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Time for a name change for the Socialist Workers’ Party

Spain’s labour unions have failed to impress throughout the current economic crisis. However, the government is wrong to point the finger at them for the country’s woes – the financial sector is much more to blame.


The Socialist Party has embraced conservative policies in recent months. Photo: PSOE.

When the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) holds its annual conference this summer, the party faithful’s main task will be to dump its leader, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and replace him with wily Interior Minster Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. While they’re at it, they might consider a name change more in keeping with the party’s sharp right-turn over the last year, for which Pérez Rubalcaba can take much of the credit/blame.

Times are tough, and they’re going to get a lot tougher. Unemployment officially stands at 20 percent, growth rates are zero, and growing numbers of people are feeling the impact of the government’s austerity cuts. In short, the recession is hitting millions of ordinary Spaniards harder and harder.

Readers with a modicum of understanding of history will know that at times like this what is needed is a scapegoat – a bunch of villains on whom to lay the blame for the nation’s woes. And anyone with a modicum of understanding of history will also know that once again it’s not going to be the people who mostly got us into this mess who will get it in the neck. As ever, the banks are being left to get on with their grubby business: once again, labour is the target. Let’s not forget that it has been public sector workers who have had their wages cut, not bank employees, and much less their bosses.

Instead, as the old song says, “It’s the poor what gets the blame.” And Spain’s poor can expect little help from the unions. The general strike last September has had little impact, failing either to galvanise the workers, and much less arouse government fears of a revolution.

Little wonder. Members of the air traffic controllers’ union, now subject to martial law after stupidly falling into a government trap and calling a wildcat strike before the December holiday weekend, now face charges of sedition, meaning that they could go to prison for a long time, as well as having to pay crippling fines.

The unions seem to have got the message. The PSOE-aligned UGT (General Workers Union) and the Communist Party-controlled CCOO (Workers’ Commissions) have fallen into line, rather than trying to explain the issues behind the walkout. The UGT said the action was “in no way justified.” The CCOO attacked the controllers as “a corporate group pampered by the company and the government” and demanded they “respect the labour law.”

The Socialist Party government realised early last year that its main priority was to show international investors it will do anything that is required to implement the austerity measures immediately demanded of Spain. Zapatero was rewarded with a laudatory report in the Wall Street Journal in May, which noted that: “the government’s severe response has shored up the position of Spain’s embattled prime minister and could give him more support in passing reforms.”

The WSJ then pointed out that Zapatero’s actions were popular with “conservatives, who want to see tough reforms in areas such as labor, pension costs and the banking sector.” The newspaper was subsequently among those that felt the support won by the Socialist Party for its stand against the controllers would be used to push through “the consolidation of Spain’s troubled banking sector” and confronting “a rigid labor market that zealously protects the salary and benefits of full-time workers.”

But the government’s decision to see the unions as the problem illustrates its colossal misunderstanding of what has gone wrong with the Spanish economy. No one is denying that this is a time for belt-tightening. Or that some unions are problematic. Or that some union agreements look over-generous in austerity-hit Spain. But the fundamental truth remains: it wasn’t powerful and reckless unions who caused the current crisis through rampant speculation. Nor did an out-of-control labour movement cause or burst the housing bubble. It was not Spain’s union leaders who connived with the banks to inflate house prices or to build homes nobody could afford to live in. Nor was it union bosses who awarded (and continue to award) themselves salaries worth hundreds of millions of euros for doing nothing of social value. Neither was it the union movement that was bailed out by the taxpayer and then refused to change its habits.

All that was the work of the banks and the financial services sector.

Yet, as Spain continues to search for solutions to its economic problems, it is the labour movement, and not the banking sector, that is increasingly taking the flak. And this despite the fact that the country’s two main unions have bent over backwards in talks that the government foisted on them with the business confederation to lower wages and cede long-held workers’ rights supposedly in order to preserve jobs. And yet the unemployment figures rise and rise, and even the prime minister glibly admits that “no jobs are going to be created any time soon.”

Meanwhile, the finance industry, where true and meaningful reform has failed to take place, still behaves as if nothing has changed. All the high street banks have now begun a campaign to try to lure money from their cash-strapped customers while speculating on the international markets with the loot that the self-same customers were forced to bail them out with.

Spain’s banks and big corporations are flush with cash and enjoying generous tax breaks, and have continued to give generous bonus payouts, while refusing to loan money.

And in the parallel universe of the current Spanish government, it is the unions that are causing all the problems. The Socialist Party has a long and inglorious history over the last 30 years of demonising labour, despite its roots in the trade union movement.

Now, in times of trouble, the government and the opposition have fallen back on the oldest stereotype they know: the evil union and its greedy members. One can only wonder whether Pérez Rubalcaba was aware of the scope for interpretation of his words when, at the time of the air traffic strike in December, he referred to “a tiny but powerful minority that is trying to hold the country to ransom.”

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Published: Feb 2 2011
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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