After a day of wandering aimlessly through the streets of Seville, taking photographs, and getting lost, Nathan and I resolve to head back to our hostel and try to make some sort of plan. We’re not even supposed to be in Spain yet. Our presence in this charming city is an accident born of necessity and since we don’t know anyone here, it’s a little expensive. Tonight will be the third night since we left the farm that we’ve slept in a hostel.
To our pleasant surprise, just around the corner from where we intend to sleep lies the local office of the Confederación General del Trabajó (CGT), an Anarcho-Syndicalist trade union founded in the wake of Spain’s “transition to democracy” from fascism. From what I know, the CGT is the most powerful anarchist organization in the world.
The door is open but the gate is locked.
I press each of the 6 buttons on the intercom and say, somewhat more sheepishly each time, “Hola, Camaradas?” into what I think must actually be a speaker. No answer. I’m feeling stubborn though and I am not ready to head back. Is anyone even here?
The best plan I can come up with is to hang out in the doorway and loudly whistle songs like El Hymno Rigo and Bandiera Rosa through the locked gate until someone comes to let me in. A man walks in off of the street and grabs a copy of “Rojo y Negro” from the rack. “Are you in the union?” I ask. He’s never been here before but saw me stuck at this gate. In an effort to help, he presses all of the buttons on his own. This time someone answers. The stranger wishes me luck and steps out onto the street with an anarchist newspaper under his arm. It’s not clear to me whether he’s an avid reader or a first timer.
I poke around in the literature and pocket a wall poster with some slogan regarding the struggle of women before heading upstairs. The woman at the desk looks up and greets me warmly. She tells me her name and I write it down. Later I will stupidly misplace it.
After an attempt at conversing in Spanish, where I embarrass myself enough to bring a big grin to her face, we switch to English. To my further embarassment, she speaks my language just fine. While initially I was just hoping we could shake some hands and take some photographs, I manage to score us an interview. This is either based on my “credentials” from writing for left-wing papers over the years, or else she finds my childish enthusiasm endearing and just doesn’t think I’ll be too much of a nuisance.
I can conduct a half-decent interview on the spot but I can’t help but wonder how this is going fit into our silly little blog.
Rather than conduct an interview with a single person, I sit down to speak with a group of men. Their names are Miguel Guillermo, who is the union’s Secretary General for Seville and Kiko López, Secretary of Communication. Shortly after we sit down, we are joined by a man who has been in an out of the room. His name is Antonio Casado and his official title translates into English as “Secretary of Historical Memory.”
They take each of our questions, discuss as a group in Spanish, and then Kiko answers in English. Usually, he’s the only one to formally answer but occasionally Miguel chimes in as well. Nathan asks for permission to take some photographs and sets about his task.
I ask my questions in English but periodically supplement them with my limited Spanish to try and ease the burden of translation. I’m not sure how much this actually helps.
To start, could you tell us a little about the CGT? Maybe a short history lesson?
There are 5,000 members of the CGT in Seville. In Andalucía there are some 15,000. In all of Spain there are 80,000. In Spain, this is makes us a little union but we’re the largest Anarcho-Syndicalist organization in the world. The heritage of Anarcho-Syndicalism in Spain is that of the most powerful section of the movement throughout the 20th century. The CGT goes back to 1910 with the founding of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). It was a very important part of both the fight against fascism in the Civil War, and then the underground resistance to the dictatorship. When Franco died, all of the political and labor organizations again became legal. From 1910 to 1984; from before the Civil War, during the Civil War, and during the dictatorship the CNT was the only anarcho-syndicalist organization in Spain. In 1984 we split into the CNT and the CGT.
Ok, could you explain this? What are the differences?
In the beginning of the post-Franco period, the new democratic state of Spain officially promoted a policy of participation between enterprises and unions, of “social peace” between bosses and workers. We split from the CNT during in 1984 because the CNT does not participate in union elections or any of the official institutions of the state. They say it’s all fake, and rejects using any tools of the state. We know this too. We know that the elections and the official institutions are designed to actually separate the workers from their representatives but we participate anyways. We think that we must participate because we think if we don’t we may indeed lose our connection to the workers who do participate.
What is the relationship of the CGT to the rest of the trade unions?
There are two kinds of unions in Spain. There are the majority unions like the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the Comisiones Obreros (CCOO) which are mass organizations but are completely bureacratized and corrupted. These two unions historically were fighting labor unions but are no longer tools for the working class. They’re tools for the state to maintain “social-peace.” The relationship between the UGT and CGT is completely broken. But with other unions on the left there are good relations. There are many small unions with whom we try to make a general confluency in concrete moments over specific issues.
What are the primary campaigns and aims of the CGT in the present moment?
The situation, the class war in Spain is dramatic. After 5 years of economic crisis, in the working class districts there are many families who have no money, no work, no aid, no future. The situation for many people is absolutely perilous. The young people emigrate to other countries to find work. The people who stay here survive often only with the pensions of the elderly. They survive off of the salary of a single person. There is a large black market. It’s the same in Portugal and in Greece.
