Spain's working class confronts Zapatero's austerity plan

Ten million workers — more than half of Spain’s workforce - joined a general strike on September 29, and around 1.5 million participated in street demonstrations, according to the Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and General Union of Workers (UGT), Spain’s two major trade union federations. In Madrid, between 100,000 people (according to the daily newspaper El Pais) and 500,000 people (according to the CCOO and UGT), mobilised in the city’s centre in the largest protest faced by the “centre-left” Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government, since the election of prime minister Jose Zapatero, in 2004.

The CCOO and UGT called the general strike in response to the PSOE government’s austerity measures and anti-worker legislation. The strike call was taken up by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which coordinated a Europe-wide day of action on September 29 during which there was a trade-union mobilisation of 100,000 in Brussels, the Belgian and European Union capital, as well as union-organised street protests in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia.

The PSOE government’s labour “reform” bill, which passed through the Spanish parliament in early September, allows employers to opt out of collective agreements, removes legal protections and makes it easier for them to sack workers by slashing workers’ entitlement to redundancy pay. Zapatero has declared he is willing to impose whatever cuts are demanded by the EU and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, regardless of the social misery these bring to Spain’s working class, 20% of whom are now unemployed. In May, the PSOE government introduced a €15 billion (A$21 billion) austerity package, cutting public sector pay and pensions and increasing the retirement age to 67 years. On September 24, the Zapatero government announced freezes on most pensions and a “review” of the entire pension system.

The September 29 general strike — the first in eight years - was the second major protest action called by Spain’s union federations this year, with a public transport workers’ strike paralysing urban centres in June. Thousands of coal miners in the northern regions of Leon, Palencia and Asturias have also taken militant action in response to pit closures, with a large contingent marching into the capital Madrid in the lead up to the September 29 general strike.

At midnight on the eve of the strike, pickets descended on major transport hubs, stopping traffic in Madrid, and food wholesale markets, which were closed in major cities. Night shift workers struck at the major car plants bringing production at GM, Ford, Citroen, Peugeot, Nissan, Seat, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Iveco to a halt. Other sections of heavy industry were also paralysed, with workers at the Castellon refinery, and the largest oil producer, Repsol, stopping work. In Galicia, the major banks — BBVA, Banco Santander, Banco Pastor and Caixanova - were closed and in Catalonia, major companies including Alstom, Ercros, Pirelli, Delphi, Sony and Yamaha, came to a standstill.

Several of Spain’s daily newspapers did not go to print on the day and regional TV station Telemadrid stopped broadcasting, as did Canal Sur and TV3. The strike paralysed the major ports of Valencia and Alicante. Eighty percent of Spain’s high-speed trains were cancelled, and commuter trains and the Madrid metro operated with reduced services. Two-thirds of flights were cancelled, with Ryanair cancelling all its internal flights and most of its international flights and Easyjet grounding half of its flights through Spain. The national air carrier Iberia claimed it operated the 35% of its flights agreed with the unions. In Barcelona, the taxi drivers’ union claimed 90% of its members had stopped work.

While on the one hand negotiating with the CCOO and the UGT for limited public services during the general strike, the PSOE government prepared violent police attacks on pickets. A special committee, chaired by Zapatero’s under-secretary, Juan Jose Puerta, was set up to prepare strike-breaking measures and organise police deployment. During the strike some 100 people were arrested and thousands were identified by police for future prosecution. At least 15 picketers were injured, including nine at the aerospace company EADS-CASA in Getafe. In Barcelona, protesters battled police for seven hours, erecting barricades and burning police cars.

At noon, CCOO general secretary Ignacio Fernandez Toxo told a press conference: “The strike has been an unquestionable success”. He appealed to the government to revise its 2011 budget in order to “correct the pernicious effects the labour reform is having on the labour market”. UGT organisation secretary Jose Javier Cubillo also pleaded with the government to do the “sensible and reasonable thing” and “rectify immediately” its policies. Predictably most of Spain’s capitalist-owned media — which had campaigned strongly against the strike - described it as a failure. The daily El Mundo labelled the strike a “general failure”, claiming “The unions emerged much weaker from this strike” and that the strike had made “an overhaul of Spanish unions more necessary”.

At 6.30pm, a day of picketing in Madrid ended with a massive mobilisation in the city’s centre, stretching from the Plaza de Neptuno to the Puerta del Sol. Protesters chanted “Strike! Strike! Strike!” as the crowd arrived at an open air rally, many carrying placards calling for an end to the union federations’ support for the PSOE. The UGT and the CCOO had assisted Zapatero’s ascent to power in 2004 on the back of a powerful movement that had opposed the previous conservative PP government’s backing of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Cayo Lara, coordinator of the United Left (IU), the major political force within the CCOO, declared the general strike had been a “complete success” and “exceeded the most optimistic expectations”. But he then called on Zapatero and the PSOE to “open their eyes…change economic policy” and talk to the unions. The government “has enough support on the left in parliament to rectify all its mistakes”, he added, warning, “If it does not change its policy, the Spanish people will change Zapatero”. The failure of either the CCOO or the UGT to commit to further industrial action provides the Zapatero government with much needed breathing space to implement its anti-worker measures. Zapatero repeated his call for unions to negotiate with his government and business leaders, but offered nothing to negotiate over, insisting that he will not back down on his government’s austerity measures.

However, the September 29 general strike shows that most workers in Spain are willing to take militant action against the government’s labour policy. While supported by the CCOO and UGT leaders as a mechanism for bringing pressure to bear on Zapatero during their negotiations, the strike call served to unify disparate struggles of workers throughout. The strike itself renewed confidence in the workers’ capacity to resist the attacks they face from the employing class. Large numbers of young people joined the mobilisations in Madrid and other cities. Closing the Madrid rally with spontaneous chants of “Long live the struggle of the working class!” participants demonstrated that they were in no mood to give Zapatero more time to “rectify his mistakes”.