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The strikers who have nothing to protest

The generous employment contracts enjoyed by many of those taking part in the September 29 general strike leave a generation of Spaniards out in the cold, drawing the question: who do these protesters represent?


Spain's general strike: justified protest or just the moaning of the privileged?

There have been a number of signs over the last few months that the general strike called by Spain’s two main trade union confederations, UGT and Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), against government economic policy and labour reform is not going to attract as big a crowd as anticipated. The first was that they switched the date of the strike from June to September 29th. The second was when, in late spring, the functionary-specific unions that had invited the leaders of UGT and CCOO, Cándido Méndez and Ignacio Fernández Toxo respectively, to a protest against government pay cuts later declared that neither would be welcome at future demonstrations. UGT and CCOO, it was felt, had attempted to hijack the protest to serve their own political ends, diluting the original message in the process.

On September 18, when Toxo barged into the front line of a march by civil guards complaining that the police earned more money than them, he was met with boos and catcalls. Méndez didn’t even try, heading straight for the podium that he had managed to insinuate himself onto. Perhaps the most telling signal that the strike turnout might be low, however, was the call to retired Spaniards serving as babysitters to their grandchildren to walk away from their posts and take up placards on September 29. Desperate times calling for desperate measures might be an adequate interpretation for this bit of comic relief.

The problem is that these unions are attempting to raise the ire of a group that has been only marginally affected by the economic crisis. The deaf ears on which calls to take to the barricades in defence of workers’ rights appear to be falling might be explained by a few statistics. The first, product of Spain’s two-tiered labour contract system, shows that the number of people employed in permanent positions -and represented by unions- has decreased by a mere three percent since peaking in the second quarter of 2008 (this late date itself showing the hold that a guaranteed payment of 45 days per year worked in the event of dismissal has on employer decisions).

For their part, those employees working on six-month contracts and with hardly anything in the way of rights or union representation saw their numbers start to fall at the end of 2006 and, by the end of the second quarter of this year, had dropped by an astounding 32 percent from their peak. In raw numbers, the nearly 12 million “permanents” in 2008 saw their numbers decrease by 359,000. Of the 5.7 million temps in 2006, only 3.8 million remain working. One third of the work force provided 83 percent of dismissals.

Of course, the fairly cosmetic adjustments to the financial responsibilities of employers to laid-off employees initiated by the Zapatero government may be of some concern to those who have not lost their jobs, and the strike may intend to draw a line in the sand in this regard. But looking at it from a slightly different perspective, that of the age of those who have found themselves without work, may be worth the effort. Of those from the 16-19 age bracket who were working at the beginning of 2008, only 45 percent remain in employment. Among 20 to 24 year olds, only 70 percent continue to be employed. The next division provide by the National Statistics Institute is that of 30 to 54 year olds, which has seen its numbers decline by about 8 percent (the bulk of these will almost certainly come from the younger members of the group). And lastly, those over 55 years of age in employment have dropped only 0.25 percent – a result fully explained by deaths and debilitating illness. They lost no jobs, in other words.

Blocking the way of the young

Not at all coincidentally, members of this last group are also the most likely to find themselves strapped with the upkeep of one or two unemployed -and unemployable as things currently are- grown-up children. These parents know that, at the company at which they work, the employer responding to the economic crisis failed to renew the contracts of two or three young, low paid temporaries rather than pay the legislated fortune in severance that would have been required to dismiss one of their status. Many are also able to come to the obvious conclusion that one of the reasons their kids aren’t working is because they are.

As for the labour unions, one can actually feel the desperation behind the attempt to make someone else’s crisis theirs. But as one very-near-retirement public servant (with left-wing activist credentials dating back to those dangerous times when Franco was still breathing) told Iberosphere: “The only strike they’ll get me to show up for is one against the unions.”

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Published: Sep 28 2010
Category: Business
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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