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General Strike: Spain

General Strike

Spain 1890


At the founding of the Socialist (Second) International in Paris in July 1889, delegates passed a resolution to make 1 May a universal day of action for the eight-hour workday and approved a host of measures intended to improve working conditions. The choice of this date was meant to recall the bloody events that occurred during the general strike in Chicago in May 1886 (the "Haymarket Massacre"), which resulted in the execution of the "Chicago Martyrs." In Catalonia, one of Spain's most industrialized regions, the International's resolution led to widespread mobilization. More important, a significant proportion of Catalan workers faced uncompromising employers and military repression as they embarked on an unlimited general strike.


  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine is introduced.
  • 1880: South Africa's Boers declare an independent republic, precipitating the short First Anglo-Boer War.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1890: Police arrest and kill Sioux chief Sitting Bull, and two weeks later, federal troops kill over 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games are held in Athens.
  • 1900: Commonwealth of Australia is established.

Event and Its Context

The Labor Movement in Restoration Spain

In mid-nineteenth-century Spain, industrialization remained a regional phenomenon mainly limited to Asturias and the Basque Country (mining and metallurgy), and Catalonia (textiles). The First Republic, proclaimed in 1873 in the wake of the Revolution of 1868, was overturned in 1874 and was followed by the Bourbon Restoration under Alfonso XII (constitution of 1876). Universal suffrage for men and freedom of worship, expression, and association, granted under the republic, were suspended. The new two-chamber monarchist regime instituted limited suffrage. The Conservative party leader, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, instituted the turno pacífico, an artificial brand of bipartisanship whereby the Liberals and the Conservatives took turns at the helm, through the caciquismo, a vote-catching system that enabled the swaying of electoral choices. The ascension to power of the Liberal Práxedes Mateo Sagasta in 1881 brought about merely superficial changes to the Spanish political landscape. One notable exception was a greater tolerance of labor organizations.

Catalan trade unions, the first of which had appeared in 1840, were 80,000 members strong when they were outlawed by Espartero's military regime in 1855. Following the Revolution of 1868, all three textile industry unions (spinners, weavers, and day laborers) merged to form Tres Classes de Vapor(1869), the largest union in nineteenth-century Catalonia. The International Workingmen's Association was set up in Spain.

During the 1880s, Catalan trade unionism evolved along two distinct paths. The first saw the founding, in 1881, of the Workers' Federation of the Spanish Region (FTRE), an anarcho-syndicalist organization close to Mikhail Bakunin, which advocated the creation of legal unions as a prerequisite to the establishment of a classless society, and, on the other side, an individualist, radical form of anarchism influenced by Pyotr Kropotkin, the Russian revolutionary and philosopher, and bent on propaganda and clandestine action. The second path was that taken by a socialist trade unionism with Marxist but noninsurrectionist leanings. It was embodied by the Workers' General Union (UGT), founded in Barcelona in 1888 by Pablo Iglesias Posse at the same time as the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). However, the possibility of fostering widespread, labor party-sponsored unionism was preempted by limitations on the freedom of association imposed under Restoration. Rather, the prevailing context allowed insurrectionist movements to take root.

As of 1886, the high number of firings and the intensifying exploitation of workers brought about by the economic downturn stimulated labor mobilization in parallel to the rise of Catalan nationalism under the impetus of Liberal leader Valentí Almirall. Such was the setting for the 1 May celebrations in 1890 in Catalonia.

A General Rehearsal: The Strike for Solidarity with Workers of Manresa

The labor conflict in Manresa in March 1890 provided workers with the opportunity to put their capacity for mobilization to the test. On 20 March the directors of textile factory Els Dolors refused to concede to the wage demands of their employees. Workers immediately called a strike. Eighteen of the city's factories enforced a preemptive lock-out in an attempt to curb the movement's expansion. On 26 March the leaders of Tres Classes de Vapor, Esteve Vidal and Antoni Sagués, proclaimed a Catalonia-wide strike in a show of solidarity with the Manresa workers. More than 50,000 strikers expressed their support, most notably in Barcelona, Berga, and Vilanova i la Geltrú. On 12 April the parties reached an agreement calling for the 70-hour workweek, a 12 percent wage increase, and the creation of a permanent mixed commission. Faced with the employers' refusal to implement this agreement, workers once again brandished the threat of strike action on 20 April. However, a timely intervention by the civil governor of the province of Barcelona led to the enforcement of the terms of the agreement, thereby putting an end to this "magnificent general rehearsal" for 1 May 1890.

