By Mark Hoskisson of Unite NW/387 Branch, an IBMT affiliate and a sponsor of the trip to Jarama
On 10/11 February 2017, over 120 trade unionists and supporters of the IBMT from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany travelled to Madrid. Their aim was to link up with trade unionists from the largest Federation in Spain, the CCOO, for a joint commemoration of the International Brigades heroic role in defending Madrid from fascism.
The weekend was a spectacular success. It was a demonstration of international working class unity and solidarity. It translated the spirit of democratic and anti-fascist resistance that held so firm at Jarama into a commitment by all those involved to renew the struggles of the international working class against the many challenges that face us today.
A packed programme of events kicked off with a joint rally with the CCOO at the Atocha Memorial. This event marked 40 years since a group of neo-fascists burst into the headquarters of the CCOO and gunned down nine trade union lawyers in the building on Atocha Street.
Five died, four were seriously wounded in this terrible tragedy in January 1977. But instead of diminishing the push towards democracy, as Kevan Nelson, the North West Regional Secretary of Unison, explained, it strengthened the movement as thousands flooded onto the streets in protest. Democracy triumphed and the CCOO grew in strength and influence across Spain.
Geoff Shears, a retired trade union lawyer, and CCOO leaders spoke movingly of how the tragedy served as a reminder of how vigilant our movement still needs to be as we continue the journey towards a just world.
From Atocha the delegations from ASLEF, the GMB, the NUJ, NUT, PCS, UCU, Unite, Unison and the South East and North West regions of the TUC made their way to University City. There a local historian together with IBMT Treasurer Manuel Moreno led a tour of the Republican front lines, ending with a rally at the International Brigade memorial.
Vicky Knight of the College lecturers’ union UCU spoke of the importance of education and the poignancy of a university standing on the front line in the fight against Franco. Ulrike Rom from Germany, whose father fought in that front line with the Thälmann Battalion, spoke of why the memory of the International Brigade has to be kept alive today.
After a short break the day concluded with a packed meeting at the CCOO headquarters where British and Spanish trade unionists spoke about the significance of the Spanish Civil War and the events at Atocha Street in 1977 not only as key historical moments but as lessons for us all in the battles against austerity, racism and the rise of the far right today.
This inspirational rally saw Lynn Collins of the North West TUC and Tosh McDonald, President of ASLEF, addressing the meeting and then presenting our Spanish brothers and sisters with an IBMT memorial plate (Lynn) and a book of photos and news cuttings on the Spanish Civil War compiled by Rodney Bickerstaffe’s mum during the events themselves (Tosh).
Manuel Moreno read out letters of greetings from trade union and Labour leaders and from Jim Jump, Secretary of the IBMT. Then after a rousing sing song led by a Spanish musician the first day of our trip concluded.
On Saturday 11 February three coaches set off an internationalist convoy to the Jarama battlefield itself. At the Kit Conway memorial near the Sunken Road, Danny Payne of the IBMT gave a detailed account of the battle and the working class heroes who fought there. The mayor of the nearby town of Morata de Tajuña expressed his heartfelt thanks to our delegation for commemorating events that had saved his town from the Francoist hordes, at least until the end of the war.
At the nearby Clenched Fist memorial to the International Brigades the mayor, together with his local councillor for culture, explained their plans to excavate the trenches where the Republican line held fast until the end of the war and to build a museum as a fitting tribute to the Brigaders who fought and died alongside the Spanish Republicans defending his people.
Tosh McDonald read out a message of solidarity to our trip from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn received that very morning before going on to recount the amazing story of the life and death of Clem Beckett, the daredevil motorcyclist (if you haven’t seen the play about Clem go now!) who fought at Jarama. After that North West Regional ASLEF organiser Colin Smith read Frank Ryan’s account of the International Brigade’s great rally at the hill on which the monument now proudly stands.
The bravery of the Brigaders who took part in that fight and put the fascists to flight was marked by a reading of the names of all those from the British and Irish Battalion who fell at Jarama, a minute’s silence and a rousing rendition of ‘The Internationale’.
Following this moving tribute the delegation headed for El Cid – a nearby restaurant that is also the home of a fascinating museum on the Spanish Civil War. After a hearty meal, songs were sung, poems recited and the words of those who fought were read out. If there was a dry eye in the house it certainly wasn’t mine!
Megan Dobney of the South East TUC spoke of the bravery of those women who fought and died in Spain and explained why the memory of socialist women is an inspiration to women workers everywhere. Megan is currently leading a campaign to get a statue erected in Clerkenwell Green, London, to celebrate the life and struggles of Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the greatest of all British socialists and anti-fascists.
Eddie Roberts of Unite gave a powerful message, which - like the one from Lynn Collins at the CCOO event – was delivered by the speaker in both English and Spanish. And in English and Spanish the message was loud and clear: long live international solidarity!
The official close of the weekend came as we stopped off at the Charlie Donnelly memorial on the way back to Madrid. Tribute was paid to those Irish fighters who made their way to Spain and who, like Charlie, gave up their lives in the cause of freedom.
Charles Jepson of the IBMT explained how the role of the Irish volunteers was summed up by the sacrifice of those like Donnelly who saw fascism – in whatever nation it reared its ugly head – as a common enemy of all workers, yesterday, today and tomorrow. There are no borders in the fight against fascism.
At each of the five memorials we visited a wreath comprising flowers in the Republican colours of red, yellow and purple, was laid accompanied by a special message from our delegation.
Many thanks are due to the unions that sponsored this event, but also, and especially, to the members of the English Teachers’ Collective in Madrid – Ian Hassell and Paul Hevicon – who provided us with indispensable help with logistics, translations and many other things beside.
With the battle cry of ‘¡No pasarán!’ ringing in their ears the delegates made their way back to their home countries with their spirits uplifted, with their understanding enhanced and with their determination renewed.
Photos by Bernie Malone.
Posted on 6 March 2017.