Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Spanish general strike: Notes from the margins

Oscar Reyes reports from Barcelona on the general strike against austerity and attacks on workers' rights that gripped Spain today

March 29, 2012
5 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


  share     tweet  

Fire. Violence. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. That’s the image of Barcelona that’s beaming out across much of the Spanish and global media about M-29, the 29 March general strike. My experience, and those of many protesting here, was a whole lot less dramatic – but possibly more symptomatic of the widespread collective action against austerity that is spreading here. I didn’t go looking for the moments of greatest drama, but here are a few impressions on how the day unfolded.

* Over 1,000 people joined the march from our neighbourhood (Sant Andreu) into town. It wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’. It was the regulars of our local high street – where most shops were closed – transplanted onto Meridiana, a major six-lane road into the centre of Barcelona. The good-humored march was one of numerous feeder marches that helped to bring the city to a standstill. The unions report an 800,000-strong demonstration. El Pais puts it at over 275,000.

* It isn’t hard to find evidence of clashes in the centre of town. Barricades had been lit on many of the road junctions around Diagonal, a well-off shopping district. These are being cleared away by street sweepers. But it’s the details that are telling here: the bin lorries are each placarded with ‘serveis minims’ [minimum service]. Most of the banks have had their windows smashed. They are cordoned off, but there is no attempt at a clean up here.

* There are many similarities with the 15M (‘indignados’) movement, but the most notable difference is the union banners. The 15M was organised on an explicitly ‘no parties, no unions’ platform, in direct response to the perceived betrayal by the unions in reaching a ‘social pact’ with the government on pension reform following a general strike in September 2010. One of the main unions (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) has close ties with the PSOE, the former government. With the Partido Popular (PP) now in power, the ideological lines are far sharper.

* Identifying as workers appears a stronger focus of this mobilisation too. In one five minute stretch through town, we pass two sets of civil servants against the cuts; fluorescent yellow-clad metro workers against cuts; trendily-dressed Macba (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the contemporary art museum) workers against cuts; and skateboarders against cuts. At least, I presume they were against the cuts too. They may have just been enjoying the opportunities afforded by the car-free streets.

* A lot of teargas was fired, and a lot of bins were burnt. But around these flashpoints, a whole day of striking has moments of calm, conversation and boredom. These are also opportunities to exchange stories. An art activist workshop (‘How to end evil’) has been taking place all week to spread creative resistance ideas. Amongst other stories, I hear about one workshop led by a collective who have identified a memory disorder called Memetro: its most prominent side effect is that the individual is incapable of remembering that it is the social norm to pay for public transport. This disorder may possibly caused by the development of a personal defense mechanism. This often occurs after a traumatic event, such as the unfair rise in fares, bad operations, or any other inconvenience to the continual problem of moving around.

I also hear about laoiflautas, a pensioners’ group who occupied the offices of the Fomento Del Trabajo Nacional (the employers’ association).

* Energy consumption is one of the main measures being used by the media to gauge the effectiveness of the strike. It is reportedly down by a quarter on the day, suggesting a significant drop in economic activity. I also hear of cases where PP councils have ordered for the streetlights to be turned on in the day to boost consumption. The Spanish right-wing are rarely subtle.

* The general strike was called to protest the new labour law, which makes it easier for companies to lay people off, cut their wages and change their employment conditions, and reduces the capacity of unions for collective bargaining. But this is not simply a labour dispute – it is a societal one. It is about austerity, democracy, and the financial system.

* These conversations carry on to the soundtrack of police firing teargas and, I hear later, rubber bullets – plus the occasional firework and firecracker burst from our side. There’s a barricade on fire next to El Corte Ingles, the largest department store on Placa Catalunya. I’m close enough to feel the ripples of baton charges, with people occasionally running for safety, but don’t move towards it or away from it as I’m not feeling tempted to report first hand on the clashes. A lot of it’s theatrics, mixed with the usual police brutality. But the bigger story is the escalating challenge to the imposition of austerity. With deeper cuts scheduled to be announced tomorrow, the resistance will only grow.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum