The wave of strikes that swept through Vitoria, spain, in 1976, culminating in a city wide general strike on March the 3rd, were a revolutionary moment that sought to break with the controlled transition, after the dictator Francisco Franco’s death, towards a more modern form of capitalist political administration.
The strikes and protests are significant for various reasons. Besides their tragic end in the massacre of the 3rd of March, when police opened fire on a mass workers’ assembly in the city’s Church of San Francisco, murdering 5 workers and wounding over a hundred more, they served to exemplify that no labour strike can be radicalised without the active and militant solidarity of groups and communities beyond factory labourers. A strike becomes political when it transgresses the limits of factory walls, when radicalised by contact with the diversity of oppression and exploitation experienced under capitalism. This generalisation of the protest, the movement from a labour strike to a social strike, was manifest in Vitoria in the organisation of assemblies at the margins of official labour unions and political parties, assemblies that cut across the divisions and distinctions of capitalist social relations. Along with the assemblies created by salaried workers, there were also neighbourhood assemblies, womens assemblies, unemployed workers assemblies and the like, forming a network of self-managed collective life that constituted in embryo a revolutionary city commune.
The events also unmask the lie of spain’s official narrative of the transition from the Franco dictatorship to “democracy”. If a transition occurred, it was not as it is presented, as the peaceful institutionalisation of “liberal-representative” democracy, but the violent suppression of protests, strikes, revolutionary eruptions (the repression of the Vitoria general strike is but one example, though the most dramatic, of such State violence at the time) that threatened the continuity of political and economic interests between regimes; with the complicity of the Socialist and Communist Parties, it must be added.
It would be a mistake to see in these events, today, any nostalgia for a unified, hegemonic revolutionary working class (such a class never existed, and the Vitoria strikes provide no evidence to the contrary). What the events reveal rather, to the extent that strikes are exemplary, is that the “working class” is revolutionary to the extent that it refuses its working class status and in doing so unites with individuals and groups that lie outside the disciplined space of salaried labour. If the events of Vitoria continue to resonate, it is not because they were the embodiment of a pure revolutionary working class politics, but because they shattered that very mould, in the the constitution of horizontal assemblies of collective self-management that violated such divisions, thus creating the conditions for unity of action across the whole city. And had the movement not been repressed, it might have spread to the entire country.
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Vitoria strikes, we share below an article, in translation, by Jon Martinez Larrea published in Periodico Diagonal (03/03/2016).
The 3rd of March and the Model Transition
The 40th anniversary of the 3rd of March of 1976 again renews the debate regarding the transition, putting into doubt the hegemonic versions that speak to us of an exemplary and peaceful change, praised by the dominant political parties, the large communications media, text books and an important part of the country’s historiography.
The massacre of five workers of Vitoria at the hands of the police is one of the many events that put into question the official history. One could claim that it is not possible to evaluate a whole process on the basis of a single concrete event, but it is surely not a matter of an isolated event, given that the unpunished police violence was one of the elements of political change. While, on the other hand, it demonstrates the intentions of reformist forces within franquismo to control the process of regime change at whatever price, with the aim of avoiding a rupture that would challenge the status quo.
It has been 40 years of impunity, given that no one responsible was ever obliged to offer an explanation, and the implausible official version continues unchanged. Nevertheless, as Lluis Llach sang, the memories of the family members and the victims continue to haunt them, and they were able to see some small light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the legal proceedings against Franco’s regime initiated in Argentina.
All power to the assembly
The 3rd of March of 1976 was a baptism in blood for a new city that saw itself transformed by a rapid process of industrialisation, that had as a consequence the birth of a young working class of diverse origins and lacking only the experience of struggle.
The beginning of the 1970s saw the emergence of small opposition groups (Organización de Clase Anticapitalista, LCR-ETA VI, ORT, CECO, CONE …), none of which had the strength to assume a hegemonic role in the city, a situation which at the end of 1974 led them to create the Coordinadora Obrera de Vitoria, as the means to unite the different struggles and demands around a platform that would be the basis of the movement of 1976.
The strike began on the 9th of January, 1976, at the Forjass Alavesas and in only two months, it spread to numerous factories, with a proliferation of assemblies being held in churches and increasing confrontations with the police.
The assemblies (of factories, of women, of unemployed workers, together or with neighbourhood assemblies) transformed themselves into the epicentre of the struggle. There, debates were held, decisions were taken, regarding the development of the strike, and Representative Commissions were elected, de facto annulling the role of the mediators and members of the Sindicato Vertical. Assembly-ism, in turn, served to rapidly spread the fight to broad sectors of the population who until then had not engaged in political activity.
One of the basic demands was a common salary increase of 5,000 pesetas, to break with the division between workers, something made worse by differential wage increases, to which was added the demand for a 40 hour work week, the guarantee of a full salary in case of accident or illness and retirement at the age of 60.
