Continue the struggle – build for a 48-hour general strike!
Months of protest against the right-wing Spanish government’s vicious austerity measures culminated in a massive general strike on 29 March. Prime minister Mariano Rajoy, however, is determined to implement huge cuts in spending on services and further attack workers’ rights, in order to satisfy the bosses and financiers. As Danny Byrne reports from Spain, the task of the workers and left forces is now to prepare for an escalation of general strikes and mass protests.
It has taken less than 100 days for the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy to suffer a severe blow to its image of stability when well over ten million workers joined a massive general strike against its policies. Demonstrators who flooded the streets chanted: “Mariano, at this rate you won’t reach the summer!”
The scale and strength of the strike surpassed that of September 2010. Union figures put participation at an average of 77% of salaried workers, or 85% when ‘obligatory’ minimum services (explained below) are deducted.
The strategic sectors of the Spanish economy were paralysed from midnight onwards. Union figures indicate that stronghold sectors of industry, transport, and agriculture witnessed rates of 97%, 95%, and 95% participation respectively.
The strike was especially solid in the northern, more industrialised regions. In the Basque country, the strike saw the nationalist unions, who organise the majority of activists, striking on the same day as the main Spanish trade unions – CCOO and the UGT. This contrasts with September 2010, when Basque unions refused to join the Spanish unions’ call (as has also happened vice versa on various occasions, such as June 2011).
This new unity in struggle was reflected in a 95% solid strike. 90% are said to have taken action in Navarra and the key industrial/port region of Galicia, and 89% and 82% respectively in Asturias and Catalunya, home of the country’s second city, Barcelona, and with an economy bigger than that of Portugal.
The massive strike was accompanied by an occupation of the streets by hundreds of thousands of workers, students and the unemployed. These demonstrations were vibrant and far from being “passive” which some claimed had come to characterise trade union mobilisations.
Morning demonstrations in some cities saw unprecedented attendances, with 100,000 in Sevilla among the 400,000 who filled the avenidas of Andalucia. Then, as evening approached breathtaking attendances were registered as demos began throughout the country.
The trade unions claim 900,000 marched in Madrid, and 800,000 in Barcelona, along with a 250,000 in Valencia. The CCOO union puts the total number of demonstrators throughout the state at an unprecedented four million, to which must be added the 100,000 in separate ELA/LAB Basque union marches.
Since the arrival of the PP in government, as a “safe pair of hands” to stabilise the situation and win the favour of the markets, the Spanish economy is even closer to the precipice. Spanish debt bonds and risk premiums are being kept just about under control only due to the emergency intervention of the European Central Bank.
The last 18 months also saw other developments, most importantly the emergence of the indignados movement which shook society. The indignados put the idea of a militant and massive fightback back onto the agenda after the de-mobilisation which followed 29 September 2010, with the signing of a series of sell-outs, including the raising of the retirement age, by trade union leaders.
The impact of this movement was also reflected in massive turnouts by young people on the general strike demos. Large numbers of youth and indignados activists have come to the conclusion that the working class movement and trade unions, despite its leaders, are key weapons in the struggle against austerity and capitalism.
The strike was also marked by an increase in state repression, with 176 arrests and 116 injuries reported throughout the day.
Alongside this open repression, the state and bosses used age old anti-trade union ‘minimum services’ legislation to try to break the back of the strike in many sectors. This law, which aims to impose the provision of minimum services, often sees employers and local authorities demanding that striking workers maintain over 50% of services, almost completely negating the impact of a strike!
However, in a sign of both the radicalisation of the union movement, and the heightened arrogance of the PP government, this strike saw a failure to agree minimum services in eight out of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.
The success was a result of struggle by the rank and file of the unions, and the youth in struggle, whose clamour for a general strike pushed the leaders into action. However, as Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) has consistently explained, one day of strike action will not be enough.
Even before taking office, Rajoy was heard to say that the labour reform he was planning would “cost him a general strike”. Although a massive blow to his government and power, this general strike was, in a sense, already factored into his austerity plans.
The question now, is how to build a struggle of a sustained and determined character?
The leaders of the UGT and CCOO followed the strike by announcing that they are giving the bosses and government until 1 May to begin negotiations on the labour reform, or face the threat of “a hardening of the struggle”.
If followed through, such a plan puts off the prospect of a further general strike until the summer in reality, at which time the labour reform (making it easier for employers to sack workers) will have become law.
This poses the immediate necessity of a sustained campaign of pressure, organised from below and with a possible extra impulse from those organised in ‘alternative’ more combative union federations, such as those of the Basque country, whose calling of a strike on 29 March was key in the CCOO and UGT decision to choose the same date.
Socialismo Revolucionario intervened on picket lines and demos throughout the Spanish state with the slogan “name the date for a new 48-hour strike” at the forefront. This slogan encapsulates the necessity to both continue and escalate the struggle. The need for the struggle of the workers and youth in the ‘peripheral’ or ‘PIIGS’ countries, under the boot of the ‘Troika’ [European Union, International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank], to achieve a coordinated expression with a united strike, was also stressed.
As the experiences of Greece and Portugal have shown, the movement to defeat austerity policies can experience its ups and downs, if a confident sustained strategy of struggle and positive political alternative is not adopted.
It is in the fight for such an alternative, including non payment of the ‘public debt’, that the necessity of an ‘indefinite strike’, which was raised by sections of the workers movement and the left in Spain around this strike, is emerging in Spain.
An indefinite general strike requires thorough preparation. Such a development immediately poses the question of the control and management of society and ultimately the question of taking power by the working class and establishing a democratic workers’ government to implement socialist policies in favour of the ‘99%’ of society.
This in turn poses the urgent need for the building of a mass, united left-wing political force based on the growing struggles of the majority, with the task of putting forward and popularising such an alternative, on a national and international scale. This alternative also means fighting for a socialist confederation of free and democratic countries, to replace the capitalist EU.
The United Left party, IU, which only days before the strike achieved a significant breakthrough in regional elections in Andalucia and Asturias, depriving the PP of widely-expected victories, has a key role to play in this process.
However, this potential can quickly be wasted if its leadership decides to re-adopt the strategy of coalition governments with the social democratic PSOE.
In a period of class battles like this one, a fighting democratic left force with a real base in the struggle, and clear anti-capitalist policies could make huge strides forward, and challenge the domination of the capitalist parties.