Industrial Worker (May 2013)

Articles from the May 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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Some notes on the Spanish situation

An article by José Luis Carretero Miramar on austerity in Spain and the response.

It is evident that the social situation in Spain has arisen in an uncontrollable dynamic. As a result of an unprecedented financial and economic crisis, the productive and social dismantling caused by the government’s Plans of Adjustment imposed on the population is reaching unsustainable levels.
The equation has been simple: the gigantic Spanish construction bubble, swollen at its base with private external debt by some extremely voracious financial entities, aligned with a political class that is a product of the reform without rupture of franquismo, of which consisted the so-called “democratic transition,” has burst with the heat of the global financial crisis of 2007. Its implosion has been confronted, moreover, with distinct mechanisms of the socialization of said debt, like the European line of credit of €100 billion conceded to rescue the banks, and indirectly guaranteed by the state.

Basically, they are trying to make the whole of the population (and, principally, the working class and the most vulnerable sectors of the middle class) pay for a debt that has risen to a difficult to determine amount, but impossible to repay. In these moments, the Plans of Adjustment implemented, which follow the neoliberal orthodoxy, are causing a complete collapse of the basic pillars of the so-called Social State (which, as an aside, never actually developed toward European standards in Spain), with an absolute lethargy of economic activity which is expressed in devastating statistics like a year-to-year sales decrease of at least 12.6 percent or a decline of state revenue intake by close to six points of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the last year.

Of course, this suicidal (because it becomes evident that the debt cannot be repaid) and profoundly antisocial strategy is having undeniably radical effects. The unemployment rate has exceeded 25 percent of the active population; close to 20 million people (more than 40 percent of the population) live in economically precarious conditions; there are 1.7 million households with all of their members unemployed; and 63 percent of said unemployed no longer receive any benefits.

On top of that, the bursting of the real estate bubble has pushed a catastrophic situation on a large part of mortgage debtors who bought a house at the height of the cycle and now, in light of the explosion of the unemployment and the economic lethargy, cannot pay. There are over 500 evictions daily, with more than 95,000 in the last six months, and the suicides of people evicted from their homes are beginning to multiply.

Not everybody, of course, loses with the crisis: the historic gap between the parts of the national renting market in the hands of wage earners and in the hands of the business owners is rapidly closing.

Wages in 2006 stood at 47.26 percent of GDP, and the rate of profit at 41.43 percent. In the last quarter of 2012, the difference has virtually disappeared, since wages now stand at 45.3 percent and corporate profits at 45.2 percent. In that respect, one must keep in mind that more than 90 percent of the private debt that is being socialized and, as such, paid by all tax contributors, belongs to the financial entities and the large businesses of the IBEX-35 (the benchmark stock market index of the Bolsa de Madrid, Spain’s principal stock exchange), while 85 percent of employment corresponds to the small and medium businesses that are severely suffering from the implemented Plans of Adjustment.

Furthermore, the austerity measures put in place unload their weight on the weakest: pharmaceutical copay; the privatization of hospital and ambulatory management; the disappearance of health benefits for irregular immigrants; education cuts expressed in thousands of firings and a rise in tuition at the universities and technical schools; repeal of the Dependency Law, destined to favor people caring for disabled people; the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and accelerated privatization of state businesses and services; labor market reform that implies an almost chaotic drift toward a flexibility without brake and a clear reinforcement of business command; the dismantling of collective bargaining, prioritizing its decentralization and the possibility of lowering its conditions at the will of the boss. All of this appears to constitute an enormous offensive that wants to profoundly transform the basics structures of Spanish society.

Of course, resistance has come quickly. Following the surprising and magnificent eruption of the discontented multitudes in the streets on May 15, 2011, the demonstrations and protests have become massive, although, too many times, disconnected and disorganized. We are part of the formation of a parallel social block constructed in the environment of the assemblies of the 15-M Movement (the movement in favor of a new constituent process), the struggles against privatization and the affirmation of the radical sectors of social movements and the labor movement. At the same time, the major unions, tremendously bureaucratized, try to maintain their power through a strategy consisting of putting themselves at the head of the mobilization: when the rebellious wave rises, wearing them down and impeding their coming together, and abandoning them when the wave falls.

Against this background of emergency and rekindling of struggles, of rediscovery of the tactics of assembly and ground-up popular movements, the non-authoritarian movement seems well-placed, with its practices and discourse, to present itself to and fill a gap in the social consciousness. The effective cooperation of syndicalist organizations (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo [CNT], Confederación General del Trabajo [CGT] and Solidaridad Obrera) and their relationship with other militant unionists, has momentarily favoured a trend which paves the way for the autonomous and libertarian “scene,” and its ability to influence the aforementioned social milieu around the 15-M that has already spontaneously adopted the practice of assemblies

These conditions impose the necessity of constructing, creating and maintaining an open and conspiratorial position that permits building a grand alliance that raises the foundations of the beginning of a process of social transition, whose necessity is each time more shared in front of the global and ecological crisis in progress, toward another mode of life and of production in which the dignity and the freedom of the masses is the center of a vital transformational experience.

