Salvador Seguí: the trade union leader killed in class war who achieved the 8-hour work day
2023 marks the centenary of the death of the larger-than-life voice of the working class who strived for rights, dignity, and education
2023 marks the centenary of the death of Salvador Seguí, one of the most prominent trade union leaders in the early 20th century, and one of the biggest characters in Barcelona's society of the day.
"Salvador Seguí is a key figure in understanding the history of the workers' movement in Catalonia," says Sergi Martín, curator of an exhibition on the life, achievements, and legacy of the man nicknamed 'el noi del sucre' – the sugar boy – open in Barcelona's Palau Robert until September.
Martín pondered to Catalan News that the memory of Seguí today may not be as strong as it should be due to the fact that Spain underwent two dictatorships following his death which likely suppressed the figure who fought so hard for the benefit of workers' rights, education, and dignified lives for the masses.
Born in 1886 in a small town in Tornabous, near Lleida, he and his family moved to Barcelona a year later. Like many people at the time, Seguí never went to school, but he was self-educated thanks also to anarchist education movements where he learned to read, something he enjoyed a lot and which ultimately informed much of his outlook on the world.
Seguí was a brilliant public speaker, hugely charismatic, that could have thousands of people hanging on his every word for hours at a time. He quickly became the leader of not only the CNT (Confederació Nacional del Treball) trade union, but also for a huge part of society that needed a voice that spoke for them. "A voice of the people, a voice that hadn't gone to school, a voice that liked the bar, that liked social gatherings, that liked drinking, chatting," as Sergi Martí put it, "a normal person."
To understand the importance of the work of Seguí and other trade unionists in the early 20th century, it's important to understand the context of the day.
Barcelona was undergoing huge change from the latter half of the 19th century. The industrial revolution brought many factory jobs and a construction boom coinciding with the 1888 Universal Exposition, which saw many landmarks such as the Arc de Triomf and the Christopher Columbus statue built, as well as a remodeling of the Parc de la Ciutadella into how we know it today.
This brought a huge influx of migrants from poorer parts of Spain that tended to live in the crowded, small, dark apartments of the city's old town. Working conditions were terrible, as people were forced to work 12-16 hours per day, seven days a week, in jobs with a lot of precariousness, and for little money. Child labor was common, and women worked as well because at the time families could not survive without everybody working.
Many factories and businesses were doing well, however – the economy was booming but the people were not doing well at all. These terrible conditions led to conflict among the society.
In the summer of 1909, Barcelona became known as the 'Rosa de Foc' - the Rose of Fire - amid a workers' uprising against mobilization for an imperial war in Morocco that anarchist revolutionaries steadfastly refused to take part in. Barcelona saw street barricades, clashes with police and state officers, and the burning of churches and convents. It's likely that a young Salvador Seguí took part in what became known as The Tragic Week - la Setmana Tragica - in some capacity, but he didn't play a significant role.
In the context of anarchist ideas spreading, and the vast differences in resources between the bourgeoisie and the working class growing, the people began to organize themselves. Salvador Seguí was central in workers organizing themselves and collectively fighting for better lives. He joined the anarchist union CNT in 1915 and rose to prominence three years later at the Sants Congress.
The Congress of the Regional Labor Confederation of Catalonia in 1918 was a key moment in the trade union movement's history, as well as Salvador Seguí's life.
One of the main agreements to come out of this meeting was El Noi del Sucre's proposal of unifying the groups: rather than having the different unions separated by their profession, they would instead be unified by industry. This was the birth of the 'Single Union' and is how trade unions function today.
This change would give affiliated workers far more power and strength in negotiation with employers, as a conflict in one industry could lead to action from other industries in solidarity. This change would be pivotal the following year during the strike of the 'La Canadenca'.
The Sants Congress also saw direct action prioritized in the resolution of labor conflicts, a commitment to promote women's unions, rationalist schools, demanding the 8-hour work day, and the establishment of minimum wages.
'La Canadenca' strike
The 1919 strike of 'La Canadenca' was one of the biggest events in Salvador Seguí's life, even though he was in prison when it began. "Whenever there was a moment of conflict, trade union leaders were sent to prison to try to avoid further problems," Martín explains.
