Lecturer in Management and Economic History at the School, Chris Grocott, outlines the first output of a new collaborative research project on the history of labour organisations in the British Empire.
In an article just published in Labor History, Jo Grady, Gareth Stockey and I examine the history of anarchism in Gibraltar and its surrounding hinterland, the Campo de Gibraltar, from 1890-1902. We originally intended to write a piece about a later period, roughly 1917-1922, during which Gibraltar’s indigenous forms of labour organisation were displaced by the arrival of the British trade union the Transport and General Worker’s Union (TGWU). Yet, when we began our research, we got side-tracked by what we found and not without good reason.
In the history of the labour movement more broadly, and in the case of the work of the TGWU in Gibraltar in particular, there is a recurring suggestion that unions mobilise the working class in order to defend and advance their interests in the face of imperialism. While there is good reason to believe this happened in Gibraltar, the arrival of the TGWU in the colony also served to pacify what had previously been an explosive industrial relations scene, much to the delight of employers and colonial officials.
The TWGU brought with it a more ‘constitutionalist’ style of trade union activity to Gibraltar’s industrial relations landscape. The union soon became a proxy for broader working class organisation, returning successful candidates to Gibraltar’s inaugural City Council elections in 1921; providing governors with comment on draft Ordinances (Gibraltar’s equivalent of a government Act at the time); and negotiating wages and terms and conditions with employers on the behalf of workers. This shift, from conflictual to collaborative industrial relations, was the original focus of our research. It nevertheless begged an obvious question – what exactly had come before?
We quickly discovered that virtually nothing had been written about industrial relations in Gibraltar prior to the Great War of 1914-18 (other than a few pages Gareth and I had written in Gibraltar: A Modern History). Our starting point, then, was the thesis offered in Gareth’s Gibraltar: A Dagger in the Spine of Spain? where he argued, contrary to the vision of Gibraltar’s frontier with Spain which the current manifestation of the sovereignty dispute suggests, that the Gibraltar frontier was a porous one over which flowed people, political ideas, and culture. We discovered that – prior to the Great War – Gibraltar’s industrial relations had much in common with Spain’s. Anarchist ideas and tactics in particular were co-present. And so, using sources from both sides of the frontier, we have been able to reconstruct a lost part of the history of Gibraltar’s labour movement, one which is rich in protests, strikes, and, at times, violence. In the process we’ve also uncovered a history rich with examples of working class solidarity and cultural exchange.
Not only were we able to shed fresh light on the labour history of Gibraltar but also of Spain. In the period we examined, anarchism in Spain was still in its infancy. Anarchist groups on both sides of the frontier were trying out new ideas, using and discarding tactics as the circumstances dictated. One example, an attempt to affiliate with the Spanish socialist party – the PSOE – would have been unthinkable after 1920. We also explored the Gibraltar region’s relatively early commitment to ideas that would later define ‘syndicalism’ and contrasted the ‘rural’ anarchist setting of the hinterland with developing urban, industrial, working and living conditions in the region.
The question of what happened to anarchist ideas in Gibraltar upon the arrival of the TGWU remains to be answered. What we’ve done here forms part of a larger project looking at how trade unions interacted with colonial governments and other forms of labour organisation in the empire. The detour we took with this paper, while unplanned, was by no means unnecessary.