National Sections of the L5I:

Spains summer of discontent

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Five hundred years after Spain sponsored the exploration of a new world by Columbus the country is once again set to be the focus of international attention. Expo’92 has just opened in Seville and in July the Olympic Games in Barcelona will dominate the airwaves. But deep changes are occurring below this glitzy surface that will shake up Spanish capitalism and the labour movement. Sympathisers of the LRCI in Madrid sent us this report.

BRITISH TOURISTS off to Spain this summer for the Olympic Games, Expo’92 or just the usual sex and sangria at Benidorm may encounter a few surprises. Angry pickets may block their path to the tapas bar, big demonstrations may delay their entry into the museums, the odd 24 hour general strike may force them to stay a little longer than they planned.

The Spanish working class is flexing its muscles in response to a series of attacks on it by the Socialist Party (PSOE) government of Felipe González. In March a new law was decreed depriving workers of unemployment benefit if they have not worked for a year and only allows them the new benefit for four months in any one year.

A programme of sackings in the state sector is to continue and the present assault on public sector pay levels is to be extended to the private sector. Savage cuts in social spending are to be announced.

Why is this onslaught taking place now, when through the Olympic Games and Expo ’92 Spain’s rulers are seeking to promote the image of modernity, consensus and prosperity?

The answer is Maastricht. In the modern Spanish political dictionary this is also translated as “convergence”. It is about the harsh economic measures that Spanish capitalism has to impose over the next two or three years if it is to catch up with the other European Community (EC) countries on the road to economic and monetary union.

Last December in Maastricht all the EC governments agreed to work to a number of targets on inflation rates, budget deficits, public debt, interest rates and currency alignment within the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Without this convergence further economic and monetary union will prove an illusion for the EC. In turn the EC’s hopes of being a strong imperialist bloc capable of competing with the USA and Japan depend upon this union.

Spain has much to achieve if it is to hit the targets. At present it lies ninth in the league table of progress towards them. The implications are clear to the unions. Inflation at 6% is above the EC average. Since 1986, when Spain entered the EC pay levels have kept above inflation. The bosses need to reverse this trend. Spain’s relatively high interest rates can only be lowered if the value of the peseta improves. This demands that the government’s public spending is reduced to cut the budget deficit. Since 1980 public spending has shot up from 33% to 44% of GDP and the deficit has grown.

This looming confrontation between Spanish capitalism and the working class has been postponed for years due to the performance of the Spanish economy since EC entry. Between 1986 and 1990 Spain enjoyed around 5% growth a year. Business investment expanded at 10% a year. In 1986 Spain was classified as one of the “poor” countries in the EC and received around £2 billion a year in aid. Agriculture was improved, a massive road building programme undertaken and services expanded.

But the major effect of this growth was to accentuate the uneven development of Spanish capitalism, to further deepen the divisions between regions; between the industrially developed Catalonia in the north east and the agriculturally backward Extramadura in the west.

Released from the long nightmare of fascism under Franco, the Spanish labour movement consolidated itself after 1976. It discovered new confidence, despite being divided between the larger UGT trade union federations (formally allied to the Spanish Socialist Workers Party—PSOE) and the Workers’ Commissions (CO), led by the Communist Party of Spain.

On the back of the economic growth in the 1980s, and securely organised in the state industries, the unions have time and again resisted the piecemeal attacks on them. Spain had the second highest number of days lost through strikes between 1986 and 1990, after Greece and three times as many as Italy in third place. Last year militancy outstripped even this record. Some 4.3 million days were lost through strikes (77% up on 1990) which drew nearly two million workers, mostly in industry, into action.

Industry is in the front line of recent and planned attacks. Spanish workers are facing up to what occurred in France and Britain ten or more years ago: an EC coordinated assault on the old coal and steel industries with the aim of destroying much of its capacity because it cannot be made profitable in the face of competition.

In Asturias, the main coal-mining region, the state owned Hunosa aims to sack at least 6,000 of the 18,000 miners over the next two years. A similar number are targetted at Ensdesa, the state steel company.

The miners have not been passive in the face of these threats. Last October the Asturian miners launched a 24 hour general strike in protest at government plans. Last December and January the miners struck again. Miners working in the private company MSP carried out a 500 kilometre walk to Madrid while others occupied one of the pits for fifty days.

Meanwhile, workers in Alava in the Basque country, fought pitched battles with the police during a strike against the closure of the ACENOR steelworks. Metal workers in Asturia staged a 24 hour strike when 20,000 of their jobs were threatened.

Those workers threatened by attacks in the service sector have also joined the fray. In Madrid there was a 66 day strike of transport workers against sackings and a four week strike of 25,000 municipal cleaners over their low pay. The unions claimed that 85% of the 660,000 hosteleria workers (in bars, hotels and restaurants) observed the two day general strike over the Easter holiday last month, organised for better job security and proper negotiations.

In agriculture the story is the same. Small farmers have taken action against the implications of EC edicts. In Extramadura there was a 10,000 strong demonstration in March and a general strike planned in Murcia.

The outcome of these strikes has varied. In the case of the state miners, generous voluntary redundancy payments were offered to weaken resistance. As a result of the pit occupation MSP backed off and postponed job cuts until 1996. Metal workers’ leaders saw the bosses come back with a 50% reduction in the planned job cuts as a result of their one day protest.

But these are skirmishes compared to the battles to come. Guillermo de la Dehesa, president of the Chambers of Commerce, said in February:

“I see difficult years. If the convergence plan presented to the EC is tough, we’ll have labour unrest. If it’s not tough enough, we won’t converge.”

So it’s Maastricht versus mass strike!

This month the combined forces of the UGT and Workers’ Commissions will hold a 24 hour general strike against the cut in unemployment benefit. Escalating action through the summer is planned, culminating in October to take advantage of the fact that Europe’s eyes will be on Spain for much of this time.

When British tourists this summer pick their way through litter-strewn streets and settle down for more delays at airports because of striking air traffic controllers they may well be reminded of Britain in 1978/79 and “the winter of discontent”.

The Spanish workers too would do well to refer to that experience and the cost of British workers’ failure to defend themselves effectively in the face of a “socialist” government. If the current weakened state of the British labour movement is not to be the future of the unbowed Spanish one then they must learn the lessons of the last 13 years of Thatcherite policies that González admires so much: a labour movement divided and picked off in sectional battles over job losses and working practices; a union bureaucracy that refused to mobilise everything it had in the face of the first anti-union laws. Learn from history, learn from the rest of Europe.