Spain: Two million march against labour counter-reform, the beginning of a prolonged struggle

Around two million people marched in 57 trade union demonstrations all over Spain on February 19 against the counter-reform of the labour law imposed by the right-wing PP government. Now the pressure is on the trade union leaders of the CCOO and UGT to step up the pressure by calling a general strike.

Madrid 19 February 2012 The turnout at the demonstrations surprised the trade union leaders, who only four weeks earlier had signed an agreement with the bosses’ organisation for three years of “wage restraint” (in effect a real loss of purchasing power) and weakening collective bargaining.

According to trade union estimates, half a million marched in Madrid and 450,000 in Barcelona.  In Madrid the demonstration was so huge, that most of the route was already packed before it had actually started. Trade union stewards had to open a corridor for the trade union leaders to go through part of the route and cross the Puerta del Sol to reach the stage at the end of the demo.

In Valencia, which last week saw brutal repression against school students protesting against cuts in education, 80,000 marched in the capital and a further 40,000 in Alacant and 30,000 in Castelló. In the Asturian city of Gijón, 50,000 demonstrated despite the torrential rain. There were 70,000 in Zaragoza, capital of Aragón, with a further 2000 in Huesca. There were also huge demonstrations in Andalucia not only in the capital Seville (50,000), but also in Málaga (25,000), Granada (15,000), Córdoba (20,000), Jaen (1,500), Huelva (10,000), Almeria (7,000), Cadiz (3,000), etc. An estimated 40,000 marched in the whole of Castilla y León, with 20,000 in León itself. The demonstrations in Galicia were also in the tens of thousands (30,000 in A Coruña, 15,000 in Santiago, 15,000 in Ferrol, 50,000 in Vigo) despite the fact that the nationalist union CIG did not participate. There was a smaller turn out in the Basque Country, where the nationalist trade unions, which have a majority of shop stewards, have organised a separate demonstration for February 24, but still 2,500 turned out in both Bilbo and Vitoria-Gasteiz and 700 in San Sebastián–Donosti. It is impossible to give a full list of all the demonstrations, but these took place also in Mallorca, Murcia, the Canary Islands and even in Ceuta and Melilla. These figures for attendance are those provided by the trade unions, which at least in some of the cases underestimate the real attendance.

Madrid 19 February 2012 The mood on the demonstrations was one of determination and anger. There were many slogans demanding the calling of a general strike. Trade union activists and militants present were able to feel the strength of the trade union movement and the working class as a whole when it starts to move. It has to be added that these demonstrations had been called with only a few days notice, coinciding with Carnival Sunday, and they were being called against a government which has been in office for less than two months and has an overall majority in Parliament. None of these factors weakened what were the biggest trade union demonstrations for many years.

These demonstrations reflect a deeper mood within society which has been expressed before in the demonstrations of the 15M movement. There is a deep instinctive feeling against capitalism as an economic system and bourgeois democracy and its politicians are generally discredited. There has been a movement from below, pushing the trade union leaders into action, including a massive movement of the education sector in Madrid, wildcat strikes and occupations of healthcare and education workers in Catalonia, and more recently the massive mobilisation of students in Valencia against repression.

2012-02-19 Madrid Demo 2The demonstrations on Sunday, February 19, were anticipated by packed regional assemblies of shop stewards. In Madrid, 2500 trade union representatives filled a joint regional meeting of CCOO and UGT shop stewards with a further 1,000 blocking the street outside who could not get in. In Valencia, for instance, 2,800 shop stewards packed a regional meeting to prepare the mobilisations.

The mobilisation was a real show of strength that the trade union leaders of CCOO and UGT did not expect. “It has been a surprise”, said UGT general secretary Cándido Méndez, while CCOO secretary Toxo added:,“the truth is that the turnout has exceed all expectations”. Since the beginning of the crisis, the leaders of the UGT and CCOO have followed a policy of attempting to soften the blow of the austerity measures, of trying to get the “lesser evil” from the negotiating table, instead of confronting the Socialist Party government first and now the right-wing PP government with the mobilisation of the workers on the streets.

2012-02-19 Madrid Demo 3Thus, after a half-hearted general strike in September 2010, they went on to sign the counter-reform of the pensions system in January 2011 with the Socialist Party (PSOE) government of Zapatero. As a result of its right-wing policies in government, the PSOE was trounced at the November 20 elections last year, allowing the right-wing PP to win an overall majority in Parliament, although in absolute terms its votes had not significantly increased.

It was clear from the beginning that the PP government was going to carry out a policy of massive cuts and “structural reforms” (i.e. the destruction of workers’ rights and conditions), but the trade union leaders of the CCOO and UGT insisted on adopting a wait and see attitude. When asked whether they were going to face the new government in the streets, CCOO general secretary Toxo replied that “it was very cold” in the streets!

2012-02-19 Madrid Demo 4Even after the PP government had unveiled a massive package of austerity cuts in its first days of office in December 2011, the trade union leaders went on to sign an overall agreement with the bosses’ organisation CEOE in January. The agreement means three years of below inflation wage increases (in reality a real loss of purchasing power of wages) and a weakening of collective bargaining agreements in favour of company and local based agreements (where workers are in a weaker position). Their reasoning was as follows: “if we are shown to be reasonable and agree to make some sacrifices voluntarily, the government will not be in a position to impose any more attacks”. They were wrong, of course. Weakness invites aggression and the acute character of the crisis of capitalism in Spain demands brutal attacks on workers’ wages, conditions and social benefits.

