The result was a noticeable increase in labour agitation on both sides of the frontier. The tactics adopted by local workers confounded local employers and the Gibraltar authorities, not least because anarchism proved remarkably successful at encouraging boycotts of businesses and ‘sympathy’ strikes in favour of fellow workers in disparate industries. When necessary, anarchists were also willing to adopt ‘direct action’ to combat what they perceived as the inherently violent practices of the bosses and local political authorities who protected them. The rhetoric of meetings gives us a flavour of this new-found militancy, with one worker threatening to ‘eat the liver’ of a local tobacco merchant during a strike in 1902. Following an earlier dispute in October 1901, a local anarchist newspaper urged its readers to remember the long-term goal of ‘total and definitive emancipation […] the abolition of private property with all its consequences, state, religion, militarism, magistrates […] a great work, larger than the massive Rock we have in our view’. Crucially, anarchists were willing to act as well as to talk. Several local bosses were assaulted during industrial disputes in the period – so much so that Gibraltar’s employers occasionally resorted to using firearms in self-defence – and ‘scab’ workers had stones thrown at them as they attempted to cross picket-lines.
Arguably what offended local businessmen more than the threat to their person was the very real challenge that anarchism offered to their economic interests. If we might dismiss as hyperbole, in the context of a heavily garrisoned British colony, the question posed by one local businessman to the Governor of Gibraltar in 1892, ‘are our goods and chattels safe?’, we can nonetheless point to several successes of anarchist militancy at the turn of the century. Across numerous industries, wage settlements favoured workers thanks to the effectiveness of strikes, boycotts and the occasional spot of physical intimidation. Most impressive of all, employers were forced to concede the dream of the ‘tres ochos’ (three eights) to many local workers – that is to say eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep and eight hours for leisure. Committed to improving living as much as working conditions, local anarchist groups also made up for the absence of state provision by offering schooling to hundreds of local children, as well as myriad cultural initiatives to bring learning to the local working classes.
Gibraltar’s employers were so shell-shocked by the growth and success of anarchism that they offered to pay the salary of a British union official who had been sent to the Rock in 1898. In his memoirs Lorenzo Quelch, who had been sent by the nascent Social Democratic Foundation, left a vivid account of his time in Gibraltar, but he decided not to take up the employers’ offer. The culmination of all of this activity was a ‘general strike’ of industries in Gibraltar in 1902. This time, having prepared meticulously and coordinated their response to the dispute, the employers emerged victorious. On the Spanish side of the frontier, the anarchist movement was to face worse, as the local political and military authorities staged a bloody massacre of local militants in October 1902, closing down workers’ centres and confiscating their funds.
Much work needs to be done, but this brief account of the infancy of labour organisation in Gibraltar highlights the intimacy of relations across the frontier. Many years later, in 1919, Gibraltarian workers would formally attach themselves to a British gradualist, rather than Spanish anarchist, form of organisation through the TGWU. But as we have noted, the Gibraltar TGWU retained strong links with its counterparts in the Campo for several decades and workers continued to fight side-by-side for better living and working conditions. The early successes of Gibraltarian and Spanish anarchists shows just how much workers on both sides of the frontier stood (and stand) to gain by recognising common grievances and acting collectively to address them.
Gareth Stockey is lecturer in Spanish studies at the University of Nottingham. He has published widely on the history of Gibraltar and Spain, including (with Chris Grocott) Gibraltar: a Modern History (University of Wales Press, 2010).
Chris Grocott is lecturer in Management and Economic History, and Jo Grady is lecturer in Industrial Relations and Human Resources Management, at the University of Leicester.