On this occasion, labor considered three forms of mobilization. First, the Socialist Center of Barcelona, directed by Antonio García Quejido, recommended a massive action devoid of any precise ideological line and augmented by claims addressed to the political authorities. Labor organizations in favor of this course of action agreed, on 22 April, to organize a peaceful gathering and protest. Second, the anarchists advocated spontaneous actions and refused to beg the authorities for rights. Following a meeting of more than 3,000 persons held in Barcelona's Tivoli theater on 20 April, participants pondered a general strike to bring about the eight-hour workday. Third, poised between the socialists and the anarchists, the brand of "pure-and-simple" or so-called possibilist trade unionism advocated by Tres Classes de Vapor, was defined by a strategy of "caution and peace, slow and gradual, yet pacifist and solid progress." Finally, on 27 April the union joined with the socialists' program. Thanks to effective propaganda, the workers' increasing enthusiasm in the last week of April contrasted sharply with the panic that spread among the bourgeoisie, cultivated by alarmist press coverage. The civil governor mobilized troops to anticipated trouble spots, namely Barcelona, Manresa, and Granollers.

1 May 1890

In practical terms, the workers' main demand was the limitation of the workday to eight hours for adults. A more radical redistribution of the day ("eight hours of work, eight hours of education and leisure time, and eight hours of rest") was their goal. Many saw the protest as the catalyst for a social revolution by means of an unlimited general strike that would crush bourgeois society. On the morning of 1 May, the working class and its supporters throughout Barcelona heeded the call for a general strike. The resulting mood in the city was festive: all the shops were closed, and thoroughfares were clear of streetcars and carriages. Authorities in several Catalan towns expected protests in front of municipal and provincial headquarters.

At a meeting at the Tivoli theater at 10:00.M., Antonio García Quejido and Toribio Reoyo addressed a packed house. A peaceful demonstration of about 25,000 people followed, ending at Plaça del Palau, the seat of civil governor Luis Antúnez Monzón, who met with an official delegation led by García Quejido. The demonstration ended peacefully. In the rest of Catalonia, other gatherings took place. Some 5,000 people marched in Mataró, 4,000 in Badalona, 4,000 in Vilanova i la Geltrú, 2,500 in Olot, and 2,000 in Sallent as well Reus, Valls, and other towns. In Barcelona several small demonstrations occurred during the course of the day. At a gathering of 200 workers, the leaders issued a call for an unlimited strike. The anarchist strategy managed to impose itself.

The General Strike Continues

Despite the condemnation of the Socialist Center of Barcelona, the general strike continued on 2 May. At approximately 5:00 P.M., the civil governor transferred his powers to the military governor Ramon Blanco, who declared a state of war and deployed 9,000 soldiers in Barcelona, plus the guardias civiles and troops deployed in other parts of Catalonia.

On 3 May a few factories tried in vain to reopen their doors. The strike remained widespread in Barcelona, Manresa, Reus, Terrassa, and Sabadell. In the Catalan capital, attempts to reestablish streetcar service provoked riots. Police charges and arrests were widespread. The next day, negotiations began between employers and union representatives under pressure from General Blanco. Sector-based agreements permitted a gradual return to work: masons and shoemakers obtained the eight-hour workday and double pay for overtime, textile whiteners got closed shops, and the bakers of Gràcia got sleeping mattresses. On 6 May the workers went back to work en masse. According to press reports, by 8 May only 23 factories were still on strike in Barcelona and 81 had reopened. In spite of the release of many prisoners by General Blanco, about 100 people remained jailed. On 12 May the strike actions were for the most part over.

A Merely Symbolic Gain

The mass protests of 1 May 1890 were in the end only somewhat successful: workers' demands were only temporarily or partially recognized by employers. However, 1 May made it possible for the Catalan labor movement to regroup with the "social question" at center stage as a public priority. Anarchist strategy seemed to be legitimized with the gain of the eight-hour workday in certain sectors as the consequence of the unlimited general strike. However, later attempts at general strikes, on 1 May 1891, 1892, and 1893, failed. Many anarchists thus left the trade union organizations and turned to "direct action" or "propaganda by the deed." From 1893 to 1897 Barcelona became the "City of Bombs" as a cycle of anarchist attacks and crackdowns by the authorities ensued. Brutal and indiscriminate repression inspired an international campaign of solidarity. Through it all, the labor movement continued to grow.

