Obituary to a Revolutionary: Marcelino Camacho

“They didn’t tame us, they didn’t break us and they won’t domesticate us,” was the famous phrase of the Spanish trade union leader Marcelino Camacho, on his final release from jail in 1976. Camacho’s courage and commitment made him the undisputed leader of the Comisiones Obreras (Workers’ Commissions), the movement that became the main opposition to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco Spain in the 1960s and 70s.

Marcelino Camacho Abad was born in the tiny village of La Rasa in January 1918 to a father who was an activist in the General Workers’ Union and a railway pointsman on the Valladolid-Ariza line. It was mostly in Ariza that Marcelino grew up and went to school. With civil war looming, he joined the Partido Comunista de España [PCE, the Spanish Communist Party] 12 days after his 17th birthday in 1935 and the following year found himself in and around Madrid fighting the forces Franco brought in from Spain’s Moroccan colonies.

Camacho was part of the 29th Division of the Ejército Popular de la República [EPR, the Popular Republican Army]. The division was commanded by Colonel David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist who in 1940 took part in an assassination attempt against the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky during the latter’s asylum in Mexico City.

After the republicans’ defeat in 1939, Camacho was captured and sent to a forced labour camp in Spanish-occupied Tangiers, where he was part of a chain-gang forced to work on the Tangiers-Fez railway. He escaped in 1944 and found his way to Oran in French Algeria, where he met his future wife Josefina.

Expelled from French Algeria in the mid-50s for trade union activity, he moved to France before being allowed to return to Spain in 1957 he went to work as a lathe operator in the Perkins Hispania engine factory, Madrid, where he helped to organise one of the first Workers’ Commissions. These were underground organisations, committees of workers formed to fight for specific demands, as it was impossible to win anything through official channels.

The commissions developed in the early 1960s into permanent structures in many workplaces. In these years of economic boom, young workers, without the scars of civil war defeat and postwar repression, poured from the countryside into the new factories. In Charlas en la Prisión (Talks in Prison, 1976), a book based on seminars given in Carabanchel prison in Madrid, Camacho explains how the commissions organised this new generation. To win support in conditions of illegality, they acted openly wherever they could and involved as many workers as possible in debate and decisions taken in assembly. Activists stood for election in the official union, which often gave them cover for organising meetings. The commissions became more than trade unions. As well as fighting for better wages and conditions, they mobilised for democratic rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to strike.

In 1966 Camacho led some 5,000 engineering workers to the ministry of labour to hand in a petition. The demonstration was broken up and he was arrested. Soon released, he was arrested again in early 1967 as part of a crackdown on the commissions, as the dictatorship recognised their threat. Not free again until early 1972, he was rearrested in June that year at a clandestine meeting. This led to the famous “1001” trial, of 10 commission leaders. While he was being sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, Camacho defiantly told the judges they were servants of a sinking regime.

A few days after Franco’s death, Camacho was released in the December 1975 amnesty, then, after a final, brief incarceration, left prison for good. Under the dictatorship, he had spent 14 years in exile and 14 as a political prisoner.

Camacho became the first general secretary of the Workers’ Commissions, legalised in April 1977. He was also a Communist party MP from 1977 until 1981. Not quite as undomesticated as he had promised, he led the new union into support for the 1977 Moncloa pacts, in which both the commissions and the party accepted wage cuts. He stood down as general secretary in 1987 and became honorary president, a post he resigned in 1996 because of his disagreement with the union’s rightward drift.

Enormously popular, in his old age he took part in demonstrations against war and to defend the rights of workers and pensioners. To the end, Camacho believed in what he affirmed at the homage to him and Josefina on his 90th birthday in 2008: “The class struggle exists. The bosses have interests that are different from ours and under the capitalist system, workers are exploited.”

He is survived by Josefina, their son, Marcel, and daughter, Yeina.

Long live our Marcelino Camacho and all who rebel!

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