Spain: General strike in Basque country

Spanish capitalism in deep crisis

On Thursday 21 May, a general strike took place in the Basque country and nearby Spanish province of Navarra. Organised by Basque trade unions, who organise a significant majority of trade union members in the region, the day was a resounding success, despite the failure of the main Spanish unions, UGT and CCOO, to back the strike. Tens of thousands attended demonstrations in the regions main cities of Bilbao, Vittoria and San Sebastian. Chants and banners decried the vicious effects of the capitalists´ economic crisis on the living standards of working class and young people. Strikers begun the day with local “information pickets”, which marched through the regions’ barrios in an attempt to increase awareness of the strike and ensure the widest possible participation. These pickets led to a number of businesses closing and joining the strike spontaneously in response to the appeals of the strikers. This provides an illustration of the boiling anger among workers and youth in Spain.

With unemployment soaring towards 20% and over 35% of young people out of work, the depth of the current crisis of Spanish capitalism, and the attempt to make workers pay for it, are proving to be ingredients for the development of major class battles in the period ahead. The action of Basque and Navarran workers on 21 May, in the Spanish state’s most industrialised region, represents a powerful initial response to this situation, but also offers a glimpse into the certain future – of Spanish workers and youth moving into sustained struggle against the capitalists and their representatives.

Basque political crisis

In the Basque country, Spanish capitalism is currently embroiled in a political crisis. After decades of power in the “autonomous” Basque parliament, the right-wing PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) lost power to a “grand coalition” of the two main parties of Spanish capitalism, PSOE and the PP, headed by Paxti Lopez of PSOE. However, their election victory was only made possible through undemocratic repression and ‘illegalisation’ of a number of pro-independence parties. In the March elections, over 100,000 voters cast blank ballots in opposition to this repression. This political crisis formed an important backdrop to the events of the strike, as workers raged against the effects of the crisis, but also against the actions of the anti-democratic PP-PSOE government, united behind capitalism and its attempts to make workers pay for the crisis.

Socialists and self-determination

The electoral defeat of the PNV is a result of their record in power. The history of the PNV is a history of the betrayal of the aspirations of the mass of Basque people, and of the longstanding democratic demands for autonomy and national rights. This stems from the PNV’s failure to come to terms with the limitations imposed on the struggle for autonomy by Spanish capitalism. The economic importance of the Basque region to the Spanish ruling class is the most important basis for the denial of the right to self-determination, with the risk of loosing control over the Basque economy is too much to countenance for Spanish capitalism, which established itself on the basis of the denial of democratic rights to numerous cultural and national groups which reside within the state’s borders.

Socialists support the right of self-determination for Basque people, up and including the right to independence, should they demand it. An independent Socialist Basque Republic would guarantee full democratic and language and cultural rights for all minorities living there. This could be won on the basis of a united struggle of the working class of the whole of Spain for a democratic Socialist Federation of the Iberian people. However, it is necessary to pose the question of how it can be achieved. The failure of the PNV to secure any form of meaningful autonomy in its decades of parliamentary power shows the futility of attempts at coming to a solution within the limits of Spanish capitalism. On the other hand, the four decades of armed struggle waged by the separatist group ETA, who have been on ceasefire since 2006, have left the Basque people no closer to self-determination either, as their campaign of shootings and bombings proved incapable of defeating the Spanish state.

The capitalist politics of the PNV and the methods of ETA have proved a dead end for Basque workers and youth seeking national rights and a fairer society. For socialists, the struggle for self-determination is bound up with the class struggle. The only force capable of defeating Spanish capitalism is the working class, united around the need to fight against attacks on living standards, and against Spanish and world capitalism. Such a struggle could establish a democratic workers’ state, based on the democratic control of working people over society and the economy, with full national and cultural rights for all of the regions’ peoples. The mass fight-back developing at the present time against the effects of the crisis offers a unique opportunity to rebuild the working class movement throughout the Spanish state as a united force to be reckoned with.

Unite the fight-back – for a 24 hour general strike now!

One thing that was exposed by the strike on 21 May was the absolute bankruptcy of the leadership of the main Spanish trade union federations, the UGT and CCOO, who not only refused to back the strike, but actively came out in opposition to it. Their refusal to prepare for a general strike, to send a message to the government showing the power of workers to struggle and force back the attacks of the bosses, is being exposed as more and more ridiculous as the crisis deepens. For many, the fact that with over 4 million unemployed, the government is now negotiating with the bosses on the implementation of a labour law reform which would make sackings easier was the last straw. On this year’s Mayday celebrations the mass demand for a general strike was palpable (see previous article on by Nick Auvache). The strike in the Basque country and Navarra, which has helped to put the idea of a general srike firmly on the agenda, will undoubtedly prove a thorn in the side of these leaders. A 24-hour general strike would be a vital way to unite the opposition to the attacks and could serve as a step in the development of a united struggle of workers and youth against the crisis and government.

Socialist solutions needed

The response by the main political parties to the crisis leaves us in no doubt as to whom they represent. In particular, PSOE, once seen by many workers and trade unionists as ‘their party’, who in national government have bailed out bankers to the tune of billions, alongside billions in public spending cutbacks, have earned the disgust and contempt of Spanish workers. In the fight against the crisis, the question of political representation for workers and youth will inevitably arise. The European elections, which take place on 7 June in Spain, will highlight the reality that there is no major political force basing itself on the interests of the workers and youth and based on the struggles of the majority against the crisis. There is a crying need for a new mass political party that could galvanise the anti-government mood in society and present itself as a workers’ alternative to the bosses’ parties.

To effectively fight the effects of the crisis, it is necessary to fight against the capitalist system, which breeds crisis, unemployment and poverty. Around the world, many workers and youth are coming to the conclusion that this system is incapable of providing for the needs of the majority of people. In Spain, the living standards of workers and the futures of young people will not be protected by the capitalists and their parties and many now recognise the necessity of fighting back. If real lasting gains are to be won, this fight-back must be linked to the fight for an end to the dictatorship of big business and the market and for a new society where workers and young people control how wealth is used. The need to build support for the ideas of genuine socialism throughout the Spanish state is more urgent now than ever.

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June 2009