A dose of strategic realism? Or how a strike-fund can be effective

A dose of strategic realism? Or how a strike-fund can be effective

Taking into consideration all the discussed above, the appropriate strategic question is the following one: if a strike-fund appears to be an organizational instrument that can help workers to improve considerably their working conditions at the workplace and enhance their class power collectively, why are not other trade unions making use of it too?

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Is capitalism built through class oppression? Of course. Although it seems that as we keep talking about how things are so bad, even, about how worse they are getting with the rise of proto-fascist governments across the world – despite all these (new?) phenomena – it is obvious that nothing is really changing, or at least in our favor. To such pessimist answer, we should dare to make a provocative extension and state the following: yes, capitalism is disgustingly built by putting us against each other but WITH OUR INVOLVEMENT, with us being necessary accomplices of its hegemony and of its ugly transformation.
To our mind, we need to start changing our object of attention and acknowledge that capitalism is ALSO the expression of labor’s incapacity to organize and strike back effectively. We should be more self-critical, which does not mean self-destructive and start trying new things. Don’t you feel we have had enough of compassion and that it is already the time for a recalcitrant dose of strategic realism? But when we talk about new “things”, new “methods”, we are not talking about “original” or “utterly new” forms of class struggle – as some may prefer to believe they do exist outside history –, but instead we conceive them as basic forms of class organization and solidarity that perhaps, in the right context and dose, can unfold a set of new events that surface underlying contradictions. To our mind, as it stands now, right-wing class movements are making “goals” while the radical-left remains in a sort of state of confusion, an impasse, in which the time is running against us.

In such apparently gloomy landscape, and after seeing how European workers and class organizations have not managed to build effective transnational solidarity structures and discourses to counter-fight austerity and neoliberal regulation since 2008, a little country – Euskal Herria – in the Spanish state has provided us with renewed hopes. But these are not hopes of the kind in which the world is going to change to the much better very soon, but more realistically, that from the standpoint of an average Basque worker, there are some few things that one can do in order to make a step forward, no matter how small, but still, a step forward. A sort of successful incursion in a context of guerrilla-warfare perhaps?

More concretely, Euskal Langileen Alkartasuna (ELA), the largest and most representative trade union in the Basque Country, is a class organisation that, and from a position of ‘counter-power’, has sought to build organisational strength vis-à-vis the employers, the government and conservative unions, through the empowerment of its rank-and-file, predominantly, in collective bargaining and industrial conflict processes. Since the mid-1990s it opted to leave aside the historical turn that the rest of social-democratic unions were taking across the western world: to change from a position that seeks greater working conditions to that of conformism and micro-corporatism. A corporatist logic makes us think that the worse is to come and yet that it is better not to trigger the conflict, so we buy-into the enemy’s discourse and believe that by lowering the standards may be the explosion will put off. Ironically, such very strategy undermines all the conditions that once were gained and, at the same time, makes such actors to the eyes of the rest as accomplices of the course of history.

ELA has bet on gaining both political and financial autonomy (around 93% of its expenditures are self-covered) in order to be capable of setting some ‘red-lines’ that the rest of big unions are currently incapable of setting: not signing dual-wage-scales, not signing working-time and workload increases, not fostering calendar flexibility, not signing vacuous sector agreements that are not likely to be implemented at the workplace, and establishing new alliances with more confrontational unions and social organisations among other things. Or put it differently, this union has gained political and organizational autonomy and strength by rejecting social dialogue with the government and other conservative unions in order to establish a ‘counter-power’ strategy that seeks to protect and organize the whole Basque working class in and through their organization.

ELA has 100.000 members but it organizes just less than 10% of all the strikes taking place within the Spanish state (60 out of 600-800 per year approx.), and in the last years it has managed to organize, overall, more strikes than the second largest social-democratic trade union in Spain (Union General de Trabajadores, UGT) which has 10 times more affiliates than ELA. Moreover, the scope of action of the Basque union is smaller, i.e. the Basque Country only represents less than a 5% of the Spanish workforce, and this union only represents one-third of all Basque unionized workers. In other words, this union is the main force behind the fact that the Basque Country hosted 36% of all the strikes taking place in Spain between 2000-2017. This concretizes also in the statistical fact that a worker engaging in a strike organised by ELA loses at least 7 days more for every day lost by a strike organized by UGT. Therefore, and taking into consideration that Spain is already supposed to be one of the most conflictive countries in Europe, this Basque union is playing very tough.

After a decade of economic crisis and fiscal austerity, the trade union has maintained the pulse and not given up. In 2018 the number of strikes organized by ELA has augmented 81%. However, these have not sought to protect and empower ‘core-workers’ but rather more ‘precarious’ or ‘subaltern’ ones, expanding the horizons of class solidarity. For example, the longest and most visible strikes have occurred in feminized and racialized sectors such as in elder-caring-residences, hotel cleaning-services, publicly subcontracted cleaning-services, publicly-subcontracted school-restaurants or publicly subcontracted museum services. That is, in almost all those economic activities that should be incorporated within the responsibilities of what once was labeled as a social-democratic capitalist state. ELA is denouncing the neoliberal patriarchal state and is striking back to transform its regressive roots.
But how can we explain this? And leaving aside that the second largest union in the Basque Country, Langile Abertzaleen Batzordeak (LAB), has also various decades of grass-roots mobilization and social movement history? Well, we conceive that the strike-fund has a lot to do with this. Three examples, which are becoming the norm rather than a rarity, might be interesting to consider succinctly:

1. In 2016, after 41 days of complete indefinite strike, workers at the museum of fine arts of Bilbao managed to: raise their gross-wages more than 100%, by increasing their base-salary from 10.400€ to 20.500€ and recognising their seniority (trienios); introduce a subrogation clause in the collective agreement so that the modification of the license between the government and the subcontractor would not suppose any lay-off; and to block the company from reducing salaries or working conditions in case of financial stress that the 2012 labour reform permits. According to one syndicalist: “We are a very small collective who was confronted a large multinational company like ManPower Group Solutions and to the three largest public institutions in the territory […] Despite the numerous problems, we have also discovered ourselves, and that is the most important: that we have discovered the power of unity”.

