How the Workers of Spain Battled the Spanish Flu

How the Workers of Spain Battled the Spanish Flu

How the Workers of Spain Battled the Spanish Flu

The last time there was a global pandemic, organized labor came together to protect each other and fight the boss.


The strike began in February 1919, during the epidemic’s third wave, and brought Barcelona to a grinding halt. In January, the Ebro Irrigation and Power Company, known as La Canadiense for its Toronto headquarters, lowered wages, and fired 8 oficinistas, white-collar workers, for protesting. When 140 blue-collar workers were barred reentry after walking out in solidarity, they appealed to the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), a union that had gained enormous traction in Barcelona over the previous year. The CNT called a general strike, spreading the word “as if it were an epidemic transmitted through air, spreading through contact,” as activist and historian Paco Ignacio Taibo II writes in his account of the period, Que Sean Fuego Las Estrellas.

The metaphor is a timely one. We remember this moment in history as one when the whole world was in the throes of the so-called “Spanish Flu,” an oft-invoked precedent to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, not Spanish at all, the flu was so named because Spain’s neutral press was free to cover the pandemic while the rest of Europe was under wartime censorship.

The flu wracked Spain in three waves. It first arrived in the spring of 1918 as a mild strain with high morbidity but low mortality. After a summer lull came the now-infamous second wave, much deadlier than the first with a mortality rate of 14 percent. By the third and final iteration in the spring of 1919, the flu’s effects were less pronounced; it had already done its worst. According to current estimates, more than 260,000 Spaniards died of the Spanish flu (45 percent of them in October 1918 alone).

Thus in February, facing social unrest on top of natural disaster, the Spanish government under King Alfonso XIII imposed martial law, arresting more than 4,000 workers and replacing strikers with soldiers. Even so, power cuts ensured that up to 70 percent of Barcelona’s industry closed for an unprecedented 44 days. Factories, public services, and trams shut down. In the epidemic’s third wave, Barcelona was a city in the dark.

La Canadiense, as the strike was called, after the company where it began, had transformed from what might have been an insignificant union rights conflict into a battle against not only national government but international capital. By the end of March, the Ebro Light and Power Company was forced to bow to the CNT’s demands: pay raises, reparations of lost wages, and amnesty for pickets. The Spanish government became among the first in Europe to legislate an eight-hour workday for industry—a palliative to prevent further conflict.

Activist and archivist Jose Pierats writes in CNT and the Revolution that La Canadiense was “one of the best organized strikes in the whole world,” not necessarily because of its material gains but because of the symbol of proletarian unity it provided. La Canadiense marked a culmination of simmering tensions (the postwar recession, increasing inequality) that came to a boil during the pandemic. The effect of what is referred to, famously, as “the forgotten pandemic,” left out of history books (and labor histories), can still be read in the solidarity that spread among Spanish workers in 1918–19.

Population growth was negative in Spain only twice during the 20th century: during the 1918 pandemic and at the height of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The war lived on in the popular imagination, memorialized in history and literature: Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Spanish flu did not.

Historian Ryan Davis, wondering about the absence of the pandemic in both American and Spanish literature in his book The Spanish Flu, supposes that in contrast to more tragic, “lingering” diseases of the early 20th century (cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis), the flu was both too quick a killer to be romantic and so common as to be mundane. It lacked metaphorical power—even more so because of its proximity to World War I, which, as medical education professor Catherine Belling writes in “Overwhelming the Medium,” lent itself to “more complex plotlines than the rapid descent into chaos that characterized the flu.”

Dire as it was—the World Health Organization has described the 1918 epidemic as “the single most devastating infectious disease outbreak ever recorded”—the flu came and went with little fanfare. In Spain, the epidemic was seen not as a crisis within itself but as one crisis among many. Catalan author Josep Pla was forced to move from his home in Barcelona to the countryside to evade the virus. He wrote in his journal (since published as The Grey Notebook) in October 1918:

The flu continues relentlessly killing people. In these past days, I have had to go to several funerals. This, without a doubt, makes one feel less emotion in the face of death. Real and authentic sentiments transform into a kind of administrative routine.

The fatigue Pla alludes to was wide-ranging. For the Spanish public, Davis writes, the epidemic was merely “symptomatic of deeper structural problems then plaguing Spain (and, indeed, Europe).”

