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Spain’s air traffic strike: We’ve been here before

The dramatic recent strike by airport controllers had been threatening to boil over for a long time. However, a number of reasons –both technical and political– meant it came to a head at the worst possible moment.


Frustrated travellers in Bilbao airport on December 4. Photo: agirregabiria.

On December 3, Barcelona’s El Prat and Madrid’s Barajas, along with every other airport in Spain, shut down, closing the country’s air space. Air traffic controllers (ATCs) had walked off the job at the start of the country’s longest holiday weekend —a five-day break for some— leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded, and scuppering an enormous number of vacations.

The controllers were responding to a government decree passed that very afternoon —the third this year relating to the ATCs—approving new regulations and the partial privatisation of Spain’s airport authority, AENA. In Spain, so-called “royal decrees” can be passed by a government without prior approval by Parliament.

In response to the strike, the government called in the armed forces, declaring a state of emergency (or “estado de alerta”) for the first time since the return to democracy and forcing the controllers to return to their posts under threat of imprisonment for sedition.

The events of December 3 and 4 were just the latest and most dramatic turn in a dispute that has been on the boil since the first decree issued by the Zapatero government on February 5 of this year. That measure effectively slashed ATC salaries by up to half, obliged control tower and control centre personnel to work longer and more flexible hours, and subjected them to a series of changes to working practices, imposed without consultation with the controllers’ trade union, USCA.

One of the principle changes effected by the decree of February 5 was that hours previously worked as overtime would henceforth be incorporated into the standard working roster. These overtime hours, paid at three times the normal rate, had ballooned over the previous years, as a buoyant tourist industry kept Spanish airports working briskly.

The controllers’ working hours now stand at 1,670 a year.

But with Christmas looming, AENA and the government realised that the limit they had themselves imposed on the workforce was now threatening a shortage of controllers with hours still left to work in the final weeks of the year. In at least one airport, Santiago de Compostela, most air traffic controllers had already worked their year’s quota of hours.

So, on December 3, the government came up with a new calculation, based on “aeronautical hours”, as distinct from normal working hours. Aeronautical hours are computed on the basis of the time that controllers spend at their machines. They exclude everything else – sick leave, maternity leave, stand-by shifts, on-the-job training, even breaks for rest within shifts. In effect, for some ATCs this means having to work without remuneration through the last weeks of the year in order to make up for a shortfall arising out of measures imposed on them without negotiation back in February.

A decade-long dispute

The dispute dates back more than a decade, and reflects the failure of this government, the previous Popular Party administration, and the Socialist Party government before that, to reach agreement with USCA, the air traffic controllers’ union, over wages and conditions in a vital sector.

In 1999, the Popular Party government of Prime Minister José María Aznar signed an agreement with the controllers that respected their long-standing status as civil servants, removing them from AENA’s control, and placing them directly under the administration of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. This deal set the working hours of each controller at 1,200 per year, as established by the previous collective agreement reached with the controllers’ union USCA under the Socialist government of Felipe González.

It was apparent at the time that 1,200 hours, or 23 hours a week, would not be enough to provide adequate cover, given USCA’s membership of around 2,400 and the rapid rise in air traffic.

So, throughout the 1999 five-year agreement, there were constant negotiations extending working hours, which were paid as overtime. As the volume of air traffic increased, it indeed became clear that there were not enough controllers. From around 141 million passengers in 2000, Spain’s airports have had to handle a 50-percent increase in travellers in the decade since. But the number of air traffic controllers has not risen in comparison. No new controllers have been taken on since 2006.

There is no denying that the ATCs have benefited financially from the arrangement of the last decade or so, even if it meant that they have worked longer hours than any of their European counterparts. But with the entry into force of the February 5 decree this year, the ATCs found themselves in the worst of both worlds. Their long hours became the new norm, while at the same time their pay and conditions deteriorated sharply.

Just how much Spanish ATCs actually get paid has been a matter of controversy throughout the last year. The media have mentioned annual salaries of €600,000 prior to the first decree. But the most common figures cited in the press and media over recent months have been salaries of €350,000 up to February, reduced subsequently to €200,000. Many ATCs insist that they earn closer to €100,000 a year.

The government says that in Spain, as in other countries, air traffic controllers are a highly-paid, specialized group because of their unique skills, but it also accuses them of using their status to defend “intolerable privileges.”

A calculated move?

USCA insists that the dispute is not about salaries and privileges. It says the government refuses to engage in collective bargaining that would see new air traffic controllers enjoy the same conditions as their older colleagues. In fact, the government annulled the ATCs’ right to collective bargaining in an earlier decree. USCA also accuses the government of preparing airport authority AENA for privatisation by breaking the union, and that the government deliberately provoked its members by passing the decree on a holiday weekend.

The December 3 decree was ostensibly about ensuring the free flow of traffic through the busy Christmas period. Yet the government chose the day immediately preceding the busiest long weekend of the year to do so. Incompetence on the government’s part, or a calculated move?

There is something to be said for either interpretation. The issue of the 1,670-hour annual limit, for example, was a perfectly foreseeable problem, and had been flagged up repeatedly by USCA in the preceding months. But there was no response from either AENA or the government, until matters started to come to a head in the latter half of November.

