by Dick Nichols, in Barcelona • “General strike!”, “General strike!”, “General strike!”: in protests across the whole of Catalonia after the March 23 jailing of five MPs and the March 25 detention in Germany of president Carles Puigdemont, these words rang out loud and appeared on placards and banners everywhere.
A general strike! Well that would certainly make the Spanish government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the senior judges doing its bidding think twice about maintaining their persecution of Catalonia’s pro-independence MPs.
Except that a general strike, while desirable and important to raise as an objective, just won’t happen as an offensive weapon to help advance the Catalan Republic until there’s an earthquake in the Catalan trade union movement. The reasons why point to the underlying causes of the Catalan independence movement’s difficulties in developing a stable and united strategy against the tightening legal siege of the Spanish State.
This siege reached its “high point” on March 23 when Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena confirmed charges ranging from rebellion to embezzlement and disobedience against 25 Catalan political and mass movement leaders.
Poles in a debate
The independence movement’s basic debate, crossing both parties and mass organisations, is about the conditions that need to be in place for disobedience to Spain to have some chance of success.
At one pole are those, mainly but not only around the left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP), who think that the conditions for success already exist: what’s more, that actions of disobedience will spark a virtuous circle of revolt as more people become convinced of the chances of success.
This position points to the victory of the October 1 referendum in the face of the baton charges of the Spanish police, the October 3 general stoppage and the oceanic demonstrations that accompanied it, along with the confirmation of a pro-independence majority at the December 21 elections.
On this basis the CUP abstained on the investiture on March 22 of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) leader Jordi Turull as president of a JxCat-ERC government on the grounds that this would simply be another Spanish regional administration and would not “unfold the Republic”. Without CUP support the investiture failed.
The other pole, around the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and with some support within JxCat, acknowledges these postives but argues that they alone are insufficient to give the movement the strength its needs to withstand a Spanish establishment intent on imposing a final solution to what it calls “separatist defiance”.
This is all the more so because on the same day that the Catalan parliament declared independence, the Spanish government ended Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, having already taken charge of the Catalan government’s finances.
In addition, while winning a majority of seats, the independence bloc only managed to win 47.5 per cent of the vote. The rabidly Spanish-centralist Citizens emerged as the largest party on the back of a campaign that cynically exploited Spanish versus Catalan identity sentiment.
For the ERC the priority is to recover Catalan self-government, implement a program that improves the life of all Catalans irrespective of origin and in this way giving the lie to Citizens’ demagogic rant about the independence bloc sacrificing ordinary people’s lives to its “mad fantasy”.
Of particular concern is the possibility of the Spanish State taking advantage of any violence—real or manufactured—to declare a state of siege under article 116 of the Spanish constitution.
Incidents of violence at the pickets called by the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) on the evening of March 25 showed that this concern is not misplaced. They also confirmed who gains politically.
The day after the protest the Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido was questioning the independence movement’s commitment to peaceful methods and Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera was tweeting about how the violence represented Catalan nationalism’s true face of “hatred and confrontation”.
It has since emerged that a lot of the violence was due to balaclava-wearing people no-one could identify, leading to suspicion that they were plants and to calls that face-covering should be banned at demonstrations.
Defensive and offensive alliances
Catalonia has experienced one general strike recently. This was the October 3 “civilian stoppage” in protest against the violence of October 1, convened by the two major unions—the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union Of Labour (UGT) as part of a broader platform that contained social movement, business and religious organisations.
It was also supported by the minority trade union confederations, the pro-independence Intersindical-CSC and the anarcho-sindicalist General Confederation of Labour. These were to later call a general strike of their own (on November 8), but despite achieving road and rail line blockades could not repeat the success of October 3 because of the absence of the major confederations.
The relative weakness of the pro-independence Intersindical-CSC in Catalonia contrasts with the situation of trade unionism in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi), where the main two nationalist confederations enjoy majority coverage.
In Catalonia, pro-independence unionism has so far been weak because the major confederations recruited workers originating from other parts of Spain on the basis of Catalonia being “a single people”.
As a result, the majority confederations, reflecting the attitude of a lot of their members, are prepared to carry out defensive industrial action—such as against the police violence of October 1—but the divisions in the Catalan working class at large mean that UGT and CCOO action in support of the independence goal and the Catalan Republic adopted on October 1 is unthinkable.
On the other hand, as October 3 showed, the majority confederations support defence of Catalan institutions and Catalan self-government. After meeting on March 26 with parliament speaker Roger Torrent their leaders expressed support for action to lift the article 155 intervention, restore Catalan self-rule and achieve the release of the political prisoners.
At the same time, they made it clear they would have nothing to do with CUP-CDR plans for unilaterally “unfolding the Republic”.
On the same day, JxCat, the ERC and the CUP announced that they would be taking a motion to parliament on March 28 asserting the inviolability of all elected MPs, their right to stand for any position and demanding the release from jail and return from exile of those who have been charged by the Spanish courts.
It is possible that this position will win the support of Catalonia en Comú-Podem, supportive of a Catalan right to decide but not independence. However, unity still remains to be achieved on the question of forming a government.
The arrest of Carles Puigdemont has convinced JxCat and the CUP to re-propose Puigdemont as president, if only to increase the political price Spain and its allies will have to pay for putting him in jail.
The ERC remains sceptical about the usefulness of this exercise, which would violate a Constitutional Court order that candidates for president have to be physically present at the investiture session.
To disobey now, or avoid conflict until more certain of having a broader base of support? If this dilemma is not solved within two months, Catalonia will go to new elections.
• Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European Correspondent, based in Barcelona. Read his live blog on the Catalan fight for self-determination here