Translated by Daniel Perrett

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)

Spain: mainstream unions support big business, CNT fights back

An article by Brandon Oliver about the CNT's response to austerity in Spain.

Easter week, one of the busiest travel weeks in Spain, was supposed to see three strike days at Iberia Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier. This strike was called by the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), a revolutionary anarchosyndicalist union with which the IWW has a long history of mutual support, and Coordinadora Estatal del Sector Handling Aereo (CESHA), a baggage handlers’ union which is not political, but which rejects state funding and professional union staff, and operates through assemblies.

The goal of the strike was to continue a series of mobilizations that have been building since Iberia was bought by British Airlines and the new holding company, IAG, announced a plan at the end of 2011 to spin off a new “low-cost” carrier, IB Express. Originally this plan was supposed to preserve existing jobs and create 500 new ones, but as time went on it became clear that this was a way to restructure capital and discard as many workers as possible.

Of course, in a country with a 25 percent unemployment rate, the workers did not accept this without a response. Although there has historically been a large divide, with the pilots seeing themselves as separate from the ground staff and flight crew, there was a possibility for united action. The pilots struck at the end of December 2011, and in January 2012 the two majority unions, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), worked with the large range of smaller unions that are present in Iberia to call for a strike of all staff—which was then sabotaged when the two majority unions called it off. However this backfired when the CNT branch in Iberia was able to form a coalition with the other minority unions and escalate the fight, beginning with a march of 1,500 workers and supporters (two of whom were IWW members who happened to be in the area) that same month in Madrid.

This mobilization has continued, with the minority unions gaining increasing support from the workers as the majority unions revealed just how yellow they were, up through March of this year. At that point, with the threat of united strike action by all of the unions, the government stepped in and imposed mediation. In the midst of large daily mobilizations around the airport, the majority unions signed an “agreement” which includes 3,141 layoffs and fierce cuts against the workers who will remain. The CNT and CESHA declared a strike in response, but they were unable to persuade any of the other minority unions to join them, so they abandoned it for the time-being. To drive the nail in the coffin, Iberia is prosecuting those two unions for declaring an illegal strike, and has fired the 14 members of CESHA’s strike committee (five of whom have since been reinstated) and seeks to do the same to the CNT.

Why is this important for IWW members? The landscape of labor law, union politics and social history in Spain is very different from the Anglo world where the IWW is rooted. Furthermore, Iberia is one very specific company, and there are certain factors that have allowed the CNT to have a more effective presence there than they have elsewhere. However, the CNT at Iberia can serve as a good model for what a small revolutionary union which seeks to grow should be doing.

The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975; the CNT, having been illegal during his reign, was re-established quickly afterwards and was tightly linked with a quickly growing workers’ movement that worked through assemblies and rejected paid staff and government mediation, as well as political party manipulation. Many of these workers’ struggles took place at the Madrid-Barajas Airport, where a CNT branch was founded the next year. In order to restore social peace, in 1977 the Spanish government worked with the main “Left” parties to create the Moncloa Pacts, the Spanish version of the National Labor Relations Act. This sought to channel all union activity through parliament-style elections, which allow for the existence of many unions. The unions receive money from the government based on how many votes they receive, and paid union time for officers from the company. Although there is no dues check-off and membership is completely voluntary, the result is similar—the unions become structurally separate from the workers and identify with the interests of those who sign their checks.

The CNT was the only major union at the time to reject this agreement, although a minority left to become what is now the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT). Following this there were several decades of government repression, relative social peace and media and political party manipulation, amongst other things. Finally around the turn of the millennium the CNT began to have more of an echo among workers who wanted to organize without subsidies or staffers. Relative to the IWW, the CNT is very large—about five or six times our membership in a country with a population comparable to California’s. Nonetheless, it is still very much a minority union, one of many. The section at Iberia, which is relatively strong and active in many parts of the company, is somewhat exceptional, and the comrades there give part of the credit to the elitist pilots’ union, which boycotts the elections and negotiates directly with the company, although probably for different reasons than the CNT.

So what do you do when the country’s economy collapses and the main political parties and their unions are negotiating with the European Union (EU) about how best to sell off all of the public services and rapidly nullifying practically the entire code of labor law? This is a discussion that is happening within the CNT and elsewhere, including within our organization, and it’s an important one. What the CNT has been doing at Iberia for 35 years seems to be a good model, a balance between two extremes that are often proposed: a closed “revolutionary political organization” or a semi-radical “mass movement.” A revolutionary union does not need to encompass the entire working class, but it also should not confine itself to workers who are already radical. It can act as a fighting organization on the shop floor (what “union” used to mean) and at the same time maintain a higher vision of a struggle against capitalism. This is not merely theoretical—it will have profound impacts on how an organization goes forward. Even if a revolutionary union preserves its specific identity, which it should do, it can also act as a catalyst among other workers’ groups, working-class organizations, and the broader working class in general. None of us know the best way to do this yet, but the CNT section at Iberia is showing one route to get there. As global capitalism tries to throw Spain in the same trash pile as Greece, the CNT might be able to act as a catalyst turning things in the other direction.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)