Interview with Ana Garcia, General Secretary of the Sindicato de Estudiantes (Spanish Students’ Union)
Last week we published an initial report of the historic Spanish general student strike on 26 October, called and organised by the Sindicato de Estudiantes (SE). Here we publish an interview with Ana Garcia, the General Secretary of the SE, which gives more insight into this struggle. The strike, organised against austerity in education and the new “revalidation” exams, which the government is imposing on students (more information here), will be followed up by another on 24 November. Ana is also a member of Izquierda Revolucionaria, a Marxist organisation in the Spanish state with which the CWI (and its Spanish organisation, Socialismo Revolucionario) is in the process of establishing connections of political collaboration and solidarity with.
Congratulations on your historic success on 26 October! Can you give us an impression of the dimensions of the movement?
We think that the strength of the strike matched the seriousness and brutality of the government’s attack on public education. Among secondary students, participation in the strike was at 90%. Among students in the later years of secondary education, which are those with the most to lose in the short term by the government’s attacks, the participation in the strike was even higher!
The morning demonstrations of students were phenomenal. Not only the enormous marches in the biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona (where 60,000 and 50,000 marched respectively), but the more than 70 marches which took place throughout the Spanish state, in cities and towns both big and small. The strength of the demos and of the participation in the strike was solid and consistent in every region and part of the state.
In Bilbao, the biggest city in the Basque country, over 10,000 marched, in the biggest youth demonstration of any type for many years. In Catalonia, while the Barcelona demo was historic, thousands also more marched in smaller Catalan cities. The enormous strength of the mobilisations in the Basque country, Catalonia and Galicia, despite the opposition of many of the nationalist student organisations, is especially significant.
Throughout the rest of the state, from Galicia to Andalucia, to Murcia and the Canary islands, these were the biggest demonstrations seen in years, in general since the massive “marches for dignity” in March 2014.
In Madrid, where teachers unions joined us on strike, over 60% of teachers failed to report for work, which shows the enormous potential for new generalised strike movements. A full education general strike is firmly on the agenda. We will struggle with all our might to bring one about on 24 November, and working energetically towards this aim.
In reality, our strike symbolised the opening up of a new phase of the class struggle in the Spanish state. A new and explosive scenario has emerged following a period where the hopes and expectations of many were concentrated on the electoral plane. The crises which have exploded in PSOE and to a lesser extent, Podemos, are also testament to this. Our strike coincided with the historic betrayal of the PSOE leadership, which has handed power to the right-wing PP party.
We are proud to have given the first mass response to this betrayal, and served as a warning to Rajoy’s new government of the future it faces, confronted with the workers and youth in struggle.
Can you tell us about the preparation of the strike? Why did teachers join the strike only in Madrid?
The latest government attacks on education were announced in a cowardly manner, during the summer holiday period, in order to try and take the movement by surprise and take advantage of the “passivity” of the holiday period.
We (the Students’ Union) immediately understood the magnitude of these attacks and the necessity of a militant response. We urgently put a proposal for discussion to the “Platform in defence of public Education” – which is a united platform of teachers unions, parents and students’ organisations which arose from the mass “Marea Verde” (Green tide) movement against education cuts in 2012 – proposing an general strike in the education sector.
The response of the leaders of the main teachers’ unions – CCOO, UGT and STEs – was to agree with us about the seriousness of these attacks and the danger they represented. However, they refused to call a strike. Unfortunately, this is in line with the dominant line in the trade union movement in general at the moment. While opposing austerity in words, the majority of the union leaders in practise defend a policy of social peace and demobilisation, which is one of the factors which most benefits the bourgeoisie in the current situation.
However, the all-Spain parents’ organisation, CEAPA, took a different approach. They agreed to support our call for a general education strike, and join in our call for the teachers’ unions to join the strike. Their support was undoubtedly an important factor in the success of the strike.
As has always been the case in the last years, the union leaders’ refusal to wage a serious struggle provoked widespread discontent from below. As was our desire, our strike became a reference point for those activists within the trade union movement – not only in education – fighting for a more militant industrial policy. In the end, under pressure from below, the Madrid teachers and education unions all called a strike. In Andalucia, one of the biggest teachers union followed suit. Many other unions came out declaring their support, though stopping short of strike action.
Of course, the most important preparation for the strike was carried out among students themselves. To start, we organised the mass distribution of hundreds of thousands of informative leaflets and posters, explaining what was at stake in the struggle, and presenting our proposal for a strike. On this basis, we organised assemblies and strike committees at hundreds of schools.