The strike was not without its ups and downs, contradictions and divisions. The worker’s assemblies of Areitio gave voice to these difficulties, but also to the rapid spread of a working class consciousness then being lived:
Beware of the pressures that we may suffer at the hands even of our own families; we lack awareness. Society makes us think with the mentality of the rich, but condemns us to poverty throughout our lives. This present struggle, even though hard and painful, for the workers, makes us more conscious, unites us and helps us to discover the forms of exploitation under which we live. The capitalists make us of the Official Union, which is useless to us, and the police, which beats us without hesitation and of the press that lies and threatens us. They unite to exploit us, we unite to defend ourselves. Their laws are unjust, they make them to defend their interests. We do not have to obey them. (Grupo de Trabajo Alternativa, Informe Vitoria: un gran experiencia de lucha, 1976, p. 120).
The bosses refusal to negotiate with the Representative Commissions elected by the assemblies, the firings and the arrests, contributed to making the labour demands secondary, while the anti-repressions struggle, the struggles for political and labour union freedom, went on gaining force. We cannot forget the role played by women. On the one hand, the struggle of of the working women of Areitio is of note, as they affirmed that they were doubly exploited, as women and as workers:
The company began with more men than women. Now we are far more women. the reason: women’s work is cheaper. This does not cease to be exploitation. For the same work and output, the same salary; but we see that this is not the case, that the difference is between 4,000 to 6,000 pesetas. (Grupo de Trabajo Alternativa, Informe Vitoria: un gran experiencia de lucha, 1976, p. 109).
On the other hand, house wives, also organised in assemblies, were able to make visible the consequences of the strike with “empty pocket” protests, and added to the strikers’ demands things relative to the situation to be lived in the neighbourhoods, namely, health and childcare. They were able in this way to go beyond sectorial demands of workers.
On the 3rd of March, the general strike was successful from the very early hours of the morning. The stoppage was total, in factories and companies, including at Michelín, which had not known a work stoppage since the failed strike of 1972.
From the morning on, the atmosphere was tense and the first woundings by gun fire occurred. But it would be towards five o’clock in the afternoon, the time at which had been called an assembly at the Church of San Francisco, when the bells of death sounded. After gassing the filled church, those who sought to flee the hell were met with gunfire. The result was five dead and hundreds wounded. The recordings of the police conversations at the time reveal the magnitude of the tragedy.
Rupture from below versus reform from above
Without quite knowing, the Vitoria strike movement questioned the change that was being carried out from above, from the institutions of the Franco regime, putting into practice democratising alternatives from below, at the same time as it contested the bases of those institutions, especially the Sindicato Vertical.
There is no doubt that what happened in Vitoria was one of the motives for the fall of the Arias-Fraga government, which would accelerate the process of change. In that context of 1976, in which strikes multiplied everywhere, the transition process hung by a thread, and a possible contagion of the experience in Vitoria, with its grounding in assemblies impossible to co-opt or control, was a threat that the reformist franquistas wanted to stop at whatever cost. In the eyes of the police:
It was not an episode without cause nor brought about by things imponderable. It obeyed to a preconceived attitude of a subversive sector of the extreme-left that, in opportunistically utilising an overly prolonged and tense situation of labour conflict, wanted to provoke a rehearsal for an insurrectionist uprising which, on the basis of the bloody repression and the consequent deterioration of the image of the reformist government, would serve as the point of departure for unleashing a General Revolutionary Strike at a national level. The 3rd of March in Vitoria, day of the General Strike, called by subversives, cannot pass as another sad success, or as one more provocation added to the list of acts aiming at the destruction of the constituted State of Law. It is more, as for what it is a symptom of and for what it reveals of the predispositions, of illegal organisations, to radicalise extremely legitimately generated protest (perhaps (sic) legitimate, but this is another question) among the workers movement. (Bolitín Informativo nº 26 de 6 de julio de 1976, Comisaría General de Investigación Social, Archivo Histórico Nacional-Fondos Contemporáneos).
It was necessary to avoid at all cost a possibly rupturing or revolutionary path, as the measures for political order that appear in the Memoria del Gobierno Civil de Álava, show, corresponding to the year 1975, but dated to May 1976:
… as a general trend, it is advisable to intensify the action of recruitment/compromising of the broadest intermediate areas of the political spectrum, in such a way that the line of division is not traced through the centre, something that would bring with it a polarisation of two extreme factions, but rather to trace two lines of division that include within them the largest moderate majority and leave out, only, the more radicalised minorities of one sign or another so far as they assume a separatist, totalitarian or subversive tendency. (Memoria del Gobierno Civil de Álava, año 1975, Archivo Histórico Provincial de Álava, Sudb. 704-5).
In other words, it was necessary to attract the moderate sectors of the opposition and isolate the radicals. The change of government and the acceleration of the process in the hands of Adolfo Suarez, which called for attracting the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero de España) and the PCE (Partido Comunista de España) and to placate workers combativeness by means of the Pactos de la Moncloa, were keys to avoiding a path of rupture.
From Reel News, a documentary dedicated to the Vitoria strikes …