Marcelino Camacho: Trade union leader who fought Franco’s dictatorship

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The Independent Online

As a teenage communist, Marcelino Camacho fought in the streets and countryside against General Franco's nationalist forces in the Civil War and spent a total of 15 years as a political prisoner, nine of them for organising resistance to Franco's regime. Released after the dictator's death in 1975, Camacho founded and led the Comisiones Obreras (Workers' Commissions, known to all Spaniards as the CCOO), which would become one of Spain's two biggest trade union federations along with the Unió* General de Trabajadores (UGT), the General Workers' Union. He had already run or backed clandestine workers' commissions, or unions, ever since the 1950s, during Franco's rule, as well as during his 1967-76 jail term.

His jailing along with fellow communists and trade unionists in 1967, and a further conviction in what became famous in Spain as Proceso [Trial] Numero 1,001, brought outcry from leftists around the world and became a symbol of the struggle for freedom against dictatorships such as Franco's. Camacho and the other prisoners staged hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight. Although Spain's transition to democracy took two years following Franco's death, due to the deep and lasting divisions from the Civil War, the release of Camacho and other political prisoners in 1976 was seen as a major catalyst in the transition which eventually saw Felipe González's socialists dramatically take power in 1982.

It was a royal amnesty by King Carlos, previously a Franco supporter and, indeed, designated by Franco as his successor, that had allowed Camacho and his fellow prisoners to walk free. That gave the monarch a new credibility and respect among many hardline republicans, a major step in the post-Franco transition.

Camacho was secretary-general of the CCOO from 1976-87, and honorary president for the following eight years, until he was ousted in 1995 amid internal factional disputes, but he remained a revered figure among many members. He also served as a communist member of the Congress of Deputies, or lower house, for Madrid, elected in 1977 in the first democratic elections since Franco's death. He stood down in 1981 to focus on his union activities. It was as CCOO leader in 1985 that he led one of González's greatest challenges, Spain's first general strike since the restoration of democracy. That same year, Camacho helped found the Izquierda Unida [United Left] coalition, to the left of González's socialists.

Marcelino Camacho Abad was born in the tiny village of La Rasa in January 1918 to a father who was an activist in the General Workers' Union and a railway pointsman on the Valladolid-Ariza line. It was mostly in Ariza that Marcelino grew up and went to school. With civil war looming, he joined the Partido Comunista de España [PCE, the Spanish Communist Party] 12 days after his 17th birthday in 1935 and the following year found himself in and around Madrid fighting the forces Franco brought in from Spain's Moroccan colonies.

Camacho was part of the 29th Division of the Ejército Popular de la República [EPR, the Popular Republican Army]. The division was commanded by Colonel David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist who in 1940 took part in an assassination attempt against the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky during the latter's asylum in Mexico City.

After the republicans' defeat in 1939, Camacho was captured and sent to a forced labour camp in Spanish-occupied Tangiers, where he was part of a chain-gang forced to work on the Tangiers-Fez railway. He escaped in 1944 and found his way to Oran in French Algeria, where he met his future wife Josefina. He was granted asylum and stayed until Franco announced a partial amnesty in 1957. He returned to Spain as a metal worker with the Perkins Hispania engine company, where he set up his first clandestine workers' commissions to defend workers' rights by facing up to or infiltrating Franco's official Sindicatos Verticales [Vertical Trade Unions].

He and his wife settled in the Madrid suburb of Carabanchel, where he would later be housed in Franco's notorious jail, a stone's throw from the flat where his wife continued to live.

Speaking to the newspaper El País after Camacho's death, the current head of the CCOO, Ignacio Fernández Toxo, said he had been "on the front lines of the most decisive moments of the Spanish working class in the 20th Century."

Marcelino Camacho Abad, trade union leader and politician: born La Rasa, Spain 21 January 1918; married 1948 Josefina Samper (one son, one daughter); died Madrid 29 October 2010.