2. This year, after another 41-day strike that started the 1st of February and finished the 12th of March, 38 workers of a manufacturing company in Navarra managed to secure a collective agreement that would: increase salaries more than 10% by recognizing night-shifts, seniority, inflation and so on; reduce 24 working hours during the first year and would prohibit to work on Sundays; reduce calendar flexibility so that workers can plan and organize their holidays and reproductive-life better; and block the implementation of the 2012 labour reform that bestows companies sufficient power to modify working conditions discretionally.

3. Last year, after 40-days striking and protesting in the city center of Bilbao, starting the 2nd of November and finished the 12th of December, the room-service and cleaners of two multinational hotels managed to improve their salaries and working conditions substantially: an increase of 54% of their basic salary in less than two years (from 13.000€ to 20.000€), thus, equalising their salaries and other working conditions (reduction of working time and flexibility) to what actually establishes the regional agreement on the hotel industry; the reincorporation of those strikers who had been laid-off or whose contract had expired during the strike.

According to the latest data published for its militancy (Landeia, February 2019), ELA starts using the strike-fund in strikes of a duration of more than three days, and it comfortably exceeds the Minimum Wage for the commitment that the fund should cover at least 105% of the legal minimum. The amounts for the year 2019 are the following: (1) the “regular fund” of €1,102.50 per month (£951.25); (2) a “reinforced fund” of +15%, that is €1267'87 per month (£1,093.93), for those companies in which at least 35% of the staff is affiliated to ELA; and (3) the “strategic fund” for those strikes and sectors considered to be strategic, and in which the support can reach up to €2,205.00 per month (£1,902.5). In any case, the cash compensation may never exceed the monthly net salary, including extraordinary payments.

Having a strike-fund of this type is only possible thanks to a high union fee (€21'77 per month, £18.78 per month; the highest within the Spanish state), and because the union allocates 25% of their union fees to the strike-fund, that is around £5 per month. This high quota supports the financial autonomy of the union (it self-finances more than 94.44% of its activity), and allows ELA not to depend on external revenues such as state subsidies. This financial autonomy provides, and unlike other unions tied to the financing of social dialogue, the necessary political autonomy to confront both government and employers. The combative orientation of trade union policy, political autonomy and collective bargaining, and financial autonomy together with the use of the strike-fund, define the union model of ELA that has no comparative references at European level.

After doing sociological and historical research on industrial conflict and the restructuring of collective bargaining in the Basque Country, Catalonia and the rest of Spain, the two authors of this text have come to the conclusion that the use of a strike-fund is a (relatively simple) organizational mechanism that can empower workers in two forms. On the one hand, it empowers workers “democratically” or “from below”, as the use of strike-funds can only become operationalized through the active intervention, organization and mobilization of the rank-and-file at various spatial scales, predominantly the workplace, but not only. On the other hand, we have also realised that the strike-fund does also empower the working class “strategically” or “collectively”, as it simultaneously amplifies the room for maneuver of a class organization (the union), and crystalizes the effectiveness of its (democratic?) leadership through the transformation of history and by gaining social support.

Taking into consideration all the discussed above, the appropriate strategic question is the following one: if a strike-fund appears to be an organizational instrument that can help workers to improve considerably their working conditions at the workplace and enhance their class power collectively, why are not other trade unions making use of it too? Why are not trade unions that consider themselves to be revolutionary not using it systematically, in order to enhance the collective solidarity of its membership? Or is it that revolutionary unions are achieving similar victories with the use of other tools and forms of class struggle? We dare to advance two responses: (1) or we are not giving to collective bargaining and to the conditions that are established through daily-life class struggle the centrality they deserve, because collective bargaining is not interesting at all for its reformist horizon, and then why to make out our disposal any instrument for it; or (2) in a cost-benefit analysis a union realizes that it has unsolvable difficulties in its management.

No matter how superficial this may look to revolutionary praxis, we believe that refusing to assimilate effective organizational instruments in the triggering of (no matter how partial and limited) class struggles is to condemn revolutionary syndicalism to the irrelevance, both within trade unionism and class politics. We consider far more dangerous to wait for the emergence and spread of revolutionary class-organizations out from any historical praxis, resorting to ‘purer’ proclaim than to try to understand the actual contradictions of our own historically grounded collective power and forms of class consciousness. The fact that we have still no clue on how to make the revolution and on how a socialist or communist society may look like should not impede us from committing more accurate mistakes. From such reading, and in a context of pervading structural disempowerment, we argue that wielding the dilemmas of a strike- in order to both strengthen solidarity ties between already-union-members and expand them beyond, to those workers who may start seeing syndicalism a possibility. It is here where revolutionary-syndicalist (e.g. IWW) and democratic-socialist projects (ala e.g. ELA) may converge, from a heuristic process that confronts theory with praxis – a process which understands ideology and collective forms of class action as two sides of the same incomplete process – so that social emancipation may become not just a mere speculation but a historical truth.

Jon Las Heras (@jonlhc) & Lluis Rodriguez (@lluisraeco), political economists and members of the Institute of Economics and Self-Management.