At the turn of the 20th century, worker discontent was brewing in Spanish cities, as in many cities in Europe and around the world, propelled by the bad working conditions that accompanied rapid urbanization and inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Barcelona had become “the factory of Spain,” receiving a flood of migrant workers from the impoverished agrarian regions in the south. As such, it was the scene of Spain’s developing class consciousness, with burgeoning anarchist and socialist movements. The city’s population had increased 300 percent between 1850 and 1900, and would double again by 1930. Housing didn’t keep up with rising demand, leading to the construction of so many barracas—shanty houses made from cardboard, scrap metal, and household rubbish—that critics called Barcelona a “barracopolis.”

World War I, according to Taibo, “exploded” money into Barcelona. Employers grew rich selling supplies to the rest of war-torn Europe while worker’s wages remained stagnant. When Barcelona fell into a recession after wartime purchasing slowed, strain on workers increased. Laborers worked 10, 12, 14 hours a day in hazardous conditions, subject to brutal discipline by employers and foremen. As Spanish labor historian Chris Ealham writes in Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona, the worker’s experience of indifferent industry within a repressive state was “undiluted by social welfare initiatives.” Workers implicitly understood that government institutions could not be reformed through political maneuvering, and saw them instead as “an enemy that had to be crushed.”

It was the beginning of los años del pistolerismo, the years of gun law, marked by bloody Wild West–style class conflict on the streets of Barcelona. Employers hired pistoleros, gunmen, to suppress strikes and assassinate labor union leaders. Unions relied on grupos de afiliación for protection, young men who guarded prominent union members and perpetrated attacks on business owners. These groups had menacing names: Los Desheredados (The Disinherited), Los Indomables (The Uncontrollables) and Els Fills de Puta (The Bastards). And in the midst of this came the flu.

Unlike today’s pandemic, the 1918 flu showed an unusual preference for men between the ages of 25 and 29; they suffered the highest mortality rate of any demographic. The CNT therefore represented one of the most at-risk populations, even if the union didn’t have much to say about it; the CNT’s newspaper, Solidaridad Obrera, mentioned the flu only in passing. In one case, an account of a labor dispute in the coffin-making industry concluded that it was absurd for employers to refuse salary increases while they were doing such terrific business.

The year of the pandemic, however, would lead to historic changes for the CNT. While the sindicato had first appeared in Barcelona in 1910, it was in 1918 that the CNT became what Ealham describes as “the lodestar of the dispossessed.” From 1918 to 1919, national membership doubled from 345,000 to 715,000. Industrial Barcelona, the seat of the CNT’s power, had become one of the most unionized cities in Europe.

This growth came in part out of a congress in the Barcelona barrio of Sants in July 1918, just after the initial wave of the virus abated. Here, the CNT united the different unions of the city into a single Sindicato Único, doing away with traditional divisions and eschewing strike funds with the intent to organize solely on the basis of mutual reciprocity. The ambient chaos of the flu ostensibly did not deter attendees, but only highlighted the strength of their conviction. Taibo quotes organizer Joan Ferrer:

The dates of the congress coincided with a flu epidemic which fell over Barcelona, and in which people died like clouds of flies. I remember that we were obsessed with the creation of a Sindicato Único, that we would leave the organization room and stumble upon trucks loading corpses on the street […] Then we would return briefly to reality and exclaim: Christ! What a cruel epidemic there is. But after, the obsession with the Sindicato Único would continue and we would pass above all that misery, which if it touched you, would surely kill you.

The unity that came out of the Sants meeting primed the CNT to thrive during the pandemic. The sindicato kept an eye toward creating a proletarian public space, mobilizing workers in and out of factories through rent strikes, unemployment marches, and literacy programs. Integrated within communities as a social structure, the CNT’s deep roots allowed it to organize where establishment political structures could not penetrate. The vocabulary of anarcho-syndicalism, by situating workers’ grievances in the language of class, created the opportunity for the barrios to mobilize along these lines during the pandemic.

As the devastating second wave pummeled Spain in October, Madrid-based Republican newspaper El Liberal called for an intervention it gave the remarkable title of dictadura sanitaria—a sanitary dictatorship. By way of contribution, the newspaper would agree to stop withholding information about the “havoc” wreaked by the flu throughout Spain. The government was vocally enthusiastic about the prospect, announcing the next day in the Madrid newspaper ABC that a sanitary dictatorship had, in fact, been in place even before the flu began. Its description of a “powerful health organization to save us from any contingency” was comically at odds with the widely held sense that the pandemic had revealed the profound scope of the health system’s inadequacy and decay.

