Last Friday, a group of citizens close to the political party Podemos created an independent workers union called Somos (“we are” inSpanish). The reasons behindsuch union are rather explicit when reading its founding document: “The currentmodel has been exhausted, stained by corruption and lead by a ‘caste’ that hasbetrayed its constituency.” While this may sound very similar to what Pablo Iglesias, the current leader of Podemos, typically states in the press (he often refers to allmembers of mainstream political parties as “the caste”), the founders of Somos,have made it very clear that both organizations are and would remain independentfrom each other.
Somos was created during one of the sessions organized by Podemos in its “Plaza Podemos”, which is sort of an open assembly where members discuss political ideas and proposals. Its existence is mainly online through its reddit page of the same name. Plaza Podemos is also forum where its leaders often participate by answering questions as part of a routine set within the party to cultivate direct democracy.
In a sense, one could say that Podemos is an extension, or a politicalmaterialization, of the May 15th movement that saw hundreds of thousandsspaniards taking the streets and the “plazas” of all major cities in Spain in 2011.
Amidst the umpteenth corruption scandal involving important figures from all of the largest political parties and unions in Spain – and across the spectrum of mainstream politics – Podemos (“We can” in Spanish) is gaining momentum by becoming the second largest political party of the country in terms of membership, despite having been created only in January of this year.
Indeed, this newly formed workers union, Somos, is itself a continuation of thispolitical phenomenon that is shaking the grounds of mainstream politics in Spain. It is the other side of the ambitions laid out by the movement behind Podemos.
As one of the founders of Somos once explained to me, the idea is not only to change the political leadership of the country but also to actually change the bargaining power of workers versus the largest employers unions, big corporations and banks, considered by most as the real heart of the matter in the political game. “We merely wanted to put our money and our guts there where our mouth was” and follow up on this idea of creating a ‘new union model.’ It was an idea that reached consensus rather quickly among our members”.
Considering the low levels of unionization rates in Spain (around 8% of workersversus 75% in Sweden) as well as the recent corruption scandals involving unionleaders, one can only see the potential of such initiatives and expect the better.
Like Podemos, the workers union Somos does not wish to be linked to any ideology in particular. Though of leftist tradition, they state in their founding document that they will sit and negotiate with any party without discriminating, whether it is the State or Corporate employers: “…our doors will always be open to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Government and the Employers Union.”
THE FUNCTIONING OF ‘SOMOS’
Sixty-nine people, mainly unionists and lawyers, are behind this project. Indeed, the founding document describing the purpose and the functioning of the newly created union is in fact the result of this debate. The functioning of Somos can be summed up in three main points.
First of all Somos is meant to be assembly-based. Assemblies are meant to be the core institution of the new workers union. The positions within the union will be elected by the assembly and no one will be allowed to apply twice for the job, making it next to impossible for corruption to happen. The ambition of Somos is to be present all over the country and to become an “international model for unionism” as well as to give more power to women in the struggle for labor rights.
The second feature that defines Somos is its financial model. Every major union inSpain is financed by government subsidies which is considered to be what preventsunions from truthfully acting independently from the government and solely in theinterest of the workers. For that reason, Somos has taken the decision to functiononly on membership fees and to use those subsidies (those that Somos won’t beable to renounce legally) only on external projects and with the outmosttransparency.
Finally, the third aspect that outlines this new workers union is the renouncing of full-time unionists or ‘shop-stewards’ for the same reasons that it goes against the principle of not having the same people reelected for the same position. This is an important feature and a drastic change from the functioning of every other major union in Spain.
Shop stewards in Spain have acquired an awful reputation, mostly among civilservants and Somos, just like Podemos, is a formation that is first and foremost aninitiative in reaction to current events.
As a matter of fact, both Somos and Podemos, despite their very clear left-wing nature, refuse to be associated with any particular radical ideology and place greater emphasis on building consensus than most radical leftist movements.
However, there is plenty yet that we do not know about either one of these formations and any observer must remain cautious as to where these will lead their constituencies.