Retreat on retirement age - class and social battles loom

As the capitalist leaders of many European countries continue with their rhetoric about the “exit from recession”, the prospects for Spain, along with other struggling European economies (those labelled the PIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) are drawn up in a less optimistic light. Spain is one of the only European countries expected to remain in recession throughout 2010, with the dramatic collapse of the country’s decade-long construction boom still wreaking havoc on the economy and society. The depth and severity of the crisis in Spain is most shockingly illustrated by spiralling unemployment. With the official rate at close to 20% (well over 4 million people) and around 44% of those between 16 and 25 years old without work, growing mass unemployment is currently the most visible expression of the country’s deepening social crisis.

The “Socialist” government of Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, after intervening to the tune of €160 billion to save the banks, has found itself come under huge strain, as it struggles to grapple with one of the Eurozone’s biggest public deficits (over 11% of GDP in 2009). Spanish and international capitalism’s main players and commentators all seem to be in perfect agreement as to how this deficit should be overcome – on the basis of slash and burn economic policies of cuts to the public sector and services and attacks on the living standards of the working class and young people. In the light of the developing eurozone crisis, with the prospect of credit and currency crises looming for a number of European economies (Greece being the most appropriate current example), the pressure on the Spanish government to take meaningful action in beginning its attacks in earnest has mounted over the last period, with EU, IMF and internal capitalist commentators intervening to push for the urgent adoption of vicious austerity measures. The beginning of this year saw the Zapatero government respond with the announcement of a cuts programme which represents the most savage attack waged on workers and youth in the Spanish state since the ‘transition to democracy’ in the 1970s.

€50 billion cutbacks and “work ‘til you drop”

The government is to slash over €50 billion from public spending in the next 2 years, which will hit state and regional budgets for the essential public services, such as healthcare and education, upon which millions depend. This was combined with plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 and dramatically increase the number of years work upon which pension entitlements are based.

The increase of the retirement age to 67 represented an outrageous attack on working people. This measure also shed light on the future laid out before the majority in Spain over the next period, if capitalism is successful in offloading the cost of the crisis onto our shoulders. After building their boom on the backs of working people, the government and bosses now ask them to work until they drop to pay for their crisis! In a situation reminiscent of an economic depression, with endemic mass youth unemployment, surely the lowering of the retirement age, in order to provide jobs for unemployed youths, would make more sense!

Workers’ rage forces government retreat on retirement age

This measure provoked mass anger in society, with mass demonstrations organised by trade unions drawing well over 200,000 people onto the streets over a period of 2 weeks, in protest. These protests, of a massive character, despite the poor mobilisation by trade union leaders, and their dispersed nature, reflected the mood of anger and growing militancy of big sections of the Spanish working class. On demonstrations of 50,000 and 60,000 in Barcelona and Madrid, the overwhelming demand for the trade union leaders to embark on a real programme of action against the slash and burn agenda of the bosses and government with a general strike was palpable. This demand, support for which has boiled up over almost a one year period, seemed close to boiling over on these demonstrations, as the demand for a general strike dominated chants, songs etc heard on the demonstrations. Even the capitalist press felt compelled to comment on the gulf between the militancy of the demonstrations’ participants and the vague, lukewarm posturing of the union leaders from the platforms. Spain’s main daily, El Pais, commenting on the Seville demonstration, in which CWI members intervened, remarked on the heckles and chants demanding a general strike which greeted the speeches of the union leaders.

Workers rage forces abandonment of government proposals to raise retirement age to 67

In the face of this powerful expression of anger and general mass opposition to this measure, the government beat a significant retreat, dropping their proposal to raise the retirement age. While the government has not fully withdrawn its attacks on pension rights, still proposing to attack entitlements, this important decision reflects the weak position of both the government and capitalism and their fear of the social consequences of their “solution” to the crisis. Spanish capitalism dreads more than anything the arrival of the organised working class onto the scene of struggle. The angry opposition to their proposal, and not least the seemingly insuppressable march towards a general strike reflected on the pension demonstrations has clearly shaken the government, which fears the contagion of a new period of class and social struggle, casting a wary eye at the predicament of their Greek counterparts. However, the agenda of Spanish capitalism remains the same. The next period will see attack after attack on workers and young people. In the class and social battles which will inevitably follow, the struggle of the Spanish working class to push their “leaders” in the unions to match the militancy of the struggle in Greece, which saw 3 general strikes in less than one month, will only intensify. CWI members in Spain demand the calling of a 24-hour general strike in response to the government’s austerity plans, as the beginning of a united movement of workers and youth to force back the government’s attacks.

