Spanish dockworkers, Brexit, and the European Union

Spanish dockworkers, Brexit, and the European Union

Spanish dockworkers have sucessfully fought back against the EU's inherent neoliberalism. Lessons abound.

I'll admit it: I was a bit soft on Brexit. I'm not a British citizen, so I couldn't vote. But if I could have, I probably would have voted remain. Some of my closest anarchist friends – ones who'd never vote in national or local elections – voted remain. A lot of them have lived abroad or have family members or partners who are migrants themselves. The idea of abolishing free movement within the EU was scary on a personal level. On top of that, those leading the leave campaign were a bunch of racists and a leave vote would (and has) emboldened the forces of reaction in Britain and around the world.

On top of this we are, of course, a bunch of smug, politically correct elitist urbanites. We drink lattes, read the Guardian, and enjoy looking down our noses at the real working class who rejected the EU on grounds of economic self-interest.

Or so we're told. To read the media, the Brexit vote was carried by the 'white working class' and their supposed rejection of 'rule from Brussels'. While that narrative may have some truth to it (and, undoubtedly a lot of untruth), there can be little doubt that the rise of populist movements in Europe and North America reflects deeper anxieties about decades of structural changes affecting the liberal western democracies.

And despite the massive amount of bulls**t peddled by the right-wing press about straight bananas or my own liberal backsliding on the issue, the fact remains: the EU is a fundamentally neo-liberal institution. In the preceding decades, it has contributed toward a drop in working class living standards – although not in a way that was given much attention in either the tabloids or the left-leaning broadsheets.

The EU, at its core, is an institution of the European bourgeoisie. In superseding national boundaries, it sought a lever to ensure the post-war power of the European working class, exercised through social democratic state intervention, was rooted out in favor of free trade and the open shop.

It forged the European single market, established prohibitions against nationalised or subsidised industries, and required that national economies be liberalised in the pursuit of these aims.

Enter the Spanish dockworkers.

In contradistinction to these stated aims, Spanish dockworkers continue to enjoy a level of protection against market forces in determining their working conditions. Employers' control over hiring in the industry is curtailed while workers have high levels of job security and wages that harken back to times of mass unionisation.

This state of affairs – a high level of state involvement and an increased level of worker and union power over hiring – goes against the neo-liberal principals of the European Union. As such, the Spanish government is obliged to liberalise the ports or face daily fines of 134,000 Euros.

In view of this, the Spanish government proposed reforms to bring the ports in line with EU policy. Dockworkers responded immediately by organising assemblies, actions, and preparing for strikes should the government press ahead.

Dockworkers, of course, pointed out that such reforms would see their pay and job security come under attack, along with the power and organisation that enabled them to win such protections in the first place.

I don't claim to know the ins-and-outs of the parties involved in the dispute (the issue was woefully undercovered in English-language sources – both mainstream and anti-capitalist). I do know the the lead union, the “Coordinadora”, has radical roots, no paid bureaucrats, and organises via open assemblies.

Also of note is the International Dockworkers Council, an umbrella group of port unions which has coordinated international action in the past when dockworkers disputes have flared up in Europe and around the world. Through the IDC, European dockworkers were prepared to engage in rolling strikes in solidarity with Spanish dockworkers.

In response to this pressure and the threat of escalating and coordinated strike action, the government lost the parliamentary vote to implement their proposals – a huge victory for the dockworkers.

At this point it doesn't seem clear if the dispute is over, but it's been proven that the dockworkers – their solidarity, their organisation – are a force to be reckoned with. And this is true whether they're up against the power of their employers, the Spanish state, or the European Union itself.

Where does this leave us back in Brexit Britain?

Populism rears its ugly head where popular discontent has lost its class content. It ignores the economic basis of society, of inequality, of exploitation.

Instead, it hijacks legitimate grievances and directs them against a politically-constructed elite, in the process consciously papering over the fundamental class fissures that underpin capitalist society. In the best case scenario, this serves to bolster the careers of self-serving politicians. In the worst, the forces of xenophobia and oppression channel that anger into organised violence.

We've all had conversations with co-workers or family members who've repeated right-wing cliches or expressed populist notions about immigration, border control, or national sovereignty. It's tempting to argue with these sentiments politically and allow ourselves to be pulled into, for example, a pro- or anti- EU debate that misses the point.

But instead of notions of “elites in Brussels”, we can point towards the Spanish dockworkers. Their dispute demonstrates the class nature of society, a nature that won't change whether power rests in national governments or supra-national institutions. We don't exercise the power we have by buying into such false dichotomies and picking a side. Instead, we can look towards the Spanish dockers to understand what can be gained through organisation, internationalism, and confrontation.