The March 29 Strike Against Labor Law Reform in Spain: Outline of the Conjuncture

April 13, 2012
The general strike of March 29, although it mobilized a good part of the population, apparently took place with more pain than glory. Once the day of the strike was over, everything seemed to continue as before: namely, the continuation of an aggressive policy against the wage-labor population, in an economic context characterized by recession. The government had already announced that it would not change the Labor Law Reform. The response to the strike call was significant in the main industrial centres and cities, and there was the usual ballet of widely varied statistics on participation, as always occurs. Participation in the strike was irregular, since many workers did not join it in order not to lose a day’s pay and, above all, because employers threatened to fire participants, taking advantage of the existing procedures for doing so. That said, support for the strike was significant in industrial centres and in some services, as was the (very large) attendance at the demonstrations of the afternoon in the main cities.

Once again as always, the topic of violence was the smokescreen by which the government and the media tried to divert attention from the real causes of the strike and the real inability of the police to guarantee “normality” when people take to the streets. For example, in Barcelona, the shops and small businesses in the center of the city opened, although business was slower than on any typical working day. Nevertheless, starting at noon, the city was brought to a halt by the actions of pickets and groups of demonstrators.

The massive demonstration of the afternoon, in which the columns of the “majority” and “minority” unions converged, was attacked by the police who, nevertheless, proved impotent in containing the outbursts of rage by a good part of the demonstrators against bank offices throughout the day. The mayor’s office estimated the damage caused by the angriest demonstrators at €500,000. Since the Ministries of the Interior, both in Madrid and in the Catalan government, are in agreement on using the violence for their own ends, in the name of “civil society” demagogy, a climate of opinion is being created to legitimate a rollback in the right to strike or to demonstrate, further deepening the penalties for people who cause riots, burn garbage cans, break bank windows, disrupt street traffic or who are simply present when such things occur. Everything points to the creation of a permanent state of emergency, with characteristics closer to fascism than to democratic formalities.[1] As was always the case in the past century, where political and social repression are concerned, there is full agreement between the heirs of Franco currently running the Madrid government and the political representatives of the provincial Catalan bourgeoisie. All in all, it continues to be significant that the political-repressive option is the only solution which occurs to the Spanish ruling class, faced as it is with an unprecedented economic, social and political crisis.

Be that as it may, calling the general strike took its toll on majority unions,[2] the Comisiones Obreras and the UGT [3]; in reality, they did not want it. Even after announcing it one month in advance, they continued to call on the government and bosses to sit down and negotiate and thereby avoid the strike. On the day of the strike, they continued to implore their interlocutors in the government to sit down and negotiate—at the beginning of April they were still insisting on it—although no one really knows what they want to negotiate. We must therefore conclude that, if they had to resort to the strike, it was for reasons they could not admit publicly since, on one hand, the labor law reform is a further step in the restructuring of the labor market in the different pacts that have been negotiated by the big unions over the past thirty years and which was intensified in the past decade; this was a process which has been progressively eroding workers’ rights and working conditions. On the other hand, we know there are under-the-table negotiations which concern directly and exclusively the interests of the trade-union structure, that is of those holding cushy well-paid jobs which are not mentioned in public disclosure. As one example among many, the labor law reform is a setback for them, since it limits the legal scope of union contracts, giving most decision-making powers to the employer.

In this sense, the labor law reform, which certainly hurts the interests of workers, is a simple pretext in the game of interests of the trade-union apparatuses, which are in a compromised situation. On one hand, they have to respond to the continual aggression of the government and the bosses if they do not want to see their their influence over the wage-labor work force undermined even further. On the other hand, they are afraid to make their growing inability to control mobilizations obvious, and to finally empty of any significance whatsoever the general strike based on the unions, itself already seriously diminished (in reality, a mere day of protest). The succession of general strikes with no results of relevance for improving the lives or jobs of the wage-labor population has been banalizing the strike as an instrument for defending class interests.

In fact, the so-called majority unions found themselves forced to act by the agitation over recent months of the minority unions, which have serious influence in some autonomous communities and sectors of activity, as well as by the pressure of a diffuse social malaise and the intransigence of an openly reactionary government which thinks that the services of unions are no longer necessary in an unregulated labor market with a demobilized and highly fragmented working population. A few days after the strike, the government’s general budget proposals were presented to parliament. In them, the government reduced the subsidies[4] for unions (some of which have had to resort to a judicial ruling allowing them to reduce the hours and wages of their own staff) and again showed its intention to limit trade-union participation in state institutions, which means depriving them of access to financial resources and influential centres of decision-making.

The labor law reform, in general outline, aims at improving conditions for exploiting the work force to boost profits (reducing penalties and fines, lowering real wages, cutting employer contributions to Social Security, etc.) and to facilitate layoffs for any reason (for example, employee absence, even for legitimate illness, can be a basis for firing). The reform further aims at concealing unemployment by a reshuffle of available work. In fact, the new framework for layoffs and for the flexibilization of contracts prefigures a relative mobility in the labor market which will promote the fiction that unemployment (officially more than 5.4 million people) is decreasing, simply by multiplying the number of contracts of shorter duration.

