January General Strike Closes Spain

— Dan Fitz

AS FAR AS the eye could see, rows of Spanish workers were marching toward la Puerto del Sot in the center of Madrid. Behind the speakers platform special police guarded El Corte Ingles, the department store targeted during every Spanish general strike because of its practice of firing pro-union workers.

While large mobilizations in Washington, D.C. bring in busloads of people, this demonstration of a quarter million was drawn almost entirely from within Madrid. Other Spanish cities had their own demonstrations.

Spanish workers name their general strikes by day and month: "14-D" for December 14, 1988 and "28-M" for May 28, 1992. The most recent was "27-E" (27 de enero, or January 27, 1994).

On that day, more than industry came to a grinding halt Spanish streets are normally sprinkled with kiosks, or newsstands. All were deserted. Schools and shops were practically vacant. The one bus I saw on the street was empty except for the driver. Foreigners couldn’t cash traveler’s checks at banks because Spanish banks are almost all unionized, which means they were closed on 27- F.

Labor Law "Reforms"

In previous general strikes, the government negotiated with unions concerning "minimal services" that would remain open. But the government unilaterally declared that "minimal services" during 27-F would include 40% of buses operating. The unions were insulted. Within the first few hours of the strike, 130 buses in Madrid were taken off the streets due to smashed windows.

At the mass demonstration, tens of thousands carried flags or had stickers on their clothes saying CC.00. for the Communist-dominated union, coinisiones obreras (workers commissions). Tens of thousands of others bore the insignia of the Socialist-oriented UGT (General Union of Workers). Others carried banners of the non-aligned USO (Union of Labor Organizations). There were red and black flags of the two anarcho-syndicalist unions, the CGT (General Confederation of Workers) and smaller CNT (National Confederation of Workers). They were joined by dozens of independent unions and radical groups.

The strike was over "reforms" in Spanish labor law. Most hated are the aprendizaje (apprenticeships) and liberalized layoffs. With 23% unemployment, many people in the twenties have never had a job. So the employers’ association and government developed a program of allowing persons under twenty-five to work as apprentices at 70% of the minimum wage for one year (80% and 90% for the second and third years).

Spanish law currently makes it extremely difficult for a business to have a mass layoff. The "reform" would make layoffs much easier. The reform also legalizes temporary employment agencies, freezes salaries of government workers, reduces unemployment benefits and makes it easier for employers to change workers’ job assignments.

That such a neoliberal austerity program would be orchestrated by a "Socialist" government comes as no surprise to Spanish workers, who have seen a steady rightward drift since 1982, when PSOF (Socialist Labor Party of Spain) first won power. The last few years have seen declining expenditures for social needs as an increasing proportion of the budget has been devoted to programs such as funding elite universities and helping parents send children to private schools.

Nevertheless, many (if not most) of those striking on 27-F had voted for PSOF head Felipe Gonzalez. Just as many U.S. workers voted against Bush rather than for Clinton, Spanish workers tended to vote against José Maria Aznar of the center-right Partido Popular (PP) rather than for POSE. (There is considerate loathing for PP, which includes more than a few members who ordered the execution of workers during la dictadura—the dictatorship of Franco.)

In the 1993 elections, PSOF received its smallest vote since coming to power. With less than a majority, PSOE needed an ally to form a government. For many, the logical choice was Izquierda Unida (IU, the United Left), created from an alliance between the Partido Comunista de Espana (PCE), smaller left groups and many independents. But Felipe turned to the Catalan nationalists, Convergencia I Unió (CiU). CiU leader Jordi Pujol’s conditions for forming a government included a severe neoliberal labor reform.

Many PSOF rank and file would prefer the extremely difficult alternative of trying to rule as a minority government to blocking with CiU. At the January PSOF Congress, oppositionists mustered a third of the votes. But Pujol has said that if PSOE changes a single point of the labor reform, CiU will break the coalition government. Feeling the heat from both his own party and his CiU "ally," Felipe may be forced to call new elections this year.

The Spanish economy has taken a plunge in recent years. Heavy industry, especially mining, has seen a continuous decline. In the past, the economy has been bolstered both by tourism and Spanish emigrant workers bringing their earnings back home. Both tourism and emigrant work have dropped. The value of the Spanish peseta fell almost 50% during a 280-day period last year.

Socialists for Capitalism

After twelve years in power, the PSOF have come to approach these problems as would any Wall Street financier. PSOF economists see the solution as making Spain more competitive. This means reducing the standard of living so that foreign capital will perceive Spain as a land of good investment opportunities.

But general strikes do not help the image of Spain that Felipe is trying to paint. A December 27,1993 story in El Pais reported Felipe was mobilizing PSOF to oppose the January strike. PSOF’s executive announced that a strike wouldn’t "favor the interests of workers because it would discourage investors."

Izquierda Unida and the unions are well aware of where this line of reasoning ends. If every European country lowers its standard of living to attract investment, everyone ends up in the same relative position they started from. The only change is that corporations have a larger share of social wealth and the rest of society has less.

At the huge Madrid rally (the last event of the general strike), the UGT’s Nicolas Redondo warned that if PSOF does not withdraw the labor reform, "social tension will increase." As he spoke, thousands began chanting, "Otra, otra!" (Another, another!"), indicating a desire for a new strike. The issue confronting the Spanish labor movement is what to do if, as expected, PSOF refuses to alter the reform.

March/April 1994, ATC 49