The UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) is one the two really large Spanish trade unions, the other being CC.OO (Comisiones Obreras). It was founded in 1888, at a difficult time for all working men, because many had not attended school, did not know what a trade union was (or what it was intended to achieve); were afraid of their employers, powerful both industrially and agriculturally, and suspicious of any kind of government or authority set above them. Growing bigger took a long time, and UGT did not make its presence felt until the arrival of the Second Republic of 1931 – 36.
Severe and unyielding centralism, some confusing ideology and too moderate an approach to the bosses caused this snail-like pace towards domination of all other unions except CC.OO. These two eyed each other suspiciously, and still do, though their respective general secretaries invariably pretend to be mates. Both are more communist than socialist, and will perform notable deeds of duplicity in the Name of The Workers.
Supposedly on the far side of the Left, the UGT made an acrobatic somersault under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923 – 30), cooperating with Rivera in a remarkable show of pragmatism. But in the Second Republic the union achieved wonders for agricultural workers, always desperately poor, landless, badly housed, poorly fed and hard done by – almost as a tradition – by landowners. This is the traditional view anyway, though there were exceptions.
When demands for reform were met with silence the UGT grew bigger, less moderate and less silent, and things became so bad that am agricultural strike was called in June, 1934, followed by a general strike (and serious riots) in October. Protest was violently suppressed however, and UGT adopted a much more revolutionary and aggressive policy, though once again it acted out of character in backing of the Popular Front in the general election of February, 1936; but when the Popular Front got into power, landless and over-worked labourers took the law into their own hands, and worsened the political climate.
The Spanish Civil War, one of the ugliest of all civil wars, caused unrest and a feeling of failure in the UGT, which was reputedly moderate. It lost heavily in membership to the Spanish Communist Party, and by the time the appalling civil war dragged itself to an end in 1939, UGT was divided. Near-partners the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and UGT played a diminutive role in the war itself, and when the rebels (los Nacionales) won under General Franco, there were fearful reprisals against both. Trade unions were abolished, but with the restoration of democracy and a new Constitution in 1977, all three, UGT, CC.OO and PSOE were re-established. By the early Eighties UGT was the largest trade union in Spain, though it fell out with Felipe Gonzalez’ Socialist government, pragmatism again, over the PSOE’s modernization programme. These days the two biggest unions and the PSOE have fallen into the habit of eying each other, from all angles, with deep mistrust.