For many, this lack of foresight reflects the makeshift reactions of the Zapatero government to issues related to the Spanish economy since the recession hit.

It is hard to understand why a set of measures that could easily have waited until the middle of the following week should have been decreed precisely on the eve of Spain’s most important long-weekend holiday.

But while USCA insists the new norms were aimed at provoking a response from the ATCs, the strike action also provided the government with a convenient smokescreen. The December 3 decree dealt with other matters besides the working hours of the ATCs. It also abolished the pitiful €426 a month allowance for workers whose unemployment benefits had run out. It substantially increased taxes on fuel, alcohol, and tobacco. It advanced a controversial reform to raise the pension age from 65 to 67. It lowered taxes on businesses. It announced the privatisation of the national lottery and –touching more closely on the big issue of the weekend– that of the country’s two biggest airports, Barajas and El Prat.

Yet since then, the media has been dominated by the strike and the use of a state of emergency to bring the ATCs to heel. Over the holiday weekend, in between ministerial denunciations of the strikers, distraught passengers were interviewed by sympathetic reporters anxious to learn how the dastardly air traffic controllers had ruined their holidays.

Since the walkout, the government has seized the initiative, taking advantage of the climate of anger against the ATCs, and putting further pressure on the union by taking more than 400 USCA members to court for abandoning their posts.

What’s more, citing an unnamed government source, right-wing daily El Mundo has reported that the government is considering extending the state of alarm for up two months, a move that would permit training of military personnel to replace civilian controllers in the event of a future strike.

These events will be familiar to those who remember the labour disputes of the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United Kingdom and the United States, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan successfully broke the power of the labour unions through a series of well-managed, high profile disputes — in Reagan’s case by provoking a strike among ATCs, and then sacking them all.

It is clear that this government has grossly mishandled the issue, and has failed to undertake proper negotiations with the unions since taking power six years ago to effectively manage this key sector.

At the same time, the ATCs have painted themselves into a very profitable corner. But by accepting a deal a decade ago that paid them handsomely for overtime but that did not provide for any increase in their numbers to match increased air traffic, they now find themselves portrayed as a highly-paid group seeking to protect their “intolerable privileges”.

Whether it be through the government’s Machiavellian scheming or its unscrupulous opportunism, the controllers have lost: the government will not increase their numbers under present pay scales and conditions; and is simultaneously pressing ahead with the partial sell-off of AENA, which means that it will not have to deal with the air traffic controllers’ union in the future, but can leave it up to whichever private company coughs up the estimated €8 billion asking price for the country’s airports authority. Meanwhile, public sympathy for the controllers’ cause is almost non-existent.

A final note: television images of convoys of military trucks headed to Barajas Airport will have brought back chilling memories for many Spaniards of the Franco dictatorship. Few commentators in the media here have pointed out the bitter irony that it has been a Socialist Party government that brought in the armed forces to break a labour union.


Published: Dec 13 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Spain’s air traffic strike: We’ve been here before”

  1. It is reassuring to see an article explaining that the ATC's collective bargaining agreement was torn up by the employers, that their pay rates were lied about in the press, that their hours had been extended to dangerous levels amidst chronic under-staffing and that their conditions of work had been unilaterally changed for the worse.

    How many people would tolerate being treated like that? So whilst people tut-tut about the inconvenience caused by a strike, they should realise that the ATCs were targetted by the employers to have their conditions seriously worsened.

    No doubt the idea of privatisation played an important part in the strategy – whenever public services were lined up for privatisation in the UK, there was a period in the run-up which involved reducing staffing levels, hammering the unions, increasing work rates and cutting costs to make the prospective private acquisition more lucrative for the new owners.

    It's a scandal that so-called socialists should use the military to try to bust a union.

  2. Those "poor little angels" could retire on what they earn-on average 10 years'of thew averasge salary so let's have less sympathy-torn up agreements,what about torn up holidays?

    Re the raising of the retirement age-why should increasing it from 65 to 67 be "controversial"? I had the slight impression that life expectancy was slightly above 65 in Spain 🙂

  3. Bob Lloyd above couldn't have said it better. The information put out about the controllers strike was very slanted. It gave the public the impression that these people are merely overpaid whiners in a job that could probably be done by anyone else, particularly those hired on by the "lowest bidder" (read: safety is out; for-profit is in). Nothing could be further from the truth. They are paid for what they do, which includes being responsible for lives of travellers every day (something the average office worker or assembly line worker does not have to worry about). There are levels of stress and skills that most people cannot comprehend that go along with the job. So, the question is: what value do you put on safety and people's lives? That's what they are paid for. Their salaries may be higher than average but they do earn it.

    Lloyd was right on the mark when he stated that the private industries (and the power players in government) who want to sell out to the lowest bidder have a master plan to make things harder and harder on those air traffic controllers so that they inevitably fail. That leaves the field wide open. With nearly all privatization of what is considered inherently governmental jobs involving safety, it works (on the surface) for the first 3 to 6 months. Then the extra cost "add ons" start cropping up and it ends up costing the tax payer twice as much if not more for a system that is not even close to being safe and reliable anymore. It's too easy to believe the media on this when we don't have all of the facts and those with the money tend to write what's written and what we read.

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