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Striking for dignity in Spain

Javier Navascués on the impact of Spain's general strike

October 5, 2010
9 min read


Javier Navascués is an activist with United Left in Spain, and the architect of a radical form of participatory budgeting in Seville.


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More than ten million Spanish workers out of a total of 15 million went on strike following a call by the largest unions (UGT and CCOO) on Wednesday 29 September. The strike was successful among blue-collar workers but in public service and the other services (banking, commerce etc ) the impact was smaller.

The formal reason for the strike is the Labour Regulation Reform Act, just passed by the government. In short the reforms make firing easier and cheaper and allow employers to ignore the agreements met through collective bargaining. The unions also reject the government’s austerity policies and the announced reforms in the public pension system.

But since these measures were adopted in June why did the unions wait for so long before calling the general strike?

Previously, in May, the government had decided a five per cent cut in public workers salaries and a freeze in public pensions, as a ‘signal’ to the markets’, which had been making runs on Spanish sovereign debt since the beginning of the year, after bringing Greece to the brink of bankruptcy. The answer of the unions was quite dismal. They called a strike in the public sector, which was very poorly prepared. They waited until the decree was passed instead of calling it in advance. They even managed to keep public transport workers out of the strike, apparently because the cuts were not immediately directed to them as their pay-roll is not in the public budget – even though it was obvious that the cuts in the subsidies to public transport would be sooner or later translated into lower salaries, as it happened a month later.

Thus they laid all the weight of the strike on office workers, nurses, doctors and teachers. It was a failure as everybody suspected. Firstly because the strike was called after the cuts were already in place so the strikers could only expect a double cut. Secondly, because the less combative sectors were left alone to carry on with the strike. And to make things worse, public workers had been under attack for weeks in the media, on the grounds that they were a privileged group enjoying lifelong contracts as opposed to precariousness and unemployment in the private sector. Nevertheless, thousands of people went on strike on 8 June and marched in the streets, chanting ‘what we need is a general strike!’.

And it came at last. Arguing the need to prepare it well and converge with the European wide mobilisation called by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – which turned out to be just a respectable but not that crucial march in Brussels – the strike was called for 29 September.

Lead up

By the end of August, the unions’ leadership began a frantic tour of Spain, attending assemblies and meetings heating up for ‘D-day’. The stakes were high. Mainstream media launched a campaign to discredit the strike. Polls were published forecasting a great failure. All sort of experts and well-intentioned but sensible ‘progressives’ advised against it: ‘you are right but we cannot afford it with the crisis’. Conservatives raised the tone by directly attacking the unions, who, it seemed to them, were ‘outdated’, ‘lived on subsidies’ and even ‘antipatriotic’. Employers discovered the ‘right to work’ one day. Pity they did not do so before with the five million unemployed whose right to work the other 364 remains undiscovered. Government showed themselves as sympathetic and patronising: ‘we respect the right to strike but they are mistaken’. ‘We know it is hard but all these measures we have adopted are for the sake of our children’s future’.

The campaign was so crude that it produced two very relevant and unexpected results. On one hand, the more moderate unionists grew radical to unprecedented extremes. On the other many leftist veterans, previously angry with the unions for their lack of muscle and quite disaffected, decided to strike. Hardliners and ‘softies’, who a couple of months ago did not even look at each other, sat at the same table in meetings campaigning for the strike.

Even though it was not the first intention of the union’s leadership, the strike became more and more political. A meeting with thousands of delegates in Madrid two weeks before the strike ‘reclaimed’ the resignation of Zapatero -causing immediate media headlines. The President was publicly annoyed. He travelled to New York and met the Wall Street Journal and a group of ‘investors’ to reassure them that he would not falter. The Minister of Labour announced he would resign in October to run the regional elections in Catalonia. The President of the Employers’ Confederation, a nice citizen who has fired 3,000 workers only this year, shut down an airline and a former public travel agency – and who is currently prosecuted for fraud – asked for police protection against the expected violence of the pickets.

Spain grinds to a halt

On the 29 September, at daybreak, Spanish cities looked as if it were Sunday. Public transport, limited to what is called ‘minimum services’, was almost empty. Later, many shops and banks opened their doors as well as hospitals and some schools. But there was neither fresh bread, fish or vegetables. Central Markets were closed. And most factories closed all activities except for maintenance tasks. Although it is very difficult to be precise in the scope of the strike, because there are many contradictory figures, facts are known. For example, electric power consumption, which can be checked on line, was well below an ordinary day. In fact it was below the figures in the previous 2002 general strike.

