It All Began With Him: Xosé Villaverde, Galician Trade Unionism's Great Organizer

On 25 September 1936, labour leader Xosé Villaverde’s corpse was discovered on a beach in A Coruña.

Despite the oppressive atmosphere that had been hovering over Galicia for the previous two months, the ever-optimistic Uxía tried to go on savouring life’s little pleasures. One of these, one of the ways she found to escape the vile reality for a few minutes, was strolling along the beach. Virtually every day, she rose at daybreak and before breakfast would set out with her dog, Max, for a walk along the beach at Sabón, the one closest to her home in the village of Arteixo in A Coruña. As Max made it his business to chase the clusters of gulls which were capitalizing upon the absence of humans to settle on the shore, Uxía, carrying her shoes in hand, would follow on whilst paddling in the waves.

That said, the date was 25 September 1936 and real life was about to invade her momentary relief. This time in Sabón Max stumbled upon more than just gulls, shells and the odd crab. Ranging about 50 metres ahead of his mistress, Max was paused, sniffing at a human body dumped at the water’s edge. Uxía screamed to Max to get away and quickened her step, the various possibilities racing through her mind. The victim of a drunken night, perhaps? An accidental drowning? Set alongside what she knew, what she needed no further confirmation of, these were all good options. Even so, she felt compelled to go for it. The body, face down and in drenched clothing, was that of a middle-aged man. She turned him over and felt for a pulse that had long since ceased beating. And steeled herself to look at the face. The top part of the skull confirmed her suspicions. It had been smashed and there was a bullet wound in the temple that said it all. Uxía’s eyes ranged over the remainder of the corpse’s face. Not that she had ever been much of a one for politics. But even so, a lot of people thereabouts would be able to identify him, as she was. It was Villaverde.

An Architect of CNT Hegemony

The body found by Uxía was indeed that of Xosé (José) Villaverde Velo, one of the great unknowns who was the main Galician union leader prior to the civil war. Born in Santiago de Compostela in 1894, like tens of thousands of workers of the same generation and of both sexes, his career as a worker had run parallel to his shaping as a militant. For instance, as a 15 year-old working as a wood-carver in Compostela, he belonged to the Local Federation of Workers’ Societies. When he turned 18 he relocated from the Galician capital to Vigo, where he took up positions not just in the organizations of the carpenters, in which sector he mostly worked, but also others such as the transport workers and dockers, as well as getting involved in incidents such as the 1917 general strike; his being a local leader of that resulted in his serving some time in prison.

Like many leading militants in areas where the CNT (launched long after the UGT) took some time to embed itself, Villaverde represented an example of dual membership during that interval. Contrary to the usual belief, the unions were not required to subscribe to a specific tendency bur rather to more practical considerations more closely attuned to circumstances locally. For instance, the CNT unions did not have to be led by subscribers to a libertarian line, and it was not a requirement that UGT unions be headed by members of the Socialist Party. Villaverde was one example of this: he was an anti-authoritarian who, even as he was taking part in huge CNT meetings, carried out his trade union work proper within the UGT, the local Vigo federation of which elected him as its general secretary in 1920.

However, that arrangement ended when the Galician Regional Confederation of the CNT was launched a few years later; Villaverde was involved at the organizational level as well as as the director its its press. After the turbulent Primo de Rivera dictatorship, Villaverde headed the CNT organization in Galicia.

Like others such as Joan Peiró and Ángel Pestaña, he opposed other schools of thought which placed greater emphasis on permanent insurrection and supported strengthening the unions as vital if the social revolution was to be carried off successfully.

In 1930 he wrote an afterword for Peiró’s book, Problems of Syndicalism and Anarchism, in which he explained: “Destruction is not achieved as slickly as believed. The roots of the oppressive society run deeper than our dreams and, even if that were not the case, dreams too require planning and a method, a fleshing-out, a strength that looks beyond blind force, to wit, work organized as scientifically as possible by the very people who do the work.” With thinking like that, his advocacy of a workers’ alliance and relentless efforts to win over the workers in the maritime industry, Villaverde’s mandate as general secretary for Galicia proved spectacularly successful. The CNT’s 13,000 membership grew to 30,000 and in the province of A Coruña, the CNT enjoyed a hegemony comparable with that in places like Zaragoza and Barcelona.

Despite some initial resistance, by the end of July 1936 the military coup had quickly overrun Galicia. That august Xosé Villaverde was arrested. As in the case of Peiró, the new regime urged him to work with its ‘trade union’ organs. His refusal led to his being shot on 24 September. The following day, his corpse showed upon Sabon beach.

It never even occurred to Uxía to report the crime to the authorities, for the authorities were the criminals. She struggled to drag the body out of the water, donned her shoes and raced off with Max in search of a neighbour who was a member of the fishermen’s union for which Villaverde had done so much. He would know what to do.

From El Salto, 25 September 2020

José Villaverde Velo

Born 1894 in Santiago, by age 15 he was working as a wood-carver making religious images and later helped found the Carpenters’ Union and the Santiago de Compostela Federation. In 1917 he led the insurrectionary strike in Santiago and was imprisoned. After moving to Vigo he became close to Ricardo Mella, attending the CNT Congress in 1919 and the June 1920 UGT Congress as well, as the Vigo Carpenters’ Union belonged to the UGT; at the latter he called for CNT-UGT amalgamation. In November he was appointed secretary of the Vigo UGT Federation. He attended the CNT Transport Union’s first National Congress in 1921. He founded the Galician version of Solidaridad Obrera and Despertad! And belonged to the Despertad! group of which Eseve and Collado were co-members. In 1925 he was involved in the launch of the Galician Coastal Maritime Federation and that Federation agreed to pay him a wage to act as editor-in-chief of its mouthpiece El Despertar Marítimo. He was a spokesman for the Solidaridad group in its confrontation with the FAI. In 1932 he stepped down as head of the CNT in Galicia due to lobbying against him by FAI supporters who accused him of too often occupying paid positions. As manager of the Transport Union in 1934 he was sympathetic to the Workers’ Alliance and was re-elected as general secretary of the Galician CNT in 1935 (but declined the position).

Additional detail from Miguel Iniguez, Enciclopedia Histórica del Anarquismo Español, 2008, Tomo II

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.