Madrid Metro strike, 2010.
Madrid Metro strike, 2010.

Short article putting the popular assembly movement in the context of recent struggles in Spain against austerity.

Submitted by Ed on June 6, 2011

Some context
Many in Spain are commenting on the current mobilizing as the first ‘serious’ and massive response to the crisis measures. There was a sense of ‘why isn’t something happening here’ as people heard of the Greek rebellion of 2008, or the Anomalous wave in Italy in 08-09. To be sure things were happening. Early on, as news of the crisis internationally filled the media and as reports of how it was occurring in Spain gathered speed towards the end of 2008, there was pause and some shock: banks and important real estate companies were getting bailed out, unemployment started going up, immigrant were offered ‘checks’ to ‘go home’ and mortgage debts began to not be paid at higher and higher levels.

A first call began to circulate on email, SMS, and some blogs and websites to do countrywide actions demanding the rich pay for the crisis. This was late fall 2008. While quite a few actions did occur, there was no apparent follow up and the mobilization felt weak in sum, nothing more came of that one off afternoon.

Important mobilizations with country wide repercussions have occurred for sure over the past 2 years: strong anti-Bologna student protests in 2009 and 2010; a ‘Huelga salvaje’ (savage strike) by the Madrid Metro workers; a non-union air-traffic controller strike which caused a huge controversy and with military police called in to escort controllers back to work (as the strike ‘threatened national security’ in the government lingo)…. But almost a year and a half would have to wait until ‘anti-crisis’ mobilizing per se took place…(we say this aware of all the dangers in labeling different types of mobilizations and trying to enumerate them…but we hope it helps give some background).

As Spring 2010 came around a new series of crisis measure were being debated/introduced: the ‘Plan E’ (like the ‘economic stimulus package); and the ‘tijeretazo’- the ‘scissor cut’; the first austerity measure after the largess lavished on the banking/real estate sector and after the stimulus attempt. The cuts included an across the board salary cut for civil servants which provoked a countrywide strike by civil servants. But that one-day mobilization seemed to remain contained in that day.

The news developed- the discussions about the Greek, Portuguese and Irish debt crises were beginning to hit Spain…some thing would have to be done to “calm the markets”. Official unemployment was staying at about 20%; steady for about two year thus far- with immigrants and youth being particularly hit. Youth unemployment is about 40% and even an IMF document spoke of a ‘lost generation’ in Spain.

News was filled with the need to ‘cut-back’, regional and local governments were also in the debt hole, many of them cutting back on local projects and with discussions of partially privatizing health care abounding. While these attempts have been going on in Madrid for some years- with many actions against it- the attempts are now spreading to new regions. For the first time since the public health system started (which is all that most people here can remember) there is talk of things like ‘co-payment’ on medical bills, or the need to concede management of new hospitals to constructions companies as a way to ‘incite’ them to build new hospitals.

Fall 2010- a day of general strike was called for September 29th. Graffitis and murals stull pepper city walls with that call, there some high expectations that there would be a strong response. The strike occurred without much fanfare though…many felt betrayed by the unions, and that the strike was not able to generalize itself to the population.

As 2011 started the union were negotiating with the employers’ association and the government on more reforms and cuts- especially the pension reform (changing retirement age in particular). On the eve of the vote on the measure there were nation-wide mobilizations (though not called by the union’s central leadership apparently), marches, some region wide general strikes, other actions. But again it felt like a one-off day of protest with no process emerging from it. Frustration and impotence ran high.

In the midst of this, as 2011 winter turned into spring, the revolts across the ‘watan al arabi’, the Arab world were spreading with regular coverage…the book “get outraged” calling for ‘civic revolt’ by Stephene Hessel was just released and selling like hotcakes; news of what is at times called the Icelandic revolution’; on March 12 in Portugal a huge youth mobilization, also started outside party and union structures, began with something like 300,000 (either in Lisbon or throughout the country) marching, the largest protests since the 1975 Carnation revolution. That mobilizing, originally called ‘generacao a rasca’ (the desperate generation) now called the march 12th movement, sparked a kind of “hey why not here?” response.

Without tracing linear causality here, all these resonances of other struggle nearby and, the continuing talk of cuts and anti-social reforms; and the apparent inability of unions, parties, and other social movements to launch a response sparked definite unease. A march called ‘lost youth’ numbering in the thousands took place in Madrid- something of a harbinger of things to come. AS regional elections were about to happen calls began to spread on social media, but also in bars and flyers with a simple demand “Take the street! Real Democracy Now” denouncing the collaborationism between the financial sector and the political class. That happened the 15th of May, a day or two later, some people tried to take a plaza, they were evicted, and the response was the country-wide plaza encampments we now see.

Taken from the From the Plazas blog.