Major incidents were caused by the police intervention. At the gates of some factories, they harassed the pickets. In Getafe, an industrial town in Madrid region, they even fired some shots, but no one was injured. At the doors of Madrid City Hall, they charged against groups of militants, who were trying to block access. In Seville, at the university, a group of police officers on motorbikes got into the yards and clubbed some students on the run. Only in Barcelona there was some noticeable violence by the supporters of the strike, when the police evicted a group of anarchists who were occupying a bank’s building; which was abandoned, by the way.

Largest mass demonstation since Iraq war

A war of figures broke out in the media, particularly on radio stations. In the morning, ‘magazines’ conducted by star commentators – who, of course were not striking – and the probably over-optimistic figures given by the unions were denied by ‘real-life’ street reporters and speakers from the employers and the government. As the conductors endorsed this view, the stations were flooded with angry calls from workers and militants. A highly political debate with the audience surfaced. The government was quite cautious and spoke about an ‘uneven’ result. Only the employers insisted in pretending that the only people striking were those whose ‘right to work’ had been interfered with by the pickets. The Popular Party and other conservatives (Catalan and Basque Nationalists) expressed the somewhat contradictory idea that the strike was a failure of the unions and the government.

In the evening 1.5 million people marched through the streets all over Spain. 500,000 in Madrid, 400,000 in Barcelona, 50,000 in Seville and more …

Whatever the assessment one can make of the impact of the strike, the truth is that this has been the largest mass demonstration since the big marches against the Iraq war, which ultimately brought Zapatero in office. Thus the final act has shown that this strike has been a success thanks to dignity and class-consciousness, despite all the factors conspiring against it. People were aware; you could read it in their faces.

What now?

The unions are asking government to change the Labour reforms. President Zapatero says he cannot but he offers instead dialogue to implement a new reform, now in the public pensions system. The inention is to raise the age of retirement and to extend the calculation period for the accrued amount of the pension. Unions have already rejected this. Besides, the draft of next year’s budget has already been sent to parliament. It delves into the austerity plans required by the EU. The unions have also shown their disagreement. Will they stand firm? Hopefully, yes. The pressure from the grassroots has forced them to call this strike. It is not easy to falter now. But some more stamina is needed.

The strike has been useful to bring together radicals and moderates. Will this unity survive? Maybe. It is a matter of generosity for the large unions and intelligence on the side of the more radical but smaller ones. But some other problems have arisen. For example, the strike in the Basque Country was not as strong as desirable. Nationalist unions did not follow it. One of them – ELA- is too close to the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV)- to expect anything from them, considering that the PNV supported the reforms. But the other one, LAB, is supposed to be leftwing. The problem lies in the schizophrenic nationalism cum socialism blend that contaminates the scale of priorities of the radical Basque Nationalists.

One of the most difficult questions is the lack of reflection on the new situation in the political scene. Until now, there was panic at the possibility that if Zapatero loses the next elections, the Popular Party will take office. The Socialist Party knew it and played this card. Now it is clearer to the unions’ leadership that this trap should be avoided. There is little to expect from Zapatero unless there is strength enough to make him change or otherwise a new political situation is created.

Calls for the resignation of Zapatero could also be heard on the marches. He may seem to dismiss the possibility of any political effect but he is worried. And he is not the only one, the political right may pretend to believe that the left is defeated, but the CEO of Banco Pastor, a medium sized bank, who was obviously against the strike and who fully endorses the reforms said the day after the strike on Radio Nacional that ‘we should be aware that the strike indicates a very serious social unrest’.

The logic of events points to another strike in a few months, now on the pensions issue. In the meantime left militants, groups and parties should try to nurture this new situation and keep pressure on the unions’ leadership. But also extend awareness to other sectors of Spanish society, who have remained reluctant or even indifferent. If this is done, next time will be better. Subjective conditions have changed already. Now there is a possibility to change the objective ones.

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Javier Navascués is an activist with United Left in Spain, and the architect of a radical form of participatory budgeting in Seville.


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