The people are losing all the rights we have conquered for ourselves over the last 30 years. Now, the principal fight of the CGT is in the workplace because it is a union. We fight against redundancies, the closures of enterprises, and we fight for jobs. Right now in Spain there is 25% unemployment. But the crisis is social too. So, we fight against the loss of the homes. The social situation is really dramatic. We fight in all the social camps. We try to be a platform for all the fights, all of the social and economic fights in Spain all at once.
We hear a lot about PODEMOS being the principal anti-austerity group here in Spain. Do you have a position regarding this new political formation?
There is no official relationship between the CGT and PODEMOS. This would be against our identity. Our organization is defined as Anarcho-Syndicalist and we have principles of autonomy. But, though there is no official relation, there is sympathy with PODEMOS and other groups because we are anti-austerity as well. There are also many members of the union who participate in PODEMOS as individuals. This is fine. Now, if you do participate in PODEMOS, or in any political party, you are limited in your participation in the CGT; you can’t hold office. If you are responsible for any area in CGT you can’t participate in any political party.
In addition to the question of employment, we understand that there is a housing crisis in Spain and that there is a squatters movement. Does the CGT have any relationship to this?
The relationship between the CGT and the squatter movement is very good. There is permanent support on the part of our union to the squatter movement. We think of the squatter movement as having two wings; the political squatter movement and those who must occupy a building to have a home. The people who fight and the people who search for life* are supported by CGT. (Here Miguel gestures and speaks in such a way as to suggest that to “search for life” means more than just to survive. There’s a greater emotional depth in his words that simply cannot be transcribed literally.)
The CGT is also a squatter movement because at the beginning of democracy we occupied the buildings of the fascist union federation because these buildings were stolen from the legitimate unions at the end of the Civil War. We think of these buildings as having been ours all along. So, yes we have good relations with the squatters movement because we ourselves are squatters.
We don’t have a strong anarchist movement, or a strong radical left, or even strong trade unions in the United States. Do you think your strength and successes are unique or are there lessons everyone can learn?
It’s difficult to say. The anarchist way of fighting exists is in all of the world. There is perhaps a difference here in Spain we have big organizations but we see that in Occupy Wall Street, in the protest movement in Greece, at the basic level is the same. There are so many anarchist tools: the assembly, the direct democracy, this form exists everywhere. If we are unique, it is only in that we have large, specifically Anarcho-Syndicalist organizations. It’s a historical question.
We could write a thousand pages about this subject. But there is Anarcho-Syndicalism in France, in Argentina, in Germany, and in the United States. Perhaps it’s not so organized and it is separate from the unions. Spanish anarchism was well developed even in the 19th century. Historically there are a lot of reasons. Perhaps there are new opportunities around the world to pursue an Anarcho-Syndicalist line.
But look, we have had no change in our power for 10 years. The movement is changing. PODEMOS, they were not present even 2 years ago and now they are the 2nd political force in the country. We in the CGT have neither gone up, nor down. We have the same number of members and the same strength as we did 10 years ago.
What is the primary way that new people come into contact with the CGT? Is it online? The printed newspaper? In the workplace?
It’s in the workplace. It’s the example of how we fight in the workplace that brings most people in. Ours is a union is which is not corrupted, which fights against the enterprise and the capitalists. We work to enter an enterprise in which we have no representation and we fight. That’s why people join the CGT.
But perhaps we’ve lost some too because enterprises close. We win the people in the workplace and we lose people in the workplace. The people in CGT are looking to build combat organization inside the workplace. They don’t necessarily see union like a tool for fighting outside the workplace; a social movement. There are many people in CGT that are in the workplace but out of the workplace they fight socially with PODEMOS, 15M, and others.
Lastly, we understand there’s a demonstration on 28, February. Could you tell us about this demonstration? What is the message of the CGT specifically?
The 28th is the “Day of Andalucía,” the day of regional autonomy. When the end of the dictatorship there was a fight for the autonomy for the historical regions of Spain: Catalonia, Galicia, Euskadi (The Basque Country), but Andalucía too. It’s not so intense as the fight in Catalonia and Euskadi but there is a fight for the people of Andalucía to have real political autonomy inside the Spanish state. There’s a significant date for the movement, 4 December when the people demonstrated for autonomy before the new constitution was even written. The central government in Madrid, in collaboration with the politicians of the big parties in Andalucia, decided to try to change this movement of regional nationalism to incorporate the region more into the central state.
We maintain that Andalucía does not have real autonomy because it’s the same government that we have in Madrid, that we have in Berlin, and in Brussels. We march to continue in the fight to make clear the real situation; the unemployment, the crisis, this dramatic picture we have. The message is that the Andalucían government is not representative of the working class. It actually has the main scissor with which to cut our rights. We will also bring the message that the CGT is a platform for all the social movements.
Almost an hour has passed. If only I spoke better Spanish! We thank everyone for graciously giving us so much of their time. They’re busy preparing for the demonstration. They ask if we’ll attend.
Sadly, the answer is no. As much as Andalucía Day interests us, as much as the insertion of an anti-austerity message by an anarchist trade union excites us, we just can’t afford to sleep in hostels every night. We’re traveling on the cheap, supposedly. We’re relying on the hospitality of friends and the accommodations provided by some work exchange programs.
We won’t learn how many people we actually could have been in touch with in Seville until we get to Barcelona.