Catalonia.

Statistics on the Commissions

... It is thought that in Madrid, at the leadership level in the different branches of activity, there are between 500 and 600 men belonging to the Commissions. This figure can be deduced simply from the fact that, according to the prosecution evidence against Ariza, Traba, Goicoechea, Luis Royo and Trinidad Garcia, the defendants were arrested while holding a meeting with some 600 factory and works delegates to discuss a draft Syndical Law ... In certain official labour circles it is estimated that there exist some four to five thousand leaders at works level (Syndical delegates, etc.), along with a mass of workers whose numbers are uncertain but in any case not excessively large (some tens of thousands) who follow the line of these leaders when it comes to planning out working-class demands. Many of these men assemble at the call of the Commissions, with varying degrees of adherence to the resolutions adopted at these meetings.

The picture as outlined for Madrid can be applied likewise to Barcelona, and also, with smaller numerical implications, to Bilbao, Seville, the Asturias, Valencia, Galicia, Zaragoza, some of the Andalusian provinces and a number of other localities of special industrial importance (e.g. Puertollano, Alcoy, Sagunto, Barruelo (Palencia), Sanlucar de Barrameda, etc.).

Their Internal Activity

One of the most outstanding features of the Workers’ Commissions, it seems, according to what can be deduced from the various summary trials in their connexion, is that all decisions emerge from the base, and are submitted to constant discussion and debate until the moment of their implementation ... Those who in one way or another exercise functions of leadership in the Workers’ Commissions, by delegation from their comrades, are only members of temporary bodies, which are very fluid in their formation, evolution and succession. Usually they operate in a collective fashion – again, this can be gleaned from the judicial proceedings. This is the explanation of the fact that, in spite of the arrest of those who appeat to be the leaders, the actions that have been planned have had considerable success. We are led to suppose that delegates from a great number of factories must have taken part in the preparation of these actions.

The most curious feature of these workers’ movements is that they appear to be born headless, as it were. From their beginning the Commissions have involved a collective organisation in which, when it comes to voting or pronouncing an opinion, each person counts. This apparent lack of organisation, nevertheless, disappears at the moment of action; but the directives behind the action can be ascribed personally to nobody ... The activities of such persons as are more or less known to belong to the Commissions reach the public only through the press reports when they have been arrested by police raids upon unauthorised meetings. The real reason behind this kind of meeting practically never gets known, though their purpose may be guessed later on; above all, because of the workers’ actions which burst on the scene shortly afterwards, bearing the unmistakeable imprint of the Workers’ Commissions.... When these problems [of workers] go beyond the boundaries of a particular trade, it seems that an inter-trade or inter-industrial Commission operates at this point. This must have been going on since at least 1966, since it is from this date that working-class actions have been conducted on a national scale. The industries which have seen most activity from the Workers’ Commissions, according to what can be read in reports in journals of opinion, are engineering, building, graphic trades, transport, chemicals, banking, wood and cork, the flour trades (among the bakers), etc. This general account holds good, we believe, for the whole of Spain, due allowance being made for special features of development such as mining in the Asturias, the textile industry in Barcelona, etc. ... There appear also to exist Youth Commissions and Women’s Commissions.

The Programme of the Commissions

Two main lines of the Commissions’ programme of possible demands can be deduced from their activity in working-class circles:

  1. the struggle for reforms in the trade-union structure;
  2. The modification of the norms which regulate the right to exercise certain liberties, such as freedom of association, the right to strike, etc.

Within this general framework, which is necessary, to secure the support of the workers, the Workers’ Commissions offer platforms of concrete demands on various labour and trade-union matters, with special attention to wages and the conditions of work.

Their Political Colouring

As in any mass movement, there are two types of participant in the Commissions: those who are usually called leading cadres, and the base.

In the ‘Workers’ Commissions’ this division seems to have fluid boundaries, in view of the changing situation in industry and the absence of any definite rule constituting the organisation. All indications are that we are confronting a movement which is in large part spontaneous and displays an extraordinary variety.

At what may be called the leadership level, among those who have activated the Commissions in the few years of their existence, three types of person can be distinguished by their political complexion:

  1. Those who owe allegiance to definite Christian ideas;
  2. Men following political ideologies, particularly Communism and Socialism;
  3. Men without any distinct political ideology, who act from strictly labour considerations, or who have still to define their position.

Possibly the first two groups are the most important of the three. These, who in general terms exercise the leadership of the Commission movement, are of diverse character, within the basic framework that unites them all for action. Besides the Marxists and other Socialist tendencies, there is some evidence of representation from anarchist tendencies, and likewise important contingents of Christians, i.e. members of Catholic or confessional organisations.

The large group which comprises the base of participants is characteristically more homogeneous ... Within it there is some fear that the political positions that are dominant within the Workers’ Commissions are still unclear. They do not dare to involve themselves in a united activity whose future development is hard to foresee and in any case full of considerable danger.

Activity within the factories

A great many members of the Workers’ Commissions are also in the Syndicates, and it is inside the Syndicate that they have initiated their dialogue, according to their account of events. Once they think that this mode of dialogue has been exhausted, they bring it directly to factory level. If both methods have been tried without achieving the desired result, the Commissions draw up an active programme of demands backed by coercion. The first step, according to them, is that of direct negotiation with the management. If discussion proves useless at this point, the Commissions employ the following means to pursue their demands: striking by go-slow tactics, switching from one section to another; boycotts of factory services (canteens, transport, etc.); mass gatherings at the entrance and exit to the works ...

At other times, according to press reports, the action in pursuit of demands goes outside the factory limits (involving such matters as wage-indices, official regulations, policies leading to unemployment, etc.). Discontent is then expressed in such forms as: gatherings outside official centres (Syndicates, Ministry of Labour offices, etc.); peaceful mass marches outside factory gates; combined strike action covering all factories affected; peaceful demonstrations of all kinds; and, finally, so-called ‘days of working-class action,’ such as that of 27 October last, in which all the tactics mentioned previously are brought to bear in a single united action.

(The remainder of the article is a plea for the legalisation of the Commissions, with a further reference to Solis’ statement at the beginning of the article and a quotation in support of the Commissions from an interview given by Professor Ruiz Gimenez to a Jesuit periodical – which has probably been subject only to ecclesiastical censorship.)

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