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Spain’s general strike: too much, too late

The organisers of the September 29 strike have sought to blame international markets and capitalism as much as the Zapatero government, but their protest nonetheless appears unlikely to have any major impact on policy.


Organisers say the strike was an overwhelming success, while the government described participation as "uneven". Photo: CCOO-Plastal.

The statisticians may argue for some time to come about the success or otherwise of Spain’s general strike. To nobody’s surprise, the UGT and CCOO unions, which organised the country’s first nationwide strike in eight years, described the protest as an overwhelming success, while the government said participation was “uneven”.

Judging by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s insouciant demeanour as he entered Congress on the morning of the strike, his government had little to worry about. And yet, the mass closure of businesses for the day, the crippling of the country’s bus services and thousands (or 70 percent, according to the organisers) of workers marching through Spain’s streets demanding the government execute a u-turn on its austerity drive, labour reform and pension reform plans has to auger badly for a Socialist administration that was already suffering in the polls on the back of its belated and often clumsy tackling of the economic crisis. Doesn’t it?

When compared to the last such protest, against the Popular Party government of José María Aznar in 2002, the September 29 strike starts to look less damaging. On that occasion, the downing of tools was deemed to be overwhelming and attempts by the government-controlled broadcaster RTVE to whitewash the protest from its news coverage were so blatant as to be comical (in that respect, at least, the UGT’s Cándido Méndez was right when he said that Wednesday’s strike had been a “democratic success”). More importantly, the 2002 strike spelled the beginning of the decline of Aznar’s administration and the nail in the coffin of his relationship with the unions.

Zapatero, on the other hand, had a near impeccable association with the UGT and CCOO until that fateful day in May when he felt forced by the international markets to tackle Spain’s deficit head-on with a €15-billion austerity plan. His government’s diluted labour reform bill, which will make lay-offs easier, further alienated the unions, as did (still unformulated) plans to raise retirement age and change how pensions are calculated.

But despite the weeks of planning, the fiery rhetoric and the declaration that the strike was a success, there was nonetheless a strangely perfunctory air about the whole thing. Intense negotiations between the government and unions prior to the protest saw a bizarrely cordial pact on minimum services to be offered on the day.  Some, such as the right-wing ABC’s columnist Ignacio Camacho, smelled the rat of collusion as they observed the Socialists and unions.

“Have your strike and turn the page on this hypocritical exercise, which is nothing more than a family chat … an artificial polemic without any intention of doing damage,” Camacho wrote. That is overstating it somewhat. But it does raise the question as to why it took so long for the strike to be organised against such a dramatic set of deficit-cutting measures. “I might have joined the strike if they’d done it earlier, but they’ve taken too long to stage it,” one office porter, who went to work as usual in Madrid on September 29, told Iberosphere. The dead months of summer, when any such protest would be folly, certainly played a role in the delay, but there does seem to have been a feeling that the unions staged this more out of duty than conviction.

Better the anathema you know…

If the falling-out between the Socialist and unions has been painful for Zapatero, it has been equally or more so for the unions themselves. After all, there can have been few Western leaders in recent times who have so staunchly defended the welfare state and social benefits (at least for most of their tenure). The born-again reformist that Spain’s prime minister has become may be anathema to the traditional left, but is presumably preferable to the alternative: the conservative PP, which has in recent weeks dipped its toe in the pool of Thatcherite union-busting.

The unions’ solution to this awkward scenario has been to paint Zapatero and the Spanish Socialists as only part of the problem; or rather as instruments of the sinister international markets and rapacious capitalism in general, which they see as the real culprits.

And given the austere road he has started down, the only choice Zapatero now has is to keep shuffling along it and hope to keep those markets –and the EU– happy, rather than the decreasingly relevant unions. With union membership in Spain at only 14 percent (substantially lower than the likes of neighbours such as Greece and Italy, according to the OECD), the prime minister surely knows whom to follow. After all, the labour reform has already squeezed through Congress and the 2011 budget has been presented. Aside from possibly ensuring some minor amendments to those documents, this strike was knocking at a locked door.

And if the Socialists –led by Zapatero or another candidate– happen to suffer a disastrous defeat in the 2012 elections, historians will surely see that the party’s decline started well before the 2010 general strike.

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Published: Sep 29 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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5 Comments for “Spain’s general strike: too much, too late”

  1. Are you not able to write a report without giving us a left wing slant?I thought the whole point of this website was to avoid the usual left-right,good-bad,civil war mentality that the so-called Spanish press still suffer from.ABC is old-fashioned church leaning conservative and would have detested Mrs Thatcher-their supporters only "loved" her because Felipe was in power.Aznar´s government was much more corporatist and certainly not Thatcherite;Gordon Brown was more Thatcherite than anything seen here in Spain.Thatcher did not "bust" the unions,she busted the leaders and gave the members votes,thus, ironically,opening the way for New Labour.Google "Tony Benn Thatcher´s legacy" for his comment.

    Try not to write this article as a Gusrdian columnist spitting Thatcher right wing with such venom,though as a report it was well done and generally true.

  2. The point I was making is that the unions would clearly rather see the Socialists in power -even though they are slashing spending- than the PP. The PP (or at least Esperanza Aguirre) has raised the possibility of cutting the number of union delegates in recent weeks – a policy which, broadly speaking, has echoes of Thatcher.

  3. Guy,that point I agreed with and made clear so.It´s your Guardian stance,rather than neutral observation so lacking in Spain,that let you down;Thatcher dis not cut union delegates,her employment laws allowed members to vote rather than be coerced by bullies in factory or coal mine courtyards etc.Madrid has an overabundance of paid(not by the union but by the state or city) union officials-Spanish unions are subsidised by the state,they don´t have members´dues like in Britain;so in effect they are tax payer financed.Please make this clear.The best,and only, way to reduce the power of Spanish unionsis to stop financing them and make members pay subscriptions-the numbers would tumble.

  4. Malcolm, In the article I'm not as interested in details of the unions' financing as in their their relationships with the two main parties. As for Thatcher, that's a whole other story….(!)

  5. If "As for Thatcher, that’s a whole other story….(!)" then why mention it? It doesn´t help the story which was well reported it just colours it-la Ser to la Cope.You sound like you have the Spanish disease;looking at your profile I wonder….

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