FIVE years ago today – two days after the Catalan independence referendum, on October 1, 2017 – a general strike of all Catalan workers was organised in defence of the referendum and in outrage at the violence of the Spanish police.

In the book Catalonia Reborn, Chris Bambery and George Kerevan describe the Catalan general strike as “the first large-scale workers’ strike against state repression in Western Europe since 1968”.

While 700,000 people marched on October 3 in Barcelona, workers took action in every village, town and city across Catalonia. I travelled to Vilanova í La Geltru, a historic fishing port about 45 minutes from Barcelona, to find out about the memory of the strike there.

Pau Albà, a factory worker and musician in Vilanova, tells me that the general strike in the small city he has lived in all of his life was “the biggest demonstration I have ever seen, by far.”

“There was a very strong sense of unity within the people, which was a strange feeling for me,” he told The National. “The shops were all closed and everyone was on the streets. It was a public-sector institutional strike as well, so all public-sector workers were out too. I had the feeling nobody was working.

“A lot of people who don’t support independence also came to the streets on October 3. They said: ‘I don’t want independence, but I don’t want the police to beat Catalans’.

There was an indignation of the whole society.”

The Catalan independence movement is sometimes accused by its opponents of being a movement of the rich, due to the fact Catalonia is a relatively wealthy region within Spain and that the movement has a sizeable amount of business support.

READ MORE: Catalonia gears up to mark five years since independence referendum that rocked Spain

“But the October 3 strike showed that workers were at the heart of this movement.

“The referendum was possible because of the working class. If workers did not occupy schools and defend the polling stations, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Núria Araüna, who lives in Vilanova and is a lecturer at the University of Tarragona in media studies, says that the response of big business to the October 1 referendum compared to that of workers could not have been in bigger contrast.

“Many big companies moved their headquarters out of Catalonia after the referendum,” she said.

“It’s true that the Catalan independence movement is a trans-class movement, but the big companies were almost completely against the referendum and of course the strike in defence of it was the response of workers.”

For Araüna, the general strike could have been the turning point in the conflict.

“The referendum day was of course important, but for me the October 3 was a real day of victory for the independence movement because there was a real perception of the power that the people have.

“It was ‘okay, we know we might get kicked by the Spanish state, but we can kick as well.’

People were saying ‘what do we do next?’, ‘do we occupy the airports?’.

“We wanted the politicians to declare independence then, but the Catalan Government delayed and that slowed down the huge momentum coming out of the general strike.”

Five years on, with today’s Catalan pro-independence coalition government fracturing over what way forward for the movement, it may be that the workers have to become the vanguard again, like on the day of October 3, 2017.

“Now they are divided because they don’t have a common strategy, but the people have not stopped being independentist,” Albà says.

“The 2017 referendum happened because the people pushed, and the politicians followed. Most probably it will be the people who are the actor that will have to push them again.”