Millie reflects on the crisis in Spain and the recent general strike
The recent boom in the Spanish economy was based on a real estate bubble and most new jobs were in construction and bars and restaurants.
When the crisis started, Spain had one of the biggest public deficits in Europe. The creditors started suggesting that Spain couldn’t pay their debts and was near to bankruptcy, and the credit rating was changed so the cost of the loans went up drastically. The government launched an austerity programme which involved cuts in services, the end of a recent 400 euro a month dole for people who didn’t have access to the contributions based system, and a pay cut for all public sector workers, whether temporary or permanent. So this was an assault on conditions for workers in the public sector.
At the same time unemployment increased to 20% nationally, the construction industry made massive lay-offs, and workers who kept their jobs had pay cuts and extra hours forced on them, with the threat of redundancy as the alternative. Due to the real estate bubble Spain now has the highest proportion of empty houses in the whole of Europe. Exploiting a law that says workers who abandon their jobs are not entitled to any redundancy or dole, many employers kept their workforce for months without pay, claiming they had liquidity problems, as in the case of the miners in Leon, Aragon and Asturias, who have not been paid for two months. Other workers were told to accept pay cuts of up to twenty per cent. So that was an assault on workers in the private sector.
There has been highly militant class struggle, involving blocking motorways, high speed trains and occupying banks,some of the strongest from workers in industries which the employers want to close down or relocate, such as mining and the shipyards. The other area where there have been some very militant strikes recently has been transport, with strikes by air traffic controllers and tube drivers. There are also uncountable small disputes over unpaid wages and redundancies breaking out constantly. However, these struggles, and they are often very militant and brave, are all defensive struggles. What is happening is a massive attack on wages and conditions by the employers, which mostly they are winning.
In this context the government announced a labour reform to make labour more “flexible” which would make it cheaper to make workers redundant, hand over the unemployment benefit system to a private company and make it easier for employers to break collective agreements.
The general strike.
The general strike of the 29th of September was announced in the summer by Comisiones and the UGT, the two biggest union blocks, against this labour reform, but the date for the strike was set for months later, after the labour reform had been signed. So people felt the strike was rather fake, an attempt by the big unions to push for a bigger negotiating role, rather than a real challenge.The pro-PSOE left said that the strike would help the PP win the next elections. There was a lot of cynicism, with people saying that it was too little too late, and a strong media campaign against it, saying that it was useless and meaningless. In the buildup to the strike there was a torrent of stories in the media about well paid union fulltimers living off the fat of the land. Taking all this into account the success of the strike looked doubtful.
The strike was strongest in Asturias and Galicia, industrial regions where sectors like mining and shipbuilding have been shedding workers for years, and which have been hit very hard by the crisis. Pickets stopped buses from operating ‘servicios minimos’ (a minimal service) and blocked roads with barricades. Miners blocked a motorway the day after the general strike as well. The participation of public sector workers was much higher in these regions. In Barcelona the social movements formed mass mobile pickets that blocked streets with fires and were attacked by the police, leading to mass rioting.
Was the strike a success? It was very uneven. On the one hand, there is no way that this was a ‘normal working day’. The car industry, the mines, construction, were all closed, with more than seventy five per cent of workers on strike in all these sectors, some approaching a hundred per cent. Mass pickets blocked the wholesale markets, MercoBarna, MercoMadrid, MercoSevilla and so on, starting at midnight, and stopped fresh food supplies from being delivered. TeleMadrid and Canal Sur amongst other channels were off the air. In many places the access roads to the industrial poligonos were blocked by pickets, sometimes by burning tyres on the road, so the whole poligono was shut down, and pickets also blocked important access roads to the cities. Transport was running at ‘servicios minimos’ similar to a Sunday service. This was a big point of confrontation in some cities, where pickets tried to stop buses going out, for example the buses in Madrid,
where there were a dozen arrests. The ports were closed down completely in some places.
On the negative side only seven per cent of public sector workers struck, although the refuse workers struck everywhere. Most small shops opened, and all the supermarkets, although some were later closed by pickets. In small businesses, in general workers didn’t strike. (The Chinese shops, however, nearly all closed.) As small businesses are a more important part of the economy in Spain than in England this meant that a lot of the economy was running, although not necessarily normally. ‘Servicios minimos’ weren’t usually contested, which meant a lot of things were running like a Sunday, so a general strike without too much inconvenience.
Huge numbers of what were called ‘the pickets of the bosses’, i.e. the riot police, were out in force all over the country, much more than in previous general strikes, confiscating banners and leaflets, stopping people moving around freely, attacking pickets and demonstrators and arresting more than a hundred people. There were injuries caused by scabs: three pickets were hit by a lorry in Madrid, trying to stop distribution of newspapers, one in Barcelona at Mercabarna, the big wholesale market, and one in Ciudad Real.
The strike as a one day protest against a labour reform which had already been signed, was obviously very limited from the start. A public sector strike in the summer, which was weak and lowered morale, meant that public sector participation was very low. But in general the impression of strength and anger was very positive. Given the crisis, unemployment at 20%, and the constant attacks from the media that the strike is ‘meaningless’, the strike felt pretty strong, exceeding almost everyone’s expectations. A lot of the picketing was very militant and people had no intention of standing around in the early morning watching lorries cross the picket line. Instead they went out to shut things down, and often succeeded.
In October the police issued arrest warrents in Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Malaga and Cordoba on the same day charged people with public order offences for the general strike, in a clear attempt to intimidate and frighten people.
Most of the workforce, especially younger people, have temporary contracts of less than ninety days. We have not yet developed a way of struggling that works for these people. Evictions and mortgage defaults are going up. Over the next few months things will get worse as many unemployed people lose their unemployment benefit and as the public sector cuts come into force so we will see how people respond and how combative the working class feel now.