When the energy company Riegos y Fuerza del Ebro lowered wages, workers sought advice and support, leading the company to fire eight of the affected workers. This caused a domino effect of more and more workers going on strike in solidarity, leading to more dismissals, leading to more strikes.
Soon, Barcelona was brought to a standstill, with barely any electricity or transport functioning in the city. This was a bold move on behalf of the workers, as "every day that you didn't work, each week you didn't work, you made no money," Martín says, "so this was a society that became poor."
For the frightened bourgeoisie, the strike, limited at first, spread unstoppably. The response of the Civil Government and the Employers' Federation to this obvious loss of control was to double down. Over 3,000 workers were jailed in Montjuïc, and martial law declared. On top of this, life was very difficult for the striking population.
Eventually, Seguí was brought out of prison to negotiate the end to the 44-day strike that saw thousands of workers imprisoned. In a famous scene at the Las Arenas bullring in front of thousands of impassioned strikers, Seguí managed to temper emotions and bring the majority to a consensus. There, the strike came to an end, and although historic terms were achieved, not all the demands were met.
For the first time in Europe, the 8-hour workday was signed into law, and child labor was eradicated. However, what the law says is one thing, and how it is applied is another: "In the end, this wasn't complied with, but at least they tried," Martín says.
However, he didn't achieve the release of imprisoned workers, angering the more radical wing of the workers. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie saw in him a dangerous figure capable of speaking to and mobilizing great numbers of people. In an atmosphere of heightened violence, it quickly became clear to Seguí that his days were numbered.
'El pistolerisme' was a social phenomenon that some historians say began around the time of the 1917 general strike, while others say it kicked off after the end of the First World War, and finished with Primero de Rivera's military coup in 1923. It was a period of violence, of open class war, featuring the proliferation of death squads and hitmen, thugs hired by the bourgeoisie business leaders to harass, attack, and kill trade union leaders and anarchists, and vice versa as well.
The First World War also goes a long way in explaining the context of the day. Spain remained neutral and profited by selling goods to both sides of the conflict, which led to extreme inflation. Added to this was the arrival of arms, hitmen, drugs, and prostitution networks that were previously centered in Paris, that moved south to the Mediterranean due to the war.
"When the class war breaks out between workers and employers' hitmen, there are all the elements for a perfect storm," Sergi Martín says. "Hitmen, spies, weapons, and a lust for killing. It's not a coincidence that the period of 'el pistolerisme' takes off around 1919, the year after the First World War ends."
Distrusted by the radical wing of his own union, and seen as a dangerous leader of the proletariat by the merchant class, amid rising violence, Salvador Seguí knew his days were numbered, as he had fewer and fewer friends who were interested in protecting his life.
At 7 pm on March 10, 1923, El Noi del Sucre became another victim of this brutal class war. He was killed in the Raval area of Barcelona, on the corner of Carrer Cadena, which no longer exists, and Carrer Sant Rafael, which does still exist, located right by the square which now bears his name.
It's not fully known who killed him, but everything points to it being a member of the Sindicats Lliures – the "free trade unions" – who were, in name, another trade union, but represented the interests of employers, and carried out their dirty work. In ideology, they were Carlist, monarchist, traditionalist, conservative, and very right-wing – enemies of the CNT.
At the end of the exhibition in Palau Robert, the very last wall panel that visitors read is a selection of headlines and subheads from stories all taken from the previous months. All are stories of tragedy and suffering that the exhibition curator draws parallels with the struggles and battles that Seguí fought a century earlier.
Many of the things that Seguí fought for are still relevant in today's contemporary society. Seguí fought for dignity for the working classes, dignity in factories, the 8-hour work day, the eradication of child labor, for better life conditions for people, better lives for women and children, for education and teaching among the working classes.
"One of the most important things he fought for was culture," Martín says. "If the working class was cultured, they would always be able to stop dictatorships, because it's not possible to manipulate a culture working class. Seguí fought hard to spread the ideas of education, teaching, and critical thinking."
"He wasn't very much a friend of those who didn't want to accept that society was diverse and plural and that the working classes needed help. To remember Salvador Seguí is to remember democracy and to remember dignity for the working classes."