On the transport strike, the student strike, and the riots, protests, and sabotage carried out in Barcelona in the month of February, in response to the Labor Reform and the austerity measures, and the role of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists.
The Developing Social War in one Mediterranean City, February 2012
Everybody concerned with the growing social conflict manifesting ever more visibly in the streets of Barcelona had their eyes on the last week of February. Both the custodians of order and those who are increasingly realizing themselves to be a class diametrically opposed to the former knew that the stakes were high: it was the week of perhaps the economically most important convention the city is host to, the Mobile World Congress, which brings together cellphone and other tech companies to show off their latest gadgets. The Congress is a high status event, bringing millions of euros in commerce to the city and thousands of low paying temp jobs to those who make the city run.
It was also the target of the metro and bus workers who decided to call a 4 day strike for the days of the Congress, from the 27th of February to the 1st of March. The workers of TMB (Barcelona Metropolitan Transit) were on the war path now that the pervasive austerity measures had come to the transportation sector. Since the end of 2011, the users of public transport were already in an uproar against the price hike to 2 euros a ride. The only cities with more expensive metro or bus fares have median incomes two or three times higher, making Barcelona city transit the most unaffordable in Europe or North America. On an almost weekly basis in January, there were popular actions sabotaging the metro or opening it up for free riding.
In February, TMB workers joined the fray, adding two new demands to the users' rejection of the price hike: a rejection of the reduction of services and the cutting of several bus lines; and the upholding of TMB's prior agreements with its workers, particularly the payment of overdue wages and the honoring of an agreement made with bus workers after an important series of strikes in 2008. The bus workers and metro workers agreed in assembly to go on strike for as long as 4 days, to support all protests and solidarity actions called in those four days even if the strike had been discontinued, and to not accept any separate deals with TMB but to continue until the demands of both the metro and bus workers had been met.
Although the history of anarchist struggles in Catalunya is a warning against faith in labor unions, and the most consistently solidaristic sector of the anarcho-syndicalists--the CNT desfederada--has no presence in transport or any other industry (as the joke goes, they are a "syndicate of insurrectionaries"), there was good reason to believe that this conflict would be an important one.
*The major union among the bus workers, and an important one in metro, is the CGT, a 1979 split from the CNT and the largest anarcho-syndicalist organization in the world, even though most of its members do not consider themselves anarchists.
*In 2008, the CGT-organized bus workers went on strike and won their demands after seeking support from a broad swath of society, including anarchists and squatters, organizing blockades, propaganda, talks, and other actions together. A high level of sabotage put around 90 buses out of commission during the days of the strike, and the CGT offered legal support to anyone prosecuted for solidarity actions, worker or no.
*There is a growing outrage against the rich and powerful taking root in Barcelona, and growing grassroots support for increasingly forceful tactics. The pacifism of 15M and the 2009 student movement have largely been marginalized or at least counterbalanced, and many organizers of the transport strike have also been proponents of a general strike.
*At the beginning of the month, the new conservative government in Madrid announced its Labor Reform, which basically makes all work precarious, decreases severance pay, and makes collective agreements with workers voluntary for employers. At the same time the details of the Reform were filtering out, the revolt in Greece against austerity measures erupted across television screens and newspaper front pages and people in Catalunya largely approved. A new graffito quickly went viral: "If you're going to be Swiss [an expression that means: to take part in a fraud or a cover-up], we're going to be Greeks."
*Conflict and sabotage were on the rise in the previous month, and a four day strike in transport, timed to disrupt an event of great importance for the city's rich and the image-managers in their pay, could be an important stepping stone to a combative general strike.
Anarchists had already been involved in the wave of resistance to the price hikes, particularly in building solidarity within the neighborhood assemblies and organizing open (non-clandestine) sabotages. They stepped into this new phase of the struggle in transport not as allies but as people directly affected. Meanwhile, the anarcho-syndicalists among the transport workers called for a total shutdown of the city in the workers' asssemblies and were met with strong applause.
To add fuel to the fire, students and workers called for a strike in the universities to take place in all of Catalunya on Wednesday, 29 February. Given recent history, a call-out by the students generated little confidence among anarchists. During the 15 October megamarch, when other columns went on to take over the metro system or occupy an entire apartment block for evicted families, the student column carried out a tame, Sunday-only occupation of one university, and in the 2008 struggle against the privatizing Plan Bologna, student leaders enforced a strict pacifism, even kicking out those who tried to mask up in protests, and quickly smothered the movement; nonetheless the announcement added enthusiasm to the build-up for the transport strike.
What's more, a week earlier, police in Valencia brutalized a protest by school students opposing the cutbacks and complaining about the sorrowful situation that had seen entire classes huddle under blankets throughout the winter because the schools could not pay for heating. Spontaneous solidarity protests took the streets of Madrid and Barcelona, and in the latter city demonstrators, many of them students or Valencians, scuffled with police, overturned dumpsters, and damaged some banks.