Not only this, but by signing the agreement with the bosses, the trade union leaders introduced elements of confusion and scepticism in the movement. Instead of sending a clear message to the rank and file members and workers in general that the attacks of the government can only be fought through mobilisation, they insist on negotiations and talks.

2012-02-19 Madrid Demo 5The government responded to the union leaders’ conciliatory attitude with a brutal reform of the labour law which takes a number of very serious steps towards giving the bosses the right to hire and fire at will, by reducing compensation pay, lengthening the trial period in which workers’ have no employment rights, eliminating the need for government authorisation and trade union approval for temporary layoffs, etc. The “reform” also allows any company having had three quarters of decreased profits and actual or projected losses to lawfully sack workers, which in effect means that almost all companies in Spain have now the possibility to sack workers lawfully “for economic reasons” with a drastically reduced level of compensation pay. The measures passed by decree on February 11 also seriously undermine collective bargaining agreements at a national level along the same lines as similar reforms proposed or implemented in Greece and Portugal. The decree makes it easier for employers to unilaterally change hours of work, conditions, location of the workers, wage structure, etc. The reform also eliminates additional protection which public sector workers had against sackings.

Madrid 19 February 2012 In reality, this is a serious attack on not only on workers’ rights and conditions, but also on their ability to defend them. Even an opinion article in the pro-capitalist El Pais has warned that the real of aim of the “reform” is to “break the balance of power inside the companies” in favour of the bosses. This attack does not come alone. It is part of a wide-ranging plan to make the workers pay for the crisis and to restore the profitability of Spanish capitalism by driving down wages and conditions in order to make it more competitive with other European countries.

These are exactly the same kind of measures which have already been implemented in Greece and are being introduced in Portugal and Italy. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders do not seem to have understood the seriousness of the situation. Despite the massive character of the demonstrations on February 19, they are still talking in terms of bringing the government to the negotiating table. Both the UGT’s Cándido Méndez and CCOO’s Fernandez Toxo insisted that their aim was not “confrontation” but to “correct the reform”. Although they were both present at the Madrid demonstration, they did not address it at the end, leaving it to the leaders of their youth wings to read a pre-prepared statement. The real mood of the demonstrators however was shown by what they shouted at the trade union leaders as they crossed a packed Puerta del Sol.

Madrid 19 February 2012 The leaders of CCOO and UGT are now under enormous pressure from below to step up the struggle. They can no longer use the excuse that it is difficult to mobilise the workers, that the mood is not there, etc. February 19th has shown that the workers will respond to any serious call for mobilisation on the part of the trade union leaders. What is required now is a clear plan of action, starting with the calling of a 24-hour general strike. But if we are to learn the lessons of Greece, it is clear that a 24-hour general strike in and of itself will not solve anything. This has to be part of a strategy of escalating the mobilisation to a 48-hour general strike and even more serious calls for action if the government does not back off, as the comrades from Lucha de Clases in Spain have argued.

Madrid 19 February 2012 As we warned immediately after the elections: “If Merkel, Rajoy and the Spanish ruling class think that the election results mean a firm and solid mandate for austerity cuts, they are in for a big surprise. Such a policy will provoke, sooner than later, a massive explosion of the class struggle. Greek-style attacks will inevitably lead to Greek-style class struggle.” (Spanish elections: Socialist Party trounced – new right wing government faces acute capitalist crisis) This is what we have now started to see.

The United Left (IU) participated actively in the demonstrations, in some cases with its own blocs and demands. Also present were leading figures of the Socialist Party, although many workers will take their opposition to the PP government with a pinch of salt, as it was the PSOE government that started these attacks on workers’ rights and conditions in the first place. The leaders of IU have taken a number of parliamentary and legal initiatives against the counter-reform, but they have also correctly explained that this can only be defeated in the streets. However, they have refrained from making any critical comments on the deal signed by the trade union leaders and the bosses, and have not mentioned the need for the unions to call a general strike (using the excuse that calling it “is up to the unions”).

A layer of advanced workers and youth voted for the United Left on November 20, substantially increasing its vote, and are looking towards the organization for a lead. While it is true that the decision to call or not to call a general strike belongs to the union, it is also clear that a left-wing organization like United Left has the duty and the right to express an opinion about what would be the best strategy to follow. It should not just express an opinion, but it should also play a key role in the reorganization of the trade union left, particularly within CCOO, so that its members in the trade unions become a channel for the anger of rank and file activists and push the whole movement forward.

A negative note of the demonstrations on February 19th was the lack of trade union unity in Galicia and the Basque Country. In Galicia, the nationalist trade union CIG has called a general strike of its own for March 29, while in the Basque Country the nationalist trade union majority (ELA, LAB, ESK and others) have also called a general strike on the same date. Any idea of fighting against the attacks of the PP government within the confines of Galicia or the Basque country will be immediately dismissed by any serious trade union activist. The experience of previous general strikes confined to the Basque country is one of dividing the workers along national lines rather than uniting them on the basis of their common class interests.

While it is positive that the nationalist trade unions in Galicia and the Basque country take the initiative of calling for a 24-hour general strike – and this certainly puts the leaders of UGT and CCOO under pressure – it is plainly wrong and sectarian not to have participated in the February 19 demonstrations, or in the case of the Basque country to have called a separate demonstration on February 24 with basically the same aims and slogans. Nationalist divisions only benefit the ruling class. If there was ever a time when working class unity was paramount it is now, when Spanish capitalism is in the midst of its most serious crisis for decades and the labour movement faces the harshest of attacks.

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