Tens of thousands of students attended hundreds of assemblies we organised in the weeks before the strike, and discussed and voted en masse to participate. We directly intervened in close to 600 schools in the run up to the strike. In the process, we signed up thousands of new activists for the SE.
The day after the strike, Rajoy announced some supposed changes to the “revalidas”. What do they mean in reality?
In reality, absolutely nothing.His declarations were a conscious attempt to confuse and demobilise the movement. What he actually said was that the “revalidas” would take place this year, but not have any “legal consequences”. However, this was already what was planned! The objective is to bring in the “revalidas”, and establish them as facts on the ground before giving them legal and academic consequences next year.
Our response is clear: we demand an immediate withdrawal of this attack or students will again empty the classrooms and fill the streets on 24 November.
Did the CWI international campaign of solidarity and support have an impact on the strike?
It had a huge impact, especially on the morale of those struggling to build the strike. We were blown away by the quantity of messages of support and solidarity, the videos, photos and letters that were constantly arriving from public representatives, trade unionists, and working class and youth fighters from around the world.
To receive active support and solidarity from over 25 countries has a huge impact, and also underlines the international character of our struggle. Cuts and privatisation in education have been an important strategic plank of capitalist policy around the world, and the youth and student movements we have seen are a reflection of this. To see young people in those countries, such as Chile, Britain, Greece, Italy, Quebec, where mass student movements have inspired us in the last years, mobilise in solidarity with OUR strike, was a fantastic experience.
The case of Hong Kong, where the Spanish Consul General attacked Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) members who organised a solidarity protest, had a particular impact. It featured on national TV, and in the main daily capitalist newspapers, El Pais and El Mundo.
On the day of the strike, a representative from Socialist Students in England & Wales, Claire Laker Mansfield, was present in Madrid and addressed the mass demonstration. The list of cities and countries around the world which were joining us in protest that day had an electrifying impact on the march.
We would like to thank the CWI and everyone who took part in this campaign.
Can you tell us some more about the SE and its history and role?
SE is a student and youth organisation, organising students at every level. We define ourselves as combative, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary. We see ourselves not merely as a student union (which of course we are), but as a union of working class students who are those who really have to fight for the right to access education. Therefore, we have always seen our struggle as linked to that of the working class against capitalism.
SE was founded in the 1980s by members of the organisation “Nuevo Claridad” (which later became “El Militante” and now is Izquierda Revolucionaria). It was born in the heat of a mass youth movement against the policies of the first “Socialist” government led by Felipe Gonzalez, in 1986. This was a government in which massive hopes existed among the working class and youth, but which despite this implemented an anti-worker policy.
This was a mass consistent movement of strikes and occupations in opposition to Gonzalez education policy. It won important gains, including the implementation of free second level education, the building of hundreds of new public schools around the country and the legal right to strike for students. Many of these conquests remain in place, and we are having to struggle to defend them today.
The SE has been retained as a vibrant banner of youth struggle and organisation since this date.
What does the future hold for the SE and the class struggle in Spain? How do you see the political situation unfolding?
We are already working all out for the success of our next strike on 24 November, building consciousness about it and building. We need to consolidate the important growth we have seen during the strike and work through out thousands of new activists to build an even bigger and more powerful strike.
There can never any guarantee of success, or of surpassing the level of our most recent strike. However, we believe that 26 October, as well as the mass demonstration that took place outside parliament against the formation of the new government, showed the mass desire to struggle against this new government which exists, especially among working class youth.
We will continue to fight for a mass general strike in the education sector on 24 November, and also for the contagion of mass militant protest and strike action to spread throughout the workers movement and Left during the next period. The crisis in PSOE, and the shift to the Left in the speeches of Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, are both elements which express and add to the deep radicalisation and polarisation in this new situation.
This new, illegitimate and corrupt government will have a difficult task in pushing through the austerity measures demanded by capitalism, and the EU. It will face a mobilised and leftward moving working class which will fiercely resist. The Left and workers’ movement must prepare itself urgently or a new period of struggle on the streets and in the workplaces. I am a member of Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left) because I believe that in order to successfully end austerity, the movement needs to be armed with a socialist and revolutionary perspective and programme.
The experience of the crisis thus far has exposed the bankruptcy of parliamentary cretinism and naïve appeals to “compromise” with the ruling class. In education, as in all other sectors, our rights can only be really satisfied by total break with capitalist policies. Only socialist policies, of public ownership and democratic control of wealth and resources can guarantee quality public education for the working class.
The militant mass movements of the next period put back onto the agenda the prospect of a revolutionary change, which is the only road that can offer a decent future to our generation.