Tag Archives: Labour markets

Internal Migration and Trade Unions Strength: an Alternative Look on Pre-Civil War Spain

Structural change, collective action, and social unrest in 1930s Spain


Jordi DOMÈNECH FELIU (jdomenec@clio.uc3m.es)  Universidad Carlos III

Thomas Jeffrey MILEY (thomas.j.miley@gmail.com) University of Cambridge


The Spanish 2nd Republic (1931-1936) witnessed one of the fastest and deepest processes of popular mobilization in interwar Europe, generating a decisive reactionary wave that brought the country to the Civil War (1936-1939). We show in the paper that both contemporary comment and part of the historiography makes generalizations about the behaviour of the working classes in the period that stress idealistic, re-distributive and even religious motives to join movements of protest. In some other cases, state repression, poverty, and deteriorating living standards have been singled out as the main determinants of participation. This paper uses collective action theory to argue that key institutional changes and structural changes in labour markets were crucial to understand a significant part of the explosive popular mobilization of the period. We argue first that, before the second Republic, temporary migrants had been the main structural limitation against the stabilization of unions and collective bargaining in agricultural labour markets and in several service and industrial sectors. We then show how several industries underwent important structural changes since the late 1910s which stabilized part of the labour force and allowed for union growth and collective bargaining. In agricultural labour markets or in markets in which unskilled temporary workers could not be excluded, unions benefitted from republican legislation restricting temporary migrations and, as a consequence, rural unions saw large gains membership and participation. Historical narratives that focus on state repression or on changes in living standards to explain collective action and social conflict in Spain before the Civil War are incomplete without a consideration of the role of structural changes in labour markets from 1914 to 1931.

URL: http://e-archivo.uc3m.es/bitstream/10016/17160/1/wh1305.pdf

Review by Anna Missiaia

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-06-30. The authors, Jordi Domenech from Carlos III and Thomas Miley from Cambridge, aim to explain why and how workers’ protests rose in Spain during the Second Republic (1931-1936). This question is very interesting from a historiographical point of view, as this period of popular mobilization is considered to be one of the causes of the subsequent Civil War (1936-1939). Standard explanations include state repression, poor economic conditions, economic inequality and possibly the flourishing of socialist ideologies in Spain. The authors detach from these standard explanations and follow an institutional approach. They claim that a significant part of this social process can be attributed to changes in the labour markets. In particular, that increasing mobilization was due to a decrease of temporal migrations in labour markets.


Spanish Republic Allegory displaying Republican paraphernalia and symbols of modernity

The conceptual argument underpinning their effort is roughly as follows: collective action theory contends that the greater the diversity of workers’ preferences (for example over their type of contract or their work conditions), the lesser the workers will be able to organize effectively. These preferences also include decisions to enter labour contracts. For instance, temporary workers accept to be paid pro-rata (i.e. by unit of output) while permanent workers accept (or prefer) to be paid by hour of in-the-job labour.

Domenech and Miley remind us that at in the first third of the 20th century, Spain characterized by substantial internal migrations that enabled the rise of temporary workers within manufacturing and agriculture. However, in the early 1930s Spain experienced changes in both the markets for its products and the demand for labour. These changes led to the introduction of legal limitations over temporary migrations. The result of regulatory innovations was the strengthening of unions by increasing their membership and also as union leaders increasingly faced more homogeneous requests by they represented workers and all this, therefore, led to greater social mobilization.

Wall painting during the Spanish Civil War

To prove their point, Domenech and Miley make a remarkable use of qualitative evidence which, let me emphasize, is not always easy to find. They collected oral testimonies, reports and newspaper articles to show the increasing tension between permanent and temporary workers. The work on original qualitative sources is vast and necessary to fill the gap left by quantitative estimates. In fact, to my surprise, this paper does not propose any formal model or empirical test on quantitative data. The reason is well explained on page 29, where the authors point out that census data would not cover this period: the relevant laws that imposed restrictions were passed just after the 1930 census and abrogated before the next census of 1940. The fact that census data are not of any use for this work is surely a severe limitation to any attempt to study the causality between migrations, union power and social unrest. However, looking at the extensive sources used for the qualitative analysis, the impression is that a further step to at least quantify the changing role of unions could be taken. Possibly,  a measure of union power (for example by number of strikes, number of members, etc) could be proposed. At the same time, conceptual framework is not all together clear, particularly when dealing with specific relationships leading to the increase of union power. For instance, poor economic conditions and greater income inequality have been proposed as causing of popular unrest and social mobilization. It is not clear why greater union power rather than the changes in labour regulation could have also been a contributing force.

Comisiones Obreras (one of the main Spanish unions – circa 1970s)

To conclude, this paper proposes an innovative explanation to social unrest in Spain in the 1930s based on labour markets and provides comprehensive qualitative evidence. This is a very important topic in light of the subsequent events: popular mobilization has been followed by four years of civil war and the beginning of Franco’s dictatorship. In spite of the severe restrictions on the data, some further quantification (even just descriptive) would improve a paper which casts light on such an fundamental period of Spanish history.