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

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.


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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


74