Spain: Government uses military decree against air traffic controllers’ action

’Forced back to work at the point of a Guardia Civil’s gun.’

The Spanish government used a military degree for the first time since the times of the fascist dictator Franco to force the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) back to work after they staged an unofficial walk-out last week.

The ATCs called in sick and walked off the job. This was done to counter Spanish strike laws, which employers and the government use to approve strikes on the basis of the maintenance of "minimum services", a regulation that blunts union power and ties them up in red tape.

The strike paralysed Spanish airports and thousands of passengers were stranded on a bank holiday weekend. The widespread effect of the action shows the power of a small group of professionals in today’s hi-tech society.

The PSOE “socialist” government immediately declared a "state of alarm" and militarised the ATCs which meant they were compelled to work under threat of “sedition” charges and six years in prison if they disobeyed. The military degree was an extraordinary step – an emergency measure provided for in Spain’s constitution which was used for the first time in 32 years.

The walk-out was unofficial and did not have the support of the ATC’s union and so, under enormous public and government pressure, which was in effect state repression, they went back to work. An ATC filled up with emotion on the news as she said,”We have been forced back to work at the point of a Guardia Civil’s gun.’

Unfortunately there has been little public support for the ATCs and muted protest at the declaration, even from the trade unions. Why is this so? The government have carried out a long campaign against the ATCs declaring them “overpaid, pampered and privileged civil servants.” The public works minister, José Blanco had previously threatened to “militarise” air traffic control in Spain so it is clear that the government had been considering some sort of confrontation with the ATCs for some time.

Politicians like Blanco pompously talk about democracy and the rule of law yet the atmosphere which was whipped up by the government and media showed little respect for the ATCs and their democratic right to protest and strike. On the main TV news, there were endless interviews with understandably angry passengers and government ministers but hardly any mention of why the ATCs walked out. They had in fact walked off the job when the government arbitrarily issued a decree which worsened their conditions. The union and government had been negotiating for months. The ATCs union leader, when he eventually was allowed to speak in the media said that the unofficial walk-out was a reaction to the government’s clear plans to proceed with privatisation which they made clear with the first decree on the morning of the mass walkout. It should be noted that the union leadership,  who disown the ACTs’ action,  lag far behind the members when it comes to taking action and militancy.

Many workers feel little sympathy for the ATCs after a concerted campaign of denigration by the press which highlights their €350,000 salaries and cushy job for life civil servant posts. Failing to mention that they earn most of their salary with overtime because there are too few ATCs in Spain. It is also an extremely stressful and responsible job.

The government, through the millionaire-owned press, have accused the ATCs of ’terrorist blackmail’ yet they treat the bankers and financial speculators with kid gloves. The bankers have paralysed the economy for the last three years in their greedy quest for super profits. The ATCs have been forced back to work through repression and militarisation yet it is hard to imagine PSOE sending the Guardia Civil into the offices of the Bank Of Spain, Sandander and BBVA to convert the banks into a public service as they claim they are doing with air traffic control. The action against the ATCs is a smokescreen to hide the government’s wider privatisation plans which will further benefit the banks and speculators.

Similar campaigns have been carried out in the press against other government workers. In the context of 4 million unemployed and low one thousand a month salaries in Spain, many have sided with the government against the ATCs. There are even conspiracy theories, probably emanating from PSOE, that the ATCs secretly carried out their action on the orders of the right wing PP opposition.

Some workers have also accepted the argument that the ATCs strike was in some way ’illegal,’ because they walked out unofficially without warning. Labour relations have been so tied up in red tape since Spain’s “transition to democracy” and union leaders unfortunately so bureaucratised and bought off that the Spanish workers’ traditional natural spontaneity and militancy has been blunted to an extent in the last period. This will change in the cold reality of the crisis.

Socialists must see through the fog and hysteria and look at what has really happened and why? It is clear that ZP and PSOE are preparing to announce even deeper cuts than they have already announced and implemented. They are desperate to avoid the Greek and Irish roads and the indignity of a bailout and so confrontations with the workers are inevitable, as massive public sector cuts are the only ’solution’ PSOE can come up with given their pact with capitalism. For that reason they have taken the opportunity to appear ’strong and resolute’ with the ATCs, banking on the lack of public support for them. PSOE seem to have chosen their adversary well.

We must not swallow the ’we are all in this together’ line of the government, as some who have agreed with the perceived ’fairness’ in reducing the ’inflated’ salaries of the ATCs. However it would be a mistake for socialists to let the declaration of this military decree go by without understanding what it means and without protest.

José Blanco’s threat to sack and punish up to 400 ATCs must be opposed as should the privatisation of air control. The labour movement must come to the aid of the ATCs and defend their fundamental rights such as the right to strike.

It is an extremely serious development and a warning to all Spanish workers. A precedent has now been set in 21st century Spain. PSOE have disgracefully used a law drawn up by Franco’s fascist regime to deny the right to strike. When Metro workers in Madrid next go on strike and civil servants move to defend their jobs the PP will demand another military decree. The workers’ movement must be prepared to respond to such an attack, including with the immediate calling of a general strike, to defend the right to strike action. A new period is opening up in Spain and we must build a leadership of the worker’s movement capable of defending our hard won rights and ultimately for genuine socialism.

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December 2010