Nevertheless, the reality is that neither the labor law reform nor the cuts in rights and social services, despite their negative consequences on people’s living conditions, are sufficient to restart the economy, i.e., to re-establish economic activity in conditions favorable for the accumulation of capital.

The need to maintain a minimum of economic activity and of social assistance which does not accelerate the degradation of living conditions, and the need to deal with interest payments on the sovereign debt, means that the debt continues to increase (it is still at levels around 70 percent of GDP), and new debt has to be issued at higher interest rates.

Further, dealing with the public deficit is at odds with maintaining a certain level of social stability, which in past decades was achieved by policies for subsidizing social peace. On the other hand, investment is contracting; attracting foreign investors also seems to have failed in a country where consumption is on the wane, which is peripheral to the main European market and whose labor costs, in spite of the reform of the labor law, continue to be high compared to eastern Europe and to North Africa. Investments in the tertiary sector go to low-skilled services that are secondary to capitalist technological and strategic development,[5] since the Spanish economy is based on mass tourism (the number one sector of economic activity in the country) and the perspectives for developing other productive activities or services are negligible, except in very exceptional cases of export goods or producers of very specific types of machinery, which in no way constitute a realistic alternative for job creation, since the firms which are best dealing with the crisis are precisely those which are capital intensive.

Thus, in spite of the reforms, the credibility of the country—and of the measures adopted by the Spanish government—continues to decline in the so-called international “markets”: interest on the Spanish public debt has shot up, and from the European Central Bank to The Wall Street Journal, by way of The Financial Times and The Economist, everyone has expressed their skepticism about the results of the government’s handling of the economy after the presentation of the state budgets in the first days of April.

But this lack of confidence in the Spanish economy has extended to a sector of the Spanish bourgeoisie and its political representatives, in spite of the upbeat speeches intended for public consumption.

The reform has increased unemployment, since employers are taking advantage of the new situation to offload personnel and to substitute formerly contracted groups of workers with new ones. The government itself has announced that “initially” unemployment will increase, and that this year will be bad economically, etc. And so it is, since there are still sectors of activity which are pushing ahead with their restructuring, such as banking, where the elimination of whole departments would mean sending some 41,000 employees onto the unemployment rolls, according to a report by the Institute of Stock Market Studies.

One good indicator of the country’s drift is the package of measures announced by the government at the beginning of April intended to cut €10 billion in health and education, thereby winning credibility with the “markets” as well as improving productivity through the labor law reform. Add to this the fact that while oficial discourse is announcing the necessity of a change in the productive model, oriented to the production of “knowledge,” the state budgets are substantially reducing resources intended for R&D. This is much more than simple incongruousness; it is the faithful reflection of a ruling class which, while quite aware that there is no way out, is intensifying its predatory actions (increases in salary and pension plans for high-level executives and for their counterparts in the state administration, through subterfuges which increase their perks) and is squirreling away its wealth in a social situation of everyone for him/herself.[6] Last but not least, the government proposal of a fiscal amnesty for concealed money, estimated at €25 billion, in exchange for a 10 percent contribution (much lower than the legal requirement) is doubly significant in showing the government’s desperate search for liquidity and investment (since most of this money is in offshore tax havens), as well as the state’s protection for economic criminality and for large and médium-size fortunes.

  1. [1] One example, among others, of the fascist element in Spanish democracy, or what could be called democratic totalitarianism as the form of capitalism in crisis: the sentence of 4–10 years for four youths from Navarra from the movement opposing construction of a high-speed train for throwing four pies at the head of the Navarra Autonomous Community [translator’s note: the latter refers to the regional government conceded by the central state in Madrid to various Spanish provinces during the “democratic transition” alter Franco’s death in 1975].
  2. [2] Majority unions are those controlled by the Communist and Socialist parties; there are a number of minority unions, some with a regional base of support.
  3. [3] Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO) is the major trade union oriented to the Communist Party and the UGT (Union General de Trabajo) is the major union oriented to the Socialist Party.
  4. [4] In many European countries, unions have traditionally received subsidies from the state.
  5. [5] The auctioneer role of the governments in Madrid and in Catalonia to attract the creation of Eurovegas (a replica of Las Vegas, a “free” area with none of the labor or tax laws of the rest of the country) is quite representative of the model they are proposing. In the name of the creation of employment—of this type of employment—everything is justified, up to and including this pathetic remark of Welcome Mr. Marshall.
  6. [6] As one example among many of this type, the SEPLA (the pilots union of Iberia Airlines), which was on strike during the first week of April against the airline’s plans to create a low-cost company, denounced the fact that the eleven members of the board of directors were sharing €15.5 million a year among themselves.

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