Prepare for period of struggle

As the government plans the most significant wave of attacks on workers in living memory, the trade union leaders of the UGT and CC.OO are still locked into “social dialogue” talks with the bosses and government. In a situation in which regional authorities have recently agreed plans with the federal government to cut over €50 billion from public services, and with the CEOE (bosses’ union)’s increasing demands for a “reform” of labour law, making the sacking of workers cheaper and easier, eroding the gains fought for in the past, “social dialogue” offers nothing and only serves to disarm the working class movement at a time when it should be preparing to fight.

As the response to the raising of the retirement age shows, if a fighting lead was given by the trade unions, in organising a general strike to galvanise the opposition to the devastation of the crisis and attacks of the government, this would meet with a tremendous and enthusiastic response from the working class. This could put the question of a generalised struggle, uniting workers and youth in every part of the Spanish state, firmly onto the agenda. Committees of action should be formed in workplaces, schools, universities and communities in order to begin the organisation of an immediate 24 hour general strike and discuss and determine a programme of resistance and the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Capitalist parties’ “pact” against workers and youth – political alternative to the bosses’ parties necessary

In the last weeks, the government, lacking confidence in its ability to force through it’s attacks agenda in the context of the powerful resistance which will meet it in society, has vigorously campaigned for a “national pact”, bringing all political parties together, to establish agreement on it’s “anti-crisis” proposals. This represents a desperate attempt to forge a capitalist united front in opposition to the resistance of the working class. Key establishment figures, including the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, were wheeled out to urge the formation of such a “pact”.

Zapatero – fear in the face of coming social battles

The clear reality before workers and youth is that there already exists a “pact” among the main capitalist parties (PSOE (ruling party) and PP (traditional capitalist party with roots in the Franco dictatorship) included, as well as the Spanish state’s various capitalist “nationalist” parties like the PNV (Basque country) and the CiU (Catalonia) who recently signed up the federal government’s cuts programme) on how to deal with the crisis – at the cost of the majority rather than of the speculating capitalist elite who crashed the Spanish economy. This reality raises, and will raise in the future, the burning necessity of a political voice capable of representing the interests of workers and youth in opposition to the bosses and capitalism.

The recent declarations of the Isquierda Unida (IU – United Left) leadership in favour of a general strike and the need to challenge capitalist policies are welcome. However, in order to develop as a mass force capable of uniting the opposition that exists to the crisis and capitalism throughout the Spanish state, the left needs to clearly distinguish itself from the bosses parties and develop a programme capable of arousing the enthusiasm of workers and youth, drawing fresh new layers into political action. The participation of IU in local and regional governmental pacts with capitalist parties (including both PSOE and the PP!) has damaged its capacity to play this crucial role. In order to develop, it must put itself forward as a fighting alternative to the capitalist parties, and clearly articulate a socialist programme as an alternative to attacks and the capitalist system. This would include demands for the nationalisation of the financial sector and other commanding heights of the economy under democratic working class control and management in order to provide socially useful jobs for the unemployed millions, invest in badly-needed public services and guarantee a decent future to the young generation. A programme for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society, with the full right to national self-determination for the Spanish state’s national peoples, could win massive support in the next period, if linked to a fighting strategy against the bosses’ and government’s attacks. Such a strategy would represent an exciting new departure in Spanish politics, and offer an opportunity to bring together the fragmented left-wing movement on the basis of principled united action.

