On October 29, more than half a million students and education workers went out on the streets to show their opposition to the counter-reform of the education system which the Spanish right wing government wants to introduce. It was not the first time that the students, called by the Students Union went out on strike against the mis-named "Quality Law".
Even before the final draft of the reform law was published, already aware of the aim of the government to privatise education and to exclude students from working class families, the Students Union proposed a plan of struggle to the leaders of the teaching unions, CCOO and UGT. Unfortunately, at that time the proposal was rejected and we had to go out on the streets on our own. The leaders of the teachers' unions thought that since the final draft had not been published yet, it was not possible to mobilise against it.
A year ago, the government decided to divide its counter-reform plans in three different laws, one for each education level. First it was the turn of the university. We witnessed the largest university students demonstrations since the 1980s (300,000 march to defend state education in Spain). The Students Union explained the need not to fall into the trap of the government of dividing the laws in order to prevent a unified struggle. However, the trade union leaders did not think it was the right moment to call a general strike of the whole of the education community. Finally, despite massive opposition from university students and teachers, the university reform law was passed. The second law, affecting technical education was negotiated directly with the trade union leaders.
The third law, the so-called "quality law" affected the rest of the education sector, pre-school, primary and secondary education. The government thought that after the defeat the movement had suffered with the universities' law, that they would have an easy ride in introducing the "quality law". But many things had happened since then. There was an accumulation of anger and at the same time the government had increasingly exposed itself as an openly right wing government. Meanwhile we had seen the general strike on June 20 (The General strike in Spain) and the worsening economic situation, factors both which helped workers and youth raise their level of understanding and left less room for agreements on the part of the trade union leaders and the government.
This situation led to the [students and teachers joint] strike on October 29 (Students on the streets against the right wing). That was big success with mass demonstrations. But it was not enough. The government was risking a lot. The general strike on June 20 had forced them to backtrack on a number of points, and a new climb down would have been fatal for them. The CCOO and UGT leaders, under pressure from their own members, proposed a national march on Madrid for Saturday, November 23. The Students Union wholeheartedly supported this initiative, but we said we needed also a further strike, which we proposed for November 21, also as a way of preparing the national march. The trade union leaders rejected the proposal and we had to call for the strike action on our own. Everything was against us: the media silenced the call for strike, they linked the Students Union to ETA, and the reactionary headmasters in many schools were used to intimidate the students.
Nevertheless more than 70,000 students participated in demonstrations and the strike was followed by a majority of students. Unity with other sections of the education system (teachers and parents) would have provided the massive numbers we saw on the October 29. Many in the movement understood that, as the Students Union had explained, the only road to victory was through nation-wide massive mobilisations, united with the teachers and parents. Despite the fact that this unity had not been achieved, many students showed again their willingness to struggle on November 21. This is an important step forward which would not have been possible two years ago. The whole movement now understands clearly the character of this government and what interests it defends. The very militant mood on the demonstrations on November 21 is a proof of that.
Why did they trade union leaders not continue with the mobilisation? Already in October 29 they did not trust the teachers would participate in the strike. Reality proved them wrong. This despite the fact that they did not put all necessary resources into calling the strike. In most schools there were no mass meetings of teachers to explain the reasons for the struggle and in the whole the trade union leaders lacked a worked out alternative to the government's plans. The UGT for instance, with many members in private sector schools did not have clear arguments to oppose the "quality law". The main aim of this law is the privatisation of education. From their narrow point of view they could not explain this clearly for fear of antagonising their members in the private sector. They should have put forward the idea of the incorporation of private sector schools into the public sector. The national march on November 23 was a reflection of all this.
The day started with a new example of the repressive character of the Popular Party government when they declared the planned demonstration illegal. Using as an excuse the transport problems that would ensue they established a very dangerous precedent by taking away a fundamental right conquered by the working class. The Students Union proposed to fight back against the banning order, that we should go ahead with the demonstration and that members of parliament from the Socialist Party and United Left should march at the head of the demonstration. But the trade union leaders were cowed by the threat of a fine and decided to go ahead with an authorised rally instead of a demonstration. Incidentally it is quite likely that the Students Union will be fined for the demonstration on the 21 in Madrid. This obviously created a lot of confusion and many thought that the march had been called off. But this was not the only problem. While the union leaders of CCOO and UGT spent more than 80,000 euro in hiring music bands and buying flags, they had not enough money to rent coaches to bring people to Madrid, with the result that tens of thousands were left behind.
To all this we must add that during the campaign to prepare for the national march, the trade union leaders signed yet another agreement with the government. This agreement for civil servants (including teachers) means a wage cut and a worsening of their working conditions. All this had a dampening effect.
After the partial retreat of the government on the issues that led to the June 20 general strike, the trade union leaders thought that they would be able to go back to the previous situation of social partnership. The mobilisations of the education sector were an obstacle to their plans. That is why they did not want to take a step further in the struggle. But this will not be easy, they would not be able to go back to a situation of social partnership. Workers and youth have shown once and again their willingness to struggle. This time it was the "quality law", but we must also give an answer to police repression, and tomorrow we will have to fight Aznar's imperialist adventure with Bush and Co. Increasingly, more sections are participating in mobilisations against the government. Furthermore, wider layers of the youth are looking for revolutionary ideas able to provide an alternative to this system and to the trade union leaders who are not up to the task. The struggle against the PP has barely started.