Prison Gates

The gates of the Modelo Prison in Barcelona were set alight during a prison riot and put out of commission. The Barcelona Woodworkers’ Union imposed a boycott on repair work. Faced with the impossibility of having repairs done there, the authorities decided to ship the gates out to Majorca. Soldiers loaded the gates on board the ship for delivery as the Barcelona dockers refused to do so.

In September 1931 the gates arrived in Palma but the dockworkers there, most of them CNT personnel like their colleagues on the mainland, refused to unload them. The scene in Barcelona was replayed: troops from the nearby garrison had to unload the gates under Civil Guard protection.

The Balearic Islands CNT Woodworkers’ Union imposed a boycott and asked workers to refuse to do the repair work as an act of solidarity. After some initial confusion, the authorities decided to entrust the job to the Frau Brothers’ carpentry works. The Frau brothers were conservative businessmen who had made their fortunes under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship on foot of their connections in the civil service. In order to halt the repairs the Woodworkers’ Union declared a strike in the carpentry sector.

That October, Cultura Obrera, the organ of the Ateneo Sindicalista and CNT, carried the names of five workers who had decided to scab and who, it seems, were UGT members. They were not carpenters by trade; one, for instance, was a cinema usher. There were forty workers at the Frau Brothers works on strike, yet these strike-breakers carried on. The workers’ strike fund accounted for 50% of the union contributions.

This was a very delicate juncture for the CNT in Majorca: a series of disputes had erupted wherein the CNT was making the running (e.g. the dispute at Palma docks, the glassworkers’ dispute, the Can Estany textile plant in Inca ..). Tension was running high, with the employers and other unions taking the “Not an inch!” line: “Not an inch! As Soriano says, we must have done with the CNT (…) In Inca the textile workers are locked out for trying to enforce statutory working hours. And the union to which these comrades belong? The CNT. So, not an inch! (…) The port employers have locked out the Transport Union on a pretext, thereby seriously damaging business on the island. And the transport workers are CNT members? Not an inch! (…) And the workers from the Calcetería Hispania Tapices, Vidal y Vda de Enrique Escapa firm are CNT personnel. So not an inch! (…) And the affiliation of the comrades on strike at Frau Brothers? CNT. So, not an inch!” (Cultura Obrera, 21 November 1931)

On 17 October Cultura Obrera saw fit to denounce Rafael Mercadal, the president of the UGT-affiliated “Desarrollo y Arte” association as an active participant in the repair job on the gates. Is this, it asked, what the UGT is all about … strike-breaking? However, Rafael Mercader was a familiar name to the anarcho-syndicalists; he had settled in Palma but came from a nearby town, moving after breaking a strike at the Can Pieras plant. When socialist councillors Miguel Bisbal (son of Llorenç Bisbal, the ‘founding father’ of socialism on the island) and Miguel Porcel acted in favour of the scabs, it was obvious that the socialists and the UGT were aligning themselves with the bosses. The authorities brought enormous pressures to bear on the union and the workers: the civil governor banned the media from carrying any reports on the strike and ordered the suspension of the workshop councils and committees.

In an effort to keep the strike afloat, the Woodworkers’ Union reduced strike contributions to 30% of wages. The CNT nationally decided to back their comrades. In the end, the strike was lost. Nearly all of the strikers got their jobs back (five being sacked permanently). Given that the strike was allegedly illegal, the prosecutor decided to press for four month jail sentences for comrades Joan Mas and Pere Iglesias. Cultura Obrera lampooned the prosecutor’s request like this: “To be honest, the sentence being asked for for our comrades for an offence that we fail to see strikes us as meaningless. Accustomed as we are to seeing workers facing anything up to and including the ‘ley de fugas’, it seems rather little. Can the prosection be sure that he means to ask for four months for these two comrades and not four years?” (Cultura Obrera, 28 November 1931)

The Majorcan CNT was determined to make one point clear: “There is rather more than ‘working hours’ and ‘pay packets’ … Dignity, that precious gift of high-minded people has these days taken root in the souls of Majorcan workers who, true to their word, have opted and choose still to decline to make money, that they need for the upkeep of their househods, rather than apply their effort to a chunk of wood that has been used to pen in their brothers. Not everyone is of the same mind. The wretched UGT carpenters have buckled down to the task and the poor things think much along these lines: If we don’t do the repairs, somebody else will. (…) Plainly the working man does things at odds with his life and thoughts. Of course he does. But what man of conscience does what that conscience tells him is wrong? Who, knowing his own place, will usurp that of his neighbour? (…) It is undignified of working men to help the common foe, capitalism, to the detriment of their worker brethren. This is what happened in Palma. Barcelona carpentry workers refused to repair the gates that were set alight by the social prisoners at the Modelo Prison in their city. Out of comradeship, out of solidarity, out of dignity, the CNT-affiliated carpentry workers of Palma also refused to do so. And not because they reckon that [Barcelona] was going to be left without its Modelo Prison, but simply because their dignity forbade them from doing it. The carpenters affiliated to the UGT (…) have, by their work, earned themselves fifteen, twenty or a hundred duros, etc., but human dignity has evaporated from their consciousness and they are now no more than human brawn. They are machines, packmules, ugly examples of human fauna.” (Cultura Obrera, 17 October 1931)

From: From "CNT" (Madrid) No 327, October 2006. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.