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Worker Management of the Barcelona Public Transit System, 1936-1939

By Tom Wetzel - Workers' Control, November 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In the years leading up to the revolution in Spain in 1936 there had been bitter struggles of the workers...such as the long but defeated streetcar strike in 1935. A number of leading activists in that strike were sent to prison. With the victory of the liberals and social-democrats in Spain's national elections in February 1936, imprisoned unionists were freed, and the workers on the Barcelona transit system began rebuilding their union, which was to play an important role in the city during the revolutionary events of 1936.

In Barcelona in 1936 the main part of the transit system was a large streetcar system, operated by Barcelona Tramways (Tranvias de Barcelona), a company owned mainly by Belgian investors. The streetcar company operated 60 routes that criss-crossed the city and ran into the nearby suburbs. Of the 7,000 workers for this company in 1936, 6,500 belonged to the Transport Union of the National Confederation of Labor, known by its Spanish initials as the CNT. The CNT was a libertarian syndicalist labor organization. The Transport Union was a highly democratic organization, run through worker assemblies (general meetings) and councils of elected shop stewards (delegados). Being syndicalist means that the union was part of a revolutionary social movement that aimed to have the workers take over direct, collective management of the industries, replacing the bosses and the capitalist investors, and creating an economy based on ownership of industry by the whole society.

In response to the mass mobilization and strikes of the Spanish workers, the heads of Spain's army, with direct support of the country's capitalist elite, attempted to overthrow the liberal government, beginning July 19 1936, so as to crush the country's radical labor movement. Union defense groups fought back with the support of much of the rank and file of the police, defeating the army in two thirds of the country initially. The worker unions then formed their own "People's Army" to fight the fascist Spanish army. In the days following the defeat of the army in Barcelona, the unions moved to expropriate most of the country's industry and new organizations of direct worker management were created.

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