Spain: A year of struggle and militancy despite union leaders’ roadblock

Indefinite strikes, occupations, seeds of workers’ control

Below we publish a slightly edited version of a speech given by Victoria Lara, from Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) at the recent meeting of the CWI’s International Executive Committee.

This year, 2013, has been an important year for the class struggle, even if it doesn’t always appear like this at first sight. Seen superficially, one could point out how in 2012, we saw 2 General Strikes, in March and in November, and no General Strike in 2013. So we can see a contradiction here. If one looks at the situation only from this point of view, there would seem to be a more stable situation for the government and ruling class than last year. However, on the other hand we can see that a multitude of sectorial or regional and local struggles have exploded, and are taking on a more militant character. New militant methods are being employed, such as the occupation of work centres (as seen with the workers of the public broadcaster in Valencia) and the indefinite strike, employed by many sections of workers, like the public education sector in the Balearic Islands or the city cleaning workers in Madrid. All these developments are showing the massive anger and growing militancy below the apparently calm surface.

And above all, the economic crisis continues, and is throwing more and more layers of workers and middle class people into poverty. 2 million children in Spain suffer from malnutrition, and 3 million people suffer from severe poverty. The government is now continuously claiming that the economic crisis is finishing and that Spanish GDP will soon grow. While it is true that there has been a relative stabilisation of the debt crisis, and the risk premium for Spanish bonds has fallen significantly since the summer of 2012, most of the population cannot notice this alleged “recovery”. It is true that the perspective of a full bail-out of the Spanish government in the short-term is now not very probable, but poverty is still growing, fuelled by the high rate of unemployment and long-term unemployment, and the cutbacks at state or level mean that more and more people are left behind, without any kind of state benefits, or waiting long months to receive a miserable state subsidy.

The government is also claiming that employment is beggining to grow, but the truth is that the last quarter has only seen a small recovery, and from Oct 2012 and 2013 the number of employed people has fallen by more than 2%. The official unemployment rate is almost 26%, with the youth unemployment rate is at 57%, the highest in Europe. At the same time, the housing crisis continues, with lots of empty housing that cannot be sold, that are mainly owned by the bailed-out banks, and many families being evicted from their houses as they are unable to face their mortgages or rent payments.

Government hangs on due to bankruptcy of union leaders

Along the economic crisis, many other crises have developed in Spain lately. We have the national question that again exploded last year and it is still intensifying, especially in Catalonia, and also the many corruption cases that are affecting the monarchy, the 2 main capitalist parties – PSOE, and PP – and even one of the main trade unions, the UGT.

In this regard, the most important case is affecting the PP finances at state level, and important figures up to the Prime Minister Rajoy could be involved in it. The anger in relation to this case was, and still is massive and the government could have fallen easily had the trade unions acted decisively. However, the trade unions leaders have played a rotten role and can be named as the main people responsible for the government’s continuation, as they have done nothing to mobilize workers on a generalised scale during the last year.

But, as we have said before, the anger is growing below the surface, and many militant and combative struggles are taking place, even if only at regional or sector level at this stage. And these actions are generally going far beyond the will and intention of the trade union leaders. This is illustrated by the following examples.

Growing militancy from below – indefinite strikes, occupations, seeds of workers’ control

For example, in the Balearic Islands, there was a 16-day indefinite strike by public education workers, against cutbacks and the attempts to go undermine the use of Balearic Catalan in the classroom. The strike was not cancelled but only temporally suspended and very probably the struggle will continue during this school year.

In the middle of October, the workers of Panrico, a food company, in the Santa Perpetua factory in Barcelona, initiated an indefinite strike against the company’s plans to lay off 2000 workers nationally and implement a 40% pay cut for those remaining. Last week, these workers again decided in an assembly to continue their strike, despite the fact that the representatives of the trade unions UGT and CCOO in the other Panrico factories have signed an agreement that accepts more than 700 lay-offs.

In events similar to others seen in Greece during the summer around the ERT public TV station, the workers of the public TV in Valencia (channel 9), whose closure was decided by the government overnight, occupied the studio during the whole night and the following morning. They continued broadcasting a live programme until midday when the government, with the help of the police and the support of judgements managed to cut the emissions, by brutally cutting the electricity supply to the surrounding area. This high profile has for the first time, put the struggle for the workers’ control of workplaces threatened with closure by the bosses and government on the order of the day.