Despite the introduction in 1890 of universal suffrage for men, the question of political representation of labor remained unsolved: the turno pacífico was maintained and unions remained illegal. In addition to social tensions came the loss to the United States, in 1898, of Cuba and the Philippines, the last vestiges of the colonial empire and important markets for manufactured products.

In the years after 1890, anarchism began to dominate the labor movement in Catalonia. Because of low membership numbers, the socialist UGT moved its headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid in 1899. The increasingly moderate Tres Classes de Vapor disappeared during World War I. For the general strike of 1902, trade unionism and anarchism began a reconciliation of sorts. The development of anarcho-syndicalism led to the founding of the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) in 1910.

Key Players

García Quejido, Antonio (1856-1927): García Quejido was a typographer, trade union activist, socialist, and member of the Printing Craft Association. In 1879 he participated in founding the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE). In 1888 he cofounded the Workers General Union (UGT), over which he initially presided. He was leader of the Socialist Center of Barcelona and a coorganizer of the 1 May 1890 actions. After World War I he left the PSOE and participated in founding the Communist Party of Spain (PCE).

Reoyo, Toribio: Typographer, trade union activist, and socialist, Reoyo was a member of the Printing Craft Association and president of the Typographic Society of Barcelona. He was an activist in the PSOE and UGT, which he cofounded in 1888, and director of the Mataró's newspaper La República Social (1896-1898) and secretary general of the Spanish Typographic Federation as well as the UGT (1897-1899).

Sagués, Antoni: Typographer, trade union activist, and socialist, Sagués as a member of the textile union Tres Classes de Vapor, of which he was president as of 1887. He co-founded the Spanish Social Democratic Labor Party (1881) and was signatory of the Manresa labor contract in March 1890. He also cofounded the moderately left-wing Socialist Opportunist Party (1890).

Vidal, Esteve: Vidal was a textile worker, trade union activist, and secretary of Tres Classes de Vapor in 1890. In reaction to the lock-out decreed by Manresa's employers, he organized and led a general strike of the textile sector in Barcelona in March 1890 in solidarity.

See also: Haymarket Riot; Second International.



Anguera, Pere. "El primer de Maig." In Història, política, societat i cultura del Països Catalans, vol. 7: La Consolidació del món burgès, edited by Pere Anguera. Barcelona, Spain: Enclopèdia Catalana, 1996.

Carasa, Pedro. "La Restauración monárquica." In Historia de España, Siglo XX, 1875-1939, edited by Ángel Bahamonde. Madrid, Spain: Cátedra, 2000.

Ferrer, Joaquim. El primer "1r. de Maig" a Catalunya.Barcelona, Spain: La Llar del Llibre, 1986 (1972).

Martínez de Sas, María Teresa, and Pelai Pagès i Blanch, eds. Diccionari biogràfic del moviment obrer als Països Catalans. Barcelona. Spain: Edicions Universitat de Barcelona, Publicacions de l'Abadia de Montserrat, 2000.

Termes, Josep. Història de Catalunya, vol. 7: De la Revolució de Setembre a la fi de la Guerra Civil (1868-1939). Barcelona, Spain: Edicions 62, 1987.


Ballester, David, and Manuel Vicente. "El primer de maig a Barcelona. Vuit hores de treball, d'instruccó i de descans." L'Avenç 137 (May 1990): 12.

Additional Resources


Álvarez Junco, José. La ideología del anarquismo español,1868-1910. Madrid, Spain: Siglo XXI, 1976.

Hobsbawm, Eric. "Birth of a Holiday. The 1st of May." In Uncommon People. Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz.London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998.

Mir, Conxita, ed. Actituds polítiques i control social a la Catalunya de la Restauració (1875-1923). Lleida, Spain: Virgili i Pagès, Institut d'Estudis Ilerdencs, 1989.

Núñez Florencio, Rafael. El terrorismo anarquista,1888-1909. Madrid, Spain: Siglo XXI, 1983.


Diccionari de Sindicats, Sindicalistes i de la Història del Moviment Obrer de Catalunya (dels orígens fins l'any 1939). Vilanova i la Geltrú (Spain). 2000 [cited 1 October 2002]. <>.

Ripoll, Xavier. Història del moviment obrer a Catalunya.2002 [cited 1 October 2002]. <>.

—Yanic Viau

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