These first three weeks in Barcelona have been whirlwind. A 250-person neighborhood dinner, meeting with labor organizers, cooperative businesses, and representatives of Catalonia's "Social and Solidarity Economy" (all in Spanish) have thrown me off the deep end and provided a crash course in the remarkable work being done in this city. But before we dig into what is happening today, it's important to understand the soil that all these unique and innovative ideas grew from. They are the living legacy of hundreds of thousands of individuals who fought for safe working conditions, fair pay, self-governance, gender equity, and national independence. It is a legacy that spans hundreds of years, multiple civil wars, and an ongoing fight for national sovereignty. So, let's begin by taking a step back to ask:
Where Does Barcelona's Culture of Organizing Come From?
Today, Barcelona and the surrounding region of Catalonia are known mainly for their beaches, the architecture by Antoni Gaudi, and a bustling tourism industry, yet for nearly a century this region played host to the heart of the labor movement in Western Europe. As workers around the world fought for improved conditions, better pay, and the right to organize, they looked to the rebellions, strikes, and armed conflict taking place in the revolutionary city of Barcelona, a city then known by an infamous nickname: La Rosa de Foc (The Rose of Fire).
Spain’s first General Strike took place in 1855 and was centered in Barcelona. Under the slogan “Unions or Death,” the campaign’s goal was to win the adoption of a government-regulated 10-hour work day. An unprecedented number of workers joined together for the effort, but in nine short days, repressions and violent retribution had broken the strike as participants were imprisoned, shot and even deported to the Spanish colony of Cuba.
Though a decisive defeat, this loss sparked a realization that has reverberated through centuries in Spanish culture and politics. For the first time in the Iberian Peninsula, everyday people - united as workers - had discovered they could organize their power and make demands by identifying and negotiating as a single entity. Compared with the haphazard and spontaneous riots that had come before, the promise of a strong, organized, and strategic movement was revolutionary.
For the next 75 years, this realization gave birth to ground-breaking innovations in community-led action ranging from massive unions and neighborhood-based education, to mutual aid societies and wide-spread worker cooperatives. Among other achievements, workers finally won the fight for an 8-hour work week, making Spain the first country in the world to pass such a law.
A complete list of these “groundbreaking innovations” that underwrote this success should be written by someone, some day. But for the sake of your time and mine, we’ll begin by looking at three:
Investing in People: The Spread of Athenaeums
Worker power grew so steadily in Catalonia from 1850-1900 in part because of the movement’s magnificent investment in the education and development of the working class. Much like the Literacy Schools that were established throughout the Southern United States during the Civil Rights movement, Organizers in Catalonia prioritized the creation of “Athenaeums” - neighborhood-based associations for the advancement of learning. By the late 19th century, Athenaeums had been opened in nearly every neighborhood of every Catalan town and city, teaching literacy, politics, literature, history, and even science to anyone who wanted to learn.
Leaders like Teresa Claramunt – one of the organizers of the strike that ultimately won the 8-hour work day – were educated in these schools and taught skills in organizing, writing, and public speaking. This popular education not only made basic schooling available to the most marginalized, it identified and developed movement leaders for generations to come.
Trade Unions: Precedent-Setting Wins Against Outstanding Odds
Much like in the United States, it took widespread Labor Organizing to secure the right to a 40 hour work week, an 8 hour work-day, and child labor laws in Spain. These laws were not given freely because of the benevolence of business leaders, or legislated into existence by altruistic public officials. They were hard fought, hard won victories by organized people.
What sets Catalonia apart, in the overarching history of union organizing, is the precedent setting success they achieved despite extremely violent resistance. In March of 1919, the murder of a local union official, sparked a new era of union busting called “pistolerisme” or “gun law.” Bosses, afraid of union power, mobilized paramilitary forces to kill strikers and union leaders. From 1919 to 1923, 424 politically motivated killings took place, 40 of them bosses, 30 police, and 250 union activists.
In response, unions organized their own armed self-defense squads and continued negotiating for workers rights. The resulting laws and concessions were often the first of their kind anywhere in Europe or North America: trade unions were legalized, strikes won higher wages, freedom of worship was permitted, suffrage was extended for men and women, sick and holiday pay were introduced, and more. All decades before the same victories were achieved in the United States.
Associacions de Veïns – Neighborhood Organizations
As General Franco’s government came to power in the 1940s, it cracked down on Trade Unions and Workers Cooperatives. As a result, organizing shifted to a new front: the neighborhood. As one Barcelona resident put it:
“People working in factories and involved in struggles for higher wages… wanted to introduce into the areas where they lived the successful ways of organizing they’d experienced at work. A worker earning good wages at the end of the 1960s just wasn’t going to go on living in a shack without running water.”
In 1969, a wave of workplace repression fanned the flames of this transition to the neighborhood as the new battlefield. Michael Eaude elaborates in his book A People’s History of Catalonia: “just as the factory [Unions] had been built painstakingly, often by taking up very basic questions such as the conditions of toilets; so the Resident’s Associations focused first on the ‘non-political’ questions such as paving streets or rubbish collection.” Today, Barelona’s high quality and strikingly egalitarian urban planning is a result of generations of community organizing.
It was this legacy and innovation that drew me to Barcelona as the first stop on my Watson year. And though this history should by no means be viewed through rose colored glasses, it does speak to something remarkable: In the aftermath of the industrial revolution, with industry booming and the government more concerned with boosting corporate profits than protecting workers rights, these institutions were able to carve out protections and privileges that enabled individuals and families to live and thrive. That is an achievement worth understanding.
People throughout this City have a history of taking issues into their own hands. The death of General Fransisco Franco in 1975 and the collapse of his dictatorship opened the floodgates for the next generation of this work to continue. Today, Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, has continued pushing the envelope in Europe and globally with new innovations aimed at achieving the welfare of people and planet, over profits and blind growth.
My time in Barcelona so far has been spent getting better acquainted with today’s leaders of this movement. Those stories are the subject of the next post.