Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Spanish CGT - the new anarcho-syndicalism

by Larry Gambone

I was well received by the International Relations representative of the
CGT, (Confederacion General de Trabajo) Angel Bosqued. At first he thought I
might be a member of NEFAC as they had recently done a tour of Europe, but I
explained that I was only representing myself. We talked for about an hour
and I learned a great deal about the history and practices of the CGT. I
told him that people in the English-speaking world know almost nothing about
contemporary Spanish anarcho-syndicalism and I, in my small way, would do
what ever was possible to change that situation. He gave me a pile of CGT
literature and took me on a tour of the Barcelona CGT headquarters.

The headquarters was very impressive, consisting of the top floors of a ten
or eleven story building. Each of the individual industrial unions, such as
teachers, metal workers or communications workers, has its own office. There
are several larger meeting rooms, offices of the Salvador Segui Foundation
(a CGT cultural grouping) and a bar-cafeteria with a tiled outdoor lounging
area. This has a wonderful view of Barcelona as it is on the ninth floor.
Next we went to the archives and library that comprised much of the tenth
floor. The library alone consists of some 10,000 volumes on anarchism,
syndicalism and related topics.

Now the CGT is not some tiny anarchist sect with a dozen members, but is the
representative of some one million workers. The Confederation is found in
every corner of Spain, and is in fact, the third largest trade union
grouping, only exceeded by the Socialist UGT and the Communist CCOO. The CGT
is strong among bank workers, television, postal and hotel workers, but also
has support among teachers, chemical workers, graphic artists, and cleaning

The Confederation is composed of two basic structures, geographical and
industrial. At the base lies the local union which is autonomous. Where
there are 75 or more members in a vicinity they can form a union local
which is open to all trades. Locals federate together at the city level, or
where the city is very large, at the district level. These in turn, federate
at the provincial level. The provincial federations confederate at the
territorial level, Spain being made up of Catalunia, Euskadi, Astrurias,
Castile, etc. All of these form the national confederation.

When enough members are organized in an industry they can form an industrial
branch. These industrial branches federate, for example bank workers have a
federation for each of the major banks. The next level, is like a regular
industrial union. For example, bank workers belong to the Federation of
Bank, Credit and Office Workers. The territorial confederation and the
industrial union federations form a Confederal Commitee. There is an annual
general meeting of the CGT as well. It must be emphasized that the union
operates from the bottom-up and members are not controlled by the confederal

How does the CGT differ from the usual far-left groupings and regular trade
unions? First of all, they do not think they have all the answers, or the
answers they do have are written in stone for all eternity. As they state in
their Agenda Confederal 2004, “Anarchism is not a closed or final doctrine,
it expresses ideas that could appear contradictory; radical pacifism, or the
justification of violent acts as social protest, extreme individualism and
membership in syndicalist unions, absolute rejection of institutions and
limited participation in them. Anarchism is characterized by its confidence
in individual liberty and in the capacity to judge and act...”

Rather than forcing dogmas down people's throats they actually listen to
working people and the union gives workers what they want, not what
intellectuals think they ought to want. I think much of the CGT's success is
to be found here. Their direct-democratic structure allows the membership
and not bureaucrats to control the union. While not pushing dogmas, they
promote a vision of society, an anarchist ethical encompassing individual
liberty, autonomy, direct action, self-management and federalism. The union
attempts as much as possible in daily life to live by this vision.

While highly critical of all forms of authoritarianism, they do not spend
their energy attacking other radical groups. The CGT is a militant union,
but you never see the sort of rhetorical radicalism - violent images or
shouting about class war - in their press. They eagerly work with other
unions which in some manner share their attitudes, attempting to create a
global movement of "alternative unionism" and have strong relations with
other anarcho-syndicalists such as the Italian USI, the Swedish SAC, and the
French CNT-F.

The CGT does not regard itself, or even the working class, as the whole
struggle, seeing their union as one part of a broad movement comprising
peasant unions, ecologists, cooperatives, women’s and community groups. They
have good relations with the Zapatistas in Mexico and consider their union
to be a member of the Anti-globalist Movement. “The CGT is an
anarcho-syndicalist organization... which acts in the working world. But not
all the problems are just in this area, nor are workers unaware of this
fact. Thus, syndicalists, anti-authoritarians, pacifists, immigrants,
ecologists, movements against sexism and the Anti-Globalist Movement are in
the end one movement, one without ‘professional revolutionaries’ in charge
and with the consciousness that the transformation will involve all groups.”

The CGT spends much time attacking the wave of so-called privatizations
going on in Spain and everywhere else. Many union members are government or
social service workers. However, while defending social services and public
workers, they do not defend the state or merely tail the statist left. The
state is clearly seen as the enemy along with corporate capitalism and the
vision of self-management and decentralization is offered as an alternative.
Once again in the Agenda Confederal, “Self-management combined with direct
democracy, mutual aid and solidarity present the complete and total
alternative to the pyramidal, hierarchical, authoritarian and exploitative
model of capitalist society incarnated in neoliberal ideology.”

A narrow anti-political ideology they consider divisive. Many union members
belong to, or vote for political parties, yet in practice are good
syndicalists. But at the same time, the CGT never fails to point out the
problems inherent in parliamentary politics and parties. Nor does the union
have any time for nationalism but the autonomy of union branches and
decentralization allows historically oppressed peoples such as the Basques
and Catalonians to have their own language publications and federations.

The CGT's success will hopefully rub off on other syndicalists. Already in
France the CNT-F has experienced a surge in support, with some 5000 members,
compared with a few hundred a decade ago. Syndicalist groups have appeared
in the former Stalinist countries, and although small, may experience
growth. Orthodox unionism has crumbled in the face of neoconservatism and
maybe workers are open to the ideas of autonomous direct action. And since
nothing exists in isolation, a rebirth of anarcho-syndicalism will only
benefit anarchists of all varieties.

No comments: