By HWS 2nd March 2022
The working people will struggle for their rights in a war against fascism. It is a fact that the working-class will suffer most. Their rights as workers will come under attack by fascism which will target trade unions and the dignity of labour.
I want to focus on a group of workers on the railway under Franco’s fascist Spain and their suffering and humiliation. Also, how a group of Welsh volunteers took up arms in support of the working people and their voted elected government.
After 82 years and the end of the civil war with a return to democracy, the Spanish railway company RENFE (pronounced “Ren-Fay”) has finally acknowledged their workers suffered under fascism. These days they even have a website with the details of the horrific treatment to its workers who’s only crime was to work for an industry with a strong trade union in place who had stayed loyal and kept the trains running in the republic.
In Franco’s regime all railway workers were presumed guilty and had to prove they were not a threat to the regime. The rail workers numbering around 90,000 had to present a sworn statement setting out any connections to the democratically voted Republic. Around 83,000 rail workers were purged, 88 per cent of the workforce. At one point they had to pause the witch hunts as they did not have enough train drivers to run the railway.
There was nearly 7,000 jailed varying months to life imprisonment, one hundred were condemned to death. Nobody were taken out shot dead without and trial or even charges – but there were many. An unmarked grave was opened in 2011 in Borgus to reveal 59 bodies, it is known locally as the tomb of the railway.
One story from a railway family member revealed:
“It was 1936. The fascists took my father and uncle Jose and Rafael Machuca – to a makeshift prison. One night they came into their cell to take one of them away. Those they took away never came back, so when they came for my uncle Rafael, my father knew he would never see him again, they were going to kill him. My father was lucky they only sent him to prison and barred him from working on the railways ever again. When my grandmother went to the prison to find them, she was told that Rafael was not there any more. The poor woman went everywhere she could to think of to ask where he might be, she spent her whole life searching for him. He was 26 when he disappeared, to this day we do not know they killed him”.
The regime even created a a special police unit dedicated to informing on rail workers – rooting out any collaborators. There was a total of 120,000 files reporting detailing railway workers’ connections and every movements. Until 1957, many railways in Spain were be built and maintained by forced Labour battalions – often made up of political prisoners. There were over 9,000 forced labourers slaving on Franco’s railways in 1940. Sadly repression was even worse for thousands of women who had worked on the railways. Around 4,500 of them were supressed for having the wrong political views. The fascists punished women who deviated from the regime’s structure more than men. One victim described how her mother, now 93, was dismissed from the railway for the crime of getting married. She said: “In those day’s women didn’t have a glass ceiling, it was cement, and when they married they were forced to resign.
They could only return to work if their husbands died, or deserted the wife without good reason. With the return of democracy in 1978 my mother was finally allowed to return to work in “Renfe”. At the recent unveiling of a commemorative statue to the railway victims, the Socialist Transport Minister, José Luis Ábalos, spoke movingly about the importance of remembering the impact fascism had on the everyday lives of working people.
An estimated 200 Welsh volunteers went to fight for the International Brigades in Spain. Coincidently, many of the Welsh Brigaders came from similar regions in South Wales with many of them unemployed miners. Those comrades held shared experiences which spurred them on to join the cause of the Spanish Republic.
Spain is still struggling to come to terms with this history. It’s a political struggle almost as polarised as the civil war itself. The new right governing Madrid is intent on retaining street names that celebrate the Division Azul, the troops and volunteers Franco sent to fight alongside the SS on the Eastern front. That’s why it is so important Wales takes part in commemorations, to keep alive the memory of those brave Welsh comrades who fought so hard in the hope that the working people of Spain may have had different memories and so much better ones.