By Tom Gill
If you are holidaying in Spain this year you may learn a couple of new words – huelga general. In the coming days and weeks the Spanish for general strike will be splashed across posters and on the lips of thousands of trade union activists who are campaigning in workplaces, the streets and even the beaches for a mass protest on September 29.
The strike, called by the country’s two biggest trade union confederations – Comisiones Obreras and Union General de Trabajadores – is against the socialist government’s labour market reforms which will make it easier to hire and fire. These are among a raft of reactionary measures, including a 55 per cent cut to public servants’ pay and a freeze on pensions, that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pushed through parliament last month with the aid of conservative regional parties.
Spain is reeling from a deep economic crisis. But for Marisol Pardo, a senior figure at Comisiones Obreras, the measures taken to tackle it are wholly unfair. “The government is making working people pay who had no responsibility in creating the crisis. This is unjust.”
Spanish workers find themselves in the eye of a storm that has broken across a country once toasted by bankers and politicians across Europe for its free market virtues. Spain ticked most of the boxes – it welcomed foreign investment, firms were striding the world stage, it had a budget surplus, relatively low public debt and falling unemployment.
But the country’s “economic miracle” was built on sand. The boom during much of the 2000s was largely driven by a housing bubble fuelled by unsustainable levels of household debt and purchases by Britons and other northern Europeans. Construction represented a very unhealthy 16 per cent of GDP and 12 per cent of employment at its height, driving growth rates that, if uninterrupted, could have soon seen Spaniards richer than Germans.
Then, in 2008, the bubble burst. A million brand new homes now stand unsold. Parts of the once rock-solid banking system are in trouble. Unemployment is now over 4.6 million, exceeding 20 per cent – the highest in the EU – with 1.3 million jobless households. Public finances have deteriorated rapidly. Spain’s reputation has fallen so far it is being compared to Greece.
For a while Zapatero did as Brown and some other European leaders – he stimulated the economy through public spending. But under pressure from the IMF, other European governments and financial speculators Zapatero went into reverse gear, implementing deficit-cutting reductions to government expenditure and launching what unions describe as “the biggest attack on employment rights for the past 30 years.”
The problem with Zapatero’s strategy to reduce the cost of labour is that over time it will only contribute to Spain’s economic woes. Comisiones Obreras’ Marisol Pardo says: “The labour market reforms won’t work. They don’t get to the root of the problem, which is the productive and developmental model.”
The unions argue that Spain’s employers have long relied on low wages to generate profits, hiring workers on “flexible” employment contracts with few rights attached. This has contributed to an underdeveloped hi-tech services and manufacturing industry – except within the car sector, which is wholly foreign-owned. This in turn has led to a worryingly large trade deficit and an economy far too dependent on finance, tourism, and bricks and mortar.
Instead, unions say there needs to be strong investment in skills and technology to raise productivity and rebalance the economy. They believe that the public finances can also be restored by a more progressive taxation system and a concerted campaign against tax-dodgers in a country where corporate and income tax rates are low and the black economy huge.
Unions also have different ideas to the government on the future of Spain’s local savings banks – cajas – which hold a large proportion of the country’s deposits. The sector has hit problems partly because of its exposure to the collapsed construction sector, and Zapatero plans to privatise them. But FermÃn Arellano Morlas, a regional official of Comisiones Obreras, says their difficulties are much exaggerated.
The cajas are controlled by local government and in some circumstances workers have a say in their governance. Opening them up to private capital will be welcomed by profiteers, but it will undermine their traditional role of providing affordable credit to working people and small businesses that big banks deny them, says Morlas. Given the enormous difficulties faced by ordinary people in keeping up mortgage payments and paying their bills, the cajas’ role today has never been more important.
The general strike, to be held to coincide with the European Trade Union Confederation’s (ETUC) European-wide “day of action,” has followed escalating industrial action. Rail workers held a national strike on May 28 followed by public-sector workers on June 8. On June 29 a general strike was staged in the Basque region and a mass demonstration has been called for September 9 by trade unions in Madrid. Air traffic controllers may just have called off their strike for this August but industrial action in September has not been ruled out.
Campaigning by trade unionists is all the more important as there is almost no political opposition to the government’s regressive plans. The right-wing Popular Party – Partido Popular – voted against the measures but this was a purely opportunistic move. Close to big business and the financial elite, it is not offering any real alternative.
Only United Left – Izquierda Unida – is putting up any kind of fight. Its leader Cayo Lara Moya has accused Zapatero of making the “lower orders” pay in order to “please the markets, financial power and business.” For a party that has been in a de facto alliance with the socialists since 1986, this is strong language.
But United Left, led by communists, is weak. In the 2008 elections, together with their Catalan sister party, they garnered 960,000 votes or a 3 per cent share which translated into just two seats in the lower house of parliament. They are now trying to reverse this decline by forming new alliances. The aim is to build an “alternative bloc to neo-liberalism,” an “organisation in which we must coexist and work together with various sectors of the anti-capitalist left – ecologists, communists, socialists, republicans and left nationalists.”
The communists have been here before. Although the Spanish Communist Party was a crucial force in the battle against dictatorship and the transition to democracy, the communists were swiftly overtaken in elections by the socialists who enjoyed strong foreign support, particularly from the German Social Democrats. The United Left, formed in 1986 from an alliance remarkably similar to that being sought today, was created to reverse this. After an initial lift to a peak of 2.6 million votes – 11 per cent – in 1996, support fell away rapidly.
What is new is the attempt to court a range of radical civil society organisations. These include ATTAC which campaigns for a “Robin Hood”-style tax on banks, and other “anti-capitalist” movements. United Left’s call to build a coalition of left forces could also have some echo among traditional socialist supporters and party members who are disillusioned with the sharp right turn of Zapatero’s government.
Certainly, the prime minister’s attempts to please the markets have not made him popular with the wider Spanish public, which since the return to democracy 30 years ago has been used to rising prosperity. The administration’s rating at 21 per cent is at its lowest level since the March 2008 general election, according to a CIS opinion poll of voting intentions for July. But for now it is the right-wing Popular Party that is benefiting with a strong lead in the polls.
Which brings us back to September 29. Many will see it as a crucial test for the government and the success of a progressive alternative. Here’s hoping that by that day millions of Spaniards will be saying, as one union poster goes, “Huelga General, Yo Voy” – I’m going to the general strike.