Crisis, austerity and labor reactions –Spain in the spotlight (2nd part)

In the first part of this article I shed light on the current economic situation in Spain and its government attack on worker living standards. In light of it all one might expect a social uprising to happen, at least of the magnitude as what we have seen in Greece. But that has not been the case. Let’s try to see why.



Organized Labor’s Weakness


One of the clearest signs of weakness in unions in Spain was seen during the last expansive phase of the economy. As mentioned in the first part, while profits rocketed during the last expansion, wages stagnated in real terms, and although employment increased most of the new jobs were precarious, with temporary contracts and low pay. Temporality rates in Spain remain the highest in the EU, with one third of employees being hired under fixed-term contracts, which is twice the European average. 10 out of 100 workers who were employed still fell under the poverty line. Unfortunately the organizations responsible for defending workers had been largely neutralized even before the latest round of labor-market “counter-reforms,” which goes a long way toward explaining why today resistance is weak, at best.


This weakening of the Spanish labor movement is part of a worldwide trend. The “traditional” working class is in retreat everywhere, yet they remain the base of class conscious unionism. The increase in precariousness and marginalization of workers in traditional industries, and the increase in labor segmentation, has led to the division and disorganization of vast groups of workers, despite the fact that the working class still retains important common defining characteristics, such as its dependence on wage labor, its dispossession of the means of production, its inability to protect itself from uncertainty, and its lack of real power to make things different.


These general trends emerged in the Spanish case in struggles during the 1980s. Dragged by their rank and file, major unions had no choice but to become involved during those years in situations where class struggle reached its height after the great defeat at the end of the1970s. One important event was the general strike in 1988. However, by then industrial restructuring had eliminated sectors where most radical workers were employed, and high unemployment and soaring temporality had weakened the labor movement considerably. Furthermore, the trade-union model imposed after the Moncloa Pacts created major obstacles barring effective actions by the most radical unions. Radical unions that had behind them a long tradition of fighting effectively to protect working class interests in Spain increasingly lost influence, while major unions came to be distrusted more and more by many workers. Therefore, unionization rates have declined from a peak in 1993 to roughly 14% now, the second lowest in the EU-15 after France.


It is in this context of workers’ organizational weakness that we can understand how when the expansive phase began in 1995, and intensified after 1997, workers were unable to benefit from the economic growth. Quite on the contrary, lacking combative organizations real wages remained frozen and a real estate bubble formed on the basis of growing indebtedness, pushing many onto a thinner and thinner ice cap that ended up by breaking up when the global financial crisis broke over Spain. The same organizational weakness helps explain why social reaction to the terrible conditions and anti-working class policies of the “socialist government” has not been much stronger. Another factor that has cushioned the blow is the size of the informal economy, which is now estimated to comprise 23% of GDP. Only Greece and Italy have informal sectors that are proportionally larger than in Spain, while OECD countries on average have informal economies that are six percentage points smaller than in Spain. Along with family ties, which are still strong in Spain, the informal sector also serves as a buffer against the assault on worker living conditions.



…and a general strike for all


This was the situation when major unions called for a general strike to be held last month on September 29th. That call was also supported by almost all the radical unions, while some right-wing unions decided to boycott the call.


In many ways the prospects were less than propitious. First, what we might call the “mobilization barometer” in Spain was very cold owing to the fact that the major unions had long displayed timidity in response to capital’s attack on workers while other labor organizations were very weak, and in some sectors, non-existent. Second, the date chosen –precisely by those big unions– did not coincide with the most intense moments of population anger which was when the austerity plan was introduced and the labour-market and pension reforms were announced earlier in the summer. While the big unions justified their decision to make the strike in Spain coincide with the call for labor actions elsewhere in Europe, nothing prevented them from calling for a general strike earlier in the summer when conditions were more propitious, and then calling for a new strike in September if the circumstances would have been good. For example, in France, where unionization rates are lower, seven general strikes have been held since last March to protest against pension reforms which are much less draconian than those proposed in Spain, and in Greece, six general strikes have taken place in opposition to the austerity plan implemented by the government since the beginning of the year.


Nevertheless, perhaps the most important thing is that the strike was much more successful than expected. In spite of being supported by fewer people than the previous general strike in 2002, its impact was considerable in sectors especially linked to traditional working-class. Cities where industry still plays an important economic role were generally where the strike was more successful. In the services sector, support for the strike was strongest in transportation, magnifying the disruptive effects of the work stoppage. The profile of strikers was double: a) old unionists who still believe in their fight; and b) very young people who joined them. Some riots took place in Barcelona, where far left is strongest and best organized in Spain, and to a lesser extent in some industrial spots in Galicia and in Madrid. Only 100 people were arrested. Obviously the social uprising was far from the one that took place in Greece in May this year –not to speak of December of 2008. More importantly the response in Spain on September 29th was far less than what might be expected given the deplorable economic conditions and severity of the government austerity program. According to union figures, which typically inflate crowd sizes, there were a million and a half people who demonstrated that afternoon. The same sources estimated that three million turned out for the last demonstration held in France. Nonetheless, one hopeful signs was that pickets’ activities the night before the general strike were energetic, very well designed, and remarkably successful. There is no doubt that their efforts were worthwhile. They succeeded in paralyzing some critical urban hubs, such as public buses in Madrid, and thanks to them the work stoppage was supported by proportionately much more people than the demonstrations in the afternoon.


Going forward expectations are not overly optimistic. A confrontation with the government was necessary, given the severity of the austerity program. But there are clearly many obstacles to overcome. In many ways the correlation of forces is unfavorable for the working class and its organizations, and even less favorable for those in quest of a deep social transformation. However September 29th was just a beginning. As always, the outcome will finally depend on important work which is still to be done, not only in Spain but also abroad. For instance, a victory of mobilizations against pension reform in France will also be a victory across Europe due to its exemplifying effect, both for the working class –and the possibilities that direct action has– and Governments –which will have to take into account that mass mobilization is able to force changes even from one of the most stubborn right-wing rulers in Europe. In stimulus like that we trust…


Luis Buendía is a social researcher from Spain and member of the Institute for Economic Sciences and Self-Management (ICEA), http://iceautogestion.org. The author wants to thank Robin Hahnel as well as other ICEA members for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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