“The knockout generation” – potential explosions

The young generation have been the hardest hit by the crisis in Spain, with 44% unemployed. Spain’s “ninis” (“nini” – “neither nor” – neither in employment nor training), numbering hundreds of thousands stand as a generation cast aside, victim to the chaotic, unsustainable reckless nature of the Spanish capitalism’s “boom period”. The expectations engendered by capitalism of a “golden future” under capitalism, of constantly developing living standards, and the prospect of stable, long-term employment for all, have been shattered in the most dramatic fashion. “Since 2007, 90% of job losses have been among young people”, wrote Guillermo Abril in El Pais on 22 March, in an article titled “the knockout generation”. The “knockout generation” has a dismal future laid out before it on the basis of capitalism. With no prospective end to mass unemployment, the problems of youth are compounded by attacks on public education under “plan Bolonia”, which further restrict the access of working class youth to higher education in order to develop the skills necessary for stable employment.

Mass youth and student movement shook country in 2008/2009

2008/2009 saw a magnificent protest movement against these attacks, with mass school and university student strikes and occupations, developing parallel to a European-wide education revolt. This movement offers a glimpse into the explosive possibilities that exist for the next period, as the “knockout generation” moves into struggle. However, given the inadequate response of Spain’s trade union leaders to the situation, along with Spain’s low level of trade union membership among youths, the organised labour movement is not seen as a reference point for many young people searching for a radical response to the systemic crisis of Spanish capitalism. In this context, the danger exists for explosive movements of young people to develop in isolation. The betrayals of PSOE and the failure of the left to thus far provoke the enthusiasm of the young generation in the search for an alternative, also raises the danger of a growth in support for anarchist or terrorist conceptions of struggle and change. This adds further urgency to the task of the left and working class movement in putting forward and winning support for a programme of generalised militant struggle of workers and youth for a decent future and socialist change.

Fundamental problems –socialist alternative

The crisis in Spain is not the product of a few bad apples in the financial sector alone. The basis for the implosion of the Spanish economy lies in of fundamental contradictions of capitalist society, and Spanish capitalism in particular. It’s weakness, poor competitiveness in relation to other advanced European countries, and the reckless, speculative character of its “boom” have left the working class and youth in one of the worst situations in Europe. No honest economic commentator or analyst can foresee the generation of a new “motor force” for growth, which could kick-start job creation and re-habilitate the economy in the foreseeable future. This reality will lead millions to the realisation that capitalism as a system is incapable of providing a decent, stable life for the majority.

The desperate, fearful manner in which Zapatero and his government have approached the crisis so far is a harbinger of the tumultuous period of struggle that lies ahead. The explosive cocktail that exists in Spain, with a deepening social crisis, developing anger and militancy and a still-unresolved national question which remains a hole in the head for the Zapatero government, etc etc, has justifiably shaken the government’s confidence. The task for the working class movement and the left is now to build on the opportunities that exist for those arguing for the transformation of society. A fighting, anti-capitalist left, based in the developing struggles of workers and youth would have the potential to become a mass force capable of fighting for a workers’ government to transform society in crisis-ridden Spain in the next period. The CWI, which is currently building its forces in the Spanish state is fighting to develop a significant force, based on revolutionary socialist ideas, which can organise to build support for this perspective.

• No to cuts in public services! Make the rich pay!

• No to labour law reform!

• For a real programme of public works! State investment to create permanent, socially useful jobs with trade union pay and conditions and provide decent public services

• No to poverty conditions for the unemployed! For the universal right to unemployment benefits, linked to the real cost of living

• Fight against job losses! For the nationalisation of industries threatening layoffs and sackings under workers’ control and management.

• For a united one-day general strike throughout the Spanish state to begin a united struggle

• Support the right to self determination for the Basque country and other national minorities, up to and including the right of a separate state. For a united struggle against the government and Spanish capitalism.

• Develop a united movement around a militant programme of struggle and a political alternative to the dictatorship of the market and the capitalist system.

• Nationalise the financial sector and commanding heights of the economy under democratic working class control.

• For a socialist society where the economy is planned to meet the needs of all, not for the profits of the rich.

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