Jose Maria Cuevas: Employers' leader in Spain's transition to democracy

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The Independent Online

The leaders of Spain's two biggest trade union federations were among the first to pay homage to the apparently distant, hardnosed former chairman of the Spanish employers' federation, José María Cuevas.

Praise for the veteran boss of bosses from such an unexpected quarter is explained by Cuevas's skill in steering Spanish labour relations from a dictatorship where unions were banned to a system where strong, independent workers' organisations helped negotiate wages and conditions. Less conspicuously than the politicians of the 1970s and 1980s, Cuevas nonetheless played a vital part in Spain's peaceful transition to democracy.

He co-founded the Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE) in 1977, just two years after Francisco Franco's death and in the same year that the socialist-leaning General Workers' Union (UGT) and the Communist-led Workers' Commissions (CCOO) were legalised. The unions had, during decades of clandestinity, built up a formidable head of steam, so Cuevas and his business colleagues found themselves sitting around the table with hardened anti-capitalist veterans of Franco's jails.

In the turbulent years that followed, strikes and militant demonstrations were defused as both sides grappled to create Spain's first democratic structure of labour relations, pensions and social security. Cuevas became president of the CEOE in 1984 and remained in post until 2007.

He made his name as a flexible and tireless negotiator. During his emotional farewell speech before a general assembly packed with the barons of Spanish industry, he said: "If I had to choose to give just one word of advice, it would be this: always negotiate, and when negotiation becomes impossible, keep on negotiating."

From a family of tradesmen, Cuevas took a law degree at the University of Madrid and a diploma in business leadership from Navarra University's prestigious Institute for Higher Business Studies. His career was forged in business associations: he became director of the corporatist Paper and Graphic Arts Syndicate in 1965, and chairman of the National Association of Pulp, Paper and Cardboard Manufacturers in 1976. That post entitled him to a seat on the management board, and later the board of directors, of the newly formed CEOE – Spain's equivalent of the CBI – in June 1977.

He became chairman of the country's Labour Relations Commission in 1978, and a year later secretary general of the CEOE. During the early period of transition to democracy, and throughout the 23 years when Cuevas was re-elected unopposed seven times as chairman, he signed countless joint agreements with the UGT and the Workers Commissions.

Business colleagues esteemed him, of course, but trade unionists remember him with especial respect and affection as a champion of social dialogue. In a country still divided by class and political loyalties, Cuevas kept open contacts with those of diametrically opposed origins and convictions, in the pragmatic belief that all would benefit.

Elizabeth Nash

José María Cuevas, business leader: born Madrid 29 June 1935; married (two sons, two daughters); died Madrid 27 October 2008.