Barcelona bus drivers strike

This week the bus drivers in Barcelona are on a four-day strike. This is the third strike the drivers have carried out since Christmas. The workers are striking to obtain two days off per week. The drivers are employees of Metropolitan Transport of Barcelona (TMB), which is mainly controlled by the city government. The struggle is itself an embarassment for the Socialist Party of Catalonia (a part of Spain’s dominant social-democratic party) which controls the city government.

Bus drivers in Barcelona currently work a 6-day week and, with forced overtime, average more hours per year than the average for Spanish workers. The drivers point out that the length of their workweek makes it hard to balance their job with their family life, and adds to stress. The drivers are demanding a shorter workweek without a drop in pay. During the strike the drivers are distributing a free strike newspaper, Dos Dies! (Two Days!). The drivers have gained the support of numerous neighborhood or community groups in Barcelona.

This struggle is interesting in what it reveals about the Spanish collective bargaining system. Under Spanish labor law since the late ’70s, enterprises with more than 50 workers in a local area must allow workers to collectively bargain through a committee elected by the workers, the comite de empresa. I’ll refer to these as "bargaining councils." Typically unions run slates of candidates and they elect a number of delegates in proportion to their vote. The bargaining councils are not required by law to adhere to a vote of workers in a contract ratification meeting. Although only 17 percent of Spain’s workers belong to unions, unions collectively bargain for a vastly larger number of people through the bargaining council system.

People are entitled to 40 hours off with pay per month when elected to the bargaining comittee, and unions that can receive at least 10 percent of the vote throughout Spain receive additional perks.  Delegates and unions receive subsidies from employers and the government through this system. This makes them independent to some extent of workers supporting their work through union dues.

At the Barcelona TMB, there are separate bargaining councils for the 2,800 bus system workers and the 2,500 subway system workers. There are currently five unions on the bus system bargaining council. At the time of the December 2005 contract negotiation, there was a large meeting of drivers who voted NO on the proposed 3-year contract because it did not gaurantee two days off per week. However, three unions with a very narrow majority of the 27 delegates on the bargaining council voted to ratify the contract. Those unions are the General
Union of Workers (UGT — the official union of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party), the Workers Commissions (associated with the Communist Party), and Independent Workers Union (SIT). Thus the delegates of these three unions signed the contract behind the backs of the workers. The largest union of the bus drivers is the Transport and Communications Industrial Union of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Although the CGT voted "No" on the contract, it did not have an absolute majority of the delegates and was unable to block it. The fifth union on the bargaining council is an independent, the Association of Urban Transport Drivers of Barcelona (ACTUB).
The CGT transport union is also the largest union of workers on the Barcelona subway system.

A similar problem of the bargaining council voting against workers’ wishes happened in the contract struggle on the Barcelona subway system in 2003. In that case, TMB management had been demanding a concessionary contract. Like French transportation workers, the Barcelona subway workers were entitled to earlier retirement than other Spanish workers under their contract. Management wanted
to lengthen required length of service to the average in Spain. As in the current bus system struggle, subway workers conducted a series of brief strikes. The CGT union on the subway collected signatures from 1,200 workers demanding an assembly to ratify any proposed contract. But the Workers Commissions held a poorly advertised meeting one night with only 60 people present. Since this meeting approved the contract, the Workers Commissions, UGT and two pro-company independent
unions voted to approve the contract. Although the CGT are the largest union on the subway system, they are not an absolute majority on the bargaining council and could thus not block the concessionary contract.

The CGT describes itself as a "revolutionary, libertarian" union. The CGT advocates what would be called "social movement unionism" in the USA: ""The CGT is an anarcho-syndicalist organization… which acts in the working world. But not all the problems are just in this area, nor are workers unaware of this fact. Thus, unionists, anti-authoritarians, pacifists, immigrants, ecologists, movements against sexism and the Anti-Globalisation Movement are in the end one movement, one without `professional revolutionaries’ in charge and with the consciousness that the transformation will involve all groups." The CGT in recent years has been receiving the votes of about a million workers — about 8 percent of the vote — in bargaining council elections in Spain. Thus the union is still too small to challenge the current dominance in Spain of the UGT and Workers Commissions, which receive around 70 percent of the votes.

The current struggle on the Barcelona bus system began last November when the CGT and ACTUB developed an alliance and agreement on how to proceed. On November 21st, a general assembly of bus drivers was held at one of the bus garages. The bus system was shut down for five hours so that this meeting could take place. At that assembly workers voted to approve the demand for two days off with no cut in pay and elected a Rest Days Committee (comite de descansos)  (http://comitedescansos.blogspot.com/) to conduct the struggle. The idea was for the workers to direct the struggle themselves through their general assembly, "independent of the trade unions." The UGT and Workers Commissions boycotted that meeting.

The first two strikes were conducted around Christmas time and in early January. During the January strike, a group of regional government police (Mossos d’escuadra) began shouting insults at a group of drivers doing peaceful informational picketing, calling them "whore’s sons", "subnormals", "pieces of shit." A member of the CGT was assaulted by these cops and then arrested and charged with assaulting the officer. The workers’ lawyer described the behavior of the police as "a return to the era of Francoism." In addition, the management of TMB gave suspensions to 25 workers. The longest suspension, six months, was given to Saturnino Mercader, the CGT president of the bargaining council. Again in February during a drivers’ march, another member of the CGT was struck in the head by police. The drivers have now
made an end to "police and labor repression" another demand of the strike. The participation of 1,800 drivers in a march and mass meeting at Placa Universitat, shows majority support for the strike among the drivers.

At a general assembly on Feb. 12th, about 60 members of the UGT and Workers Commissions attended, and the UGT and Workers Commissions pledged to respect the decision of the drivers. At that assembly the drivers voted to continue with another strike Mar 3 to Mar 6. Meanwhile, the SIT, which the CGT describes as a "corporatist" (pro-company) union, was the only union to agree to management’s proposal to wait for the next contract negotiations.

The management response to this struggle has waffled. At first they said the drivers were already getting two days off. Then they backtracked on that, admitting this was not the case.  More recently the head manager of TMB said the workers average only 7 hours 4 minutes per day. But the workers say this is a "lie". They claim that the great majority of drivers work more than seven and a half hours per day.

In recent days the management of TMB and local politicians have stated that they could not grant two days off with no loss in pay without either cutting service or raising fares. In response, the drivers’ spokespeople point out that workers on the Madrid bus system have two days off and the fare is lower than in Barcelona. The workers point to the large number of very highly paid people at the top at TMB, the hugely generous pensions that managers get, and the lavish public relations expenditures of TMB.

In an interview on Barcelona TV today, Assumpta Escarp, presdident of the TMB, and a Barcelona city councilwoman, says she’d be happy to negotiate a change in the driver’s work week, but that it needs to go through the "framework of the contract." But that would put the issue back in control of the same bargaining council who signed a contract workers rejected last time. Meanwhile, the head of the Workers Commissions in Catalonia has come out against the strike. According to Saturnino Mercader, the bargaining council president, the UGT and Workers Commissions "now count for nothing" in this struggle. "The [drivers’] assembly has swept them aside."



Leave a comment