But maybe the most important of these struggles has been that of the cleaning workers in Madrid. This public service is has been privatised, and the contracted company was threatening 1,200 job losses and a 40% wage cut for those remaining. However, they decided not to accept this and called for an indefinite strike, in a workers’ assembly.

After 12 days of indefinite strike, the workers won an important victory, as they signed an agreement that didn’t include any lay-offs and will keep the current wage rates for the next 4 years. This victory echoed throughout all of Spain, as it goes against the discourse by the government and bosses, that unfortunately even the main trade union leaders accept, that to avoid job losses workers have to accept wage cuts.

This victory was also possible because of the support of Madrid people, who saw how the “minimum services” during the strike were used by Madrid city council to clean only the most touristic or rich areas of the city, while the rest of the city endured high levels of dirtyness in their streets, and then how the workers were accused of being “violent” and blamed for the poor quality of these services. This show the necessity of abolishing the anti-union “minimum services” laws, where bosses and the government impose abusive levels of minimum services in order to undermine the effectiveness of strike action. Workers themselves must take control and decide what if any minimum services are provided during strike action.

The fight against austerity and capitalism in Spain is not only industrial, it is also social. For example, the fight of the "PAH" (Platform of People affected by mortgages) continues its fight against evictions, surrounding the threatened houses and preventing 0he police and court officials from effectively evicting the affected families.

While the monarchy, political parties, and even trade unions are now questioned by wider layers of workers, this social movement is winning small victories, by avoiding evictions and also by occupying empty buildings where they house evicted or poor families. They also have some influence over government policies, but to a limited extent. For example, the Andalucian (large Southern region) government has approved a law to expropriate, but only temporarily and with compensation, the houses owned by the banks which are threatened with evictions. Of course, this is still a far cry from our demands of nationalisation of the banks and their properties to guarantee housing and put the bank resources at the service of society.

IU and the struggle for a mass revolutionary left

Now, in regards to this government in Andalucía, the United Left (IU) is in a coalition government with the capitalist party PSOE, and implementing cuts, although the leadership tries to justify participating in the coalition with this type of limited measures.

But, of course, there is opposition to these developments, from below within IU. ‘Grass-roots United Left’, in Andalucía, is arguing against this coalition, and demanding that the coalition should be broken if cuts cannot be stopped, and social measures like the nationalisation of banks and the right to a basic wage for everyone cannot be won. This platform has important links with the CUT of Sánchez Gordillo but they want to create a united front with other left organisations and social movements to fight for a consistently left government policy.

Similar developments are taking place in Madrid, where the "minority", by a small margin, is arguing for a more combative organisation, linked with the fights in the streets and social movements, in support of the struggles of public service workers, etc. These kind of debates, inside the United Left, involve many parties tendencies and organisations, which compose the United Left itself. These are the most significant debates for us now in Spain within the left and workers’ and social, movements, as the United Left is the main anti-capitalist organisation in Spain and main forum for the crucial political debates and discussions taking place in the movement.

However, although the debate initially takes on many varied forms, from a debate over openness to the social movements, or democratic functioning on a local level, to open political debates on programme and government policy, a clear polarisation between two different visions of the role of IU is increasingly developing. On the one hand, there are those with a merely electoralist point if view, who see the IU’s growth as laying the basis for a new coalition pact with PSOE on a state-wide level – a perspective which would threaten the very future of IU as a real reference for the left and the movements. On the other hand, a growing section of the party has a vision of IU as a political force which bases itself on the struggles in the streets and the workplaces, which fights to implement policies in their interests, opposing participation in cuts-making governments. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) strives to contribute to this debate inside IU, attempting to popularise a revolutionary perspective, of the building of a mass force to break with capitalism. We also fight for the development of an organised Marxist opposition, starting from a front of different revolutionary Marxist currents within IU alongside the most militant fighters, which can strengthen the left in the context of this debate and polarisation, but also work with the perspective of building the necessary mass revolutionary force, the key essential missing factor in the situation today.

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December 2013