If this call for a sanitary dictatorship sought to reify a top-down model of power, the CNT’s communities, lacking the necessary trust in the government to request such an intervention, imagined something a little more bottom-up.

La Canadiense marked the peak for this era of the CNT. Unsettled by the success of the strike and the declining profit margins of the postwar period, Catalan businesses sought to reassert control. The violence of pistolerismo increased dramatically in the following years; key CNT activists were murdered in the streets. Between 1919 and 1923, 189 workers were killed in Barcelona, along with 21 employers. Under attack, ideological divides within the CNT deepened, with more militant members deviating from more moderate leadership, anarchists pitted against “pure” syndicalists.

By the time of Primo de Rivera’s 1923 military coup, the CNT had become so weakened that its response was only perfunctory. Angel Pestaña, prominent CNT leader and commentator, wrote that he was afraid the CNT would be held responsible for the success of Primo de Rivera’s coup. Pestaña had a flair for dramatic declarations, but a factitious CNT, according to Ealham, faltered in part because it “lacked a coherent project for social and political transformation.” Gone was the vision that had marked 1918–19, the solidarity that facilitated La Canadiense even in the face of an epidemic—and may have been able to hold off the coup.

Across the Atlantic, the United States was also battling the flu. As in Spain, the United States saw the peak of the virus in the fall, a lull, and then a final wave, which swept the country in February of 1919. Historian Joshua Freeman points out in Jacobin that the pandemic coincided with strike waves all over the United States. The “radical thrust of labor action reflected a worldwide sense that the war had disastrously demonstrated the moral and political bankruptcy of ruling elites and opened the possibilities for new ways of organizing society.”

Both the virus and the unrest, Freeman points out, were spread by the war: The flu was carried around the world by soldiers in tight quarters, while labor discontent surged when employers revoked the advances workers made during wartime production. Both “were manifestations of the breakdown of the imperial order,” linked in that they were driven by the same greedy “rivalries” that propelled the war. For the forces of reaction, the pandemic and strike wave were connected only in pestilence, as epitomized by journalist Benjamin Hoare’s provocatively titled 1919 pamphlet “The Two Plagues: Influenza and Bolshevism.”

In Seattle, what began as a strike by shipyard workers expanded into a general strike that shut down the city for a week, from February 6 to 11—coinciding with the start of La Canadiense. In Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919, labor historian Cal Winslow emphasizes that the unions did not just shut down the city but in effect took it over, setting up food stations, exempting garage trucks and laundry wagons, and organizing the delivery of milk to nursing babies. While the general strike ended before the demands of Seattle’s shipyard workers were met, Winslow quotes Seattle journalist Anna Louise Strong, who wrote that the unions won simply in “com[ing] out almost as one man” to “tie up the industries of the city.”

As Americans look for a way forward in today’s crisis, and cries for coordination from federal or state governments prove futile, perhaps they too will begin to seek out alternative forms of organization. Freeman points out that “ordinary people” can be seen “stepping into the breach” to provide relief where political infrastructure does not. What would it mean to understand this not as individual goodwill but class solidarity?

In forging the historic alliance of the Sindicato Único at the Sants conference, Pestaña wrote, the CNT turned “clothing workers, laborers, [and] carpenters” into a “phalanx of producers conscious of their rights and ready to defend them at any moment.” This force, thrusting Barcelona into darkness during La Canadiense, had incredible power. In the midst of the pandemic, the CNT’s ground-up model of community empowerment and mobilization offered an alternative to the “sanitary dictatorship” peddled by the floundering monarchy.

Today’s labor movements, in both Spain and America, lack the numbers and the force that they had after World War I. But the response to COVID-19 may produce the solidarity essential to labor mobilization. “Even before the pandemic, workers were living on the edge financially,” Los Angeles County Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera told the Los Angeles Times in May. “This crisis has been the glue for workers to come together, blue-collar and white-collar, not just union members. It sounds corny, but we’re moving towards a worker rebellion.”

If action at this scale seems like a distant memory, so did a global pandemic, last seen more than a century ago. The pandemic has thrown into relief the impassable structures which surround us. Forty-four days of dark in Barcelona helped to show for a moment that they are not as unassailable as they seemed.

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