In the two weeks before the transport strike, bus shelters and metro entrances were covered with posters calling for solidarity and support, urging people to ride for free if they had to ride. From the other side of the line, the TV and radio mobilized selfishness and alienation to portray the Mobile World Congress as the best thing to happen to the people of Barcelona, and the strike as an irresponsible threat to their jobs, their image, and their mobility. Major protests and blockades were prepared for the days of the strike, but the media propaganda gradually wore away at the workers' resolve. What began as a triumphant, daring decision to attack the owners of the city where it was thought they would be hurt the most, the call for a multiple day, disruptive strike backed by protest and sabotage, was quickly drowned in an illusion of realism.
A couple days before the strike was to begin, the metro workers (the most important in any transit disruption, as the metro moves many more people than the bus) held a meeting with a blind ballot and accepted a deal with TMB that did not include the users' demands against price hikes and violated their agreement with the bus workers to negotiate jointly. Late Sunday evening, hours before the strike was to begin, bus workers voted in assembly to call off the strike for strategic reasons. In the following days, as recriminations were hurled between unions and between the different groups of workers, a number of sordid allegations emerged regarding backdoor dealing by bus workers, including the CGT, that balanced out the more visible betrayal by the metro workers. What became apparent is that the social practice of solidarity has been much diminished by the decades of democracy and television, and that even the workers who remained solidaristic vastly underestimated the importance of social support by calling off the strike.
What these workers did not seem to realize is that with the new labor reform, any tame form of syndicalism is pointless, as employers will no longer be held to their agreements. Any deal they reach with TMB can only be backed up by the social force or threat of disruption they are able to constitute. Now the rich and powerful know exactly how cheaply they'll sell themselves, how susceptible to media pressure they are, whereas people in the streets will not back them up so enthusiastically the next time.
The Monday that should have been heralded by the beginning of the strike was instead greeted by the city's rulers with newspaper headlines announcing, "Mobility Assured". As one anarchist text commented, the mobility referred to was less a question of the punctuality of trains and buses and more an announcement of the prevailing logic of precarity. With the failure of the social movements to withstand even the moralizing of the media, the city elite could bask in the triumph of the new social contract, in which workers can be moved into the unemployment lines, neighbors kicked out of their houses, and tourists circulated through the city to the exact degree demanded by employers, owners, and profiteers.
A number of planned road blockades along with the mass assembly to be held in Plaça Espanya, the site of the cellphone congress, failed to materialize; however in other parts of town there were a number of buses sabotaged or metro stations opened. In the very center, a group of people suddenly stopped a double bus as it was crossing Av. Paral·lel, spraypainting and breaking its windows, puncturing its tires, and leaving it sprawled across four lanes of traffic. Others distributed texts in the metro, criticizing the workers and the lack of solidarity. Then people settled in to contemplate a week of bitter lessons and another victory for Capital.
But Wednesday morning did not begin so depressingly. Gran Via, one of the main arteries of the city, was blocked in the early hours by a group of masked people setting tires alight. Around the same time, another group heavily sabotaged the Congres metro station, destroying ticket purchasing and validation machines along with cameras and advertisements. Just before noon there was a demo outside the Italian consulate, which apparently had been paint-bombed the night before, in solidarity with the resisters in Val di Susa and particularly with comrade Luca, almost killed by police two days earlier. As the demo wrapped up, people marched to Plaça Universitat to join with the students, blocking roads the whole way down.
City traffic was already snarled up by other feeder marches joining up at Universitat. By early afternoon, the crowd had reached 70,000, including professors, university students, and high school students. The question remained: would they act as they had in the past, as a self-isolating and self-policing single-issue movement or expand to embrace the needs of the day? The apathetic confusion with which they greeted the Italian solidarity protestors who joined them seemed to indicate the former. Most anarchists, sure of the day's outcome, stayed at home or left early.
At 1:34 in the afternoon, the march reached the Barcelona stock exchange, which was protected by a line of riot vans. Students began to throw a prodigious quantity of eggs, trash, and paint bombs, covering the building and the police vehicles. Shortly thereafter, they smashed and broke into a couple banks nearby. Further on in the march, another group of students responded to a police advance with a major sit-in, slowing the responses of law and order. When the head of the march returned to Pl. Universitat, the riot police charged, making several arrests, but students responded with rocks and burning barricades. In addition to dumpsters, a luxury car was also burned. Police upped the ante, driving their vans at full speed through the crowd, which incited more people to join in throwing rocks. Students kicked in the doors of the rectorate at Plaça Universitat, occupying yet another building (the central university and the Autonomous University outside of town had already been occupied just previous to the strike).
Student politicians attempted to take control of the situation by calling a meeting and asking everyone to sit down. The trap of democracy. This trick must be included in an internal guide circulated by future politicians, because the exact same tactic was used in the past, with devastating effect in a building occupied just before the January 2011 general strike, preventing a riot and allowing the police to arrest the 500 seated occupiers without resistance. This time, much unlike the movement of 2009, students were not so trusting of their leaders. Anarchist students snatched away the microphone and ended the meeting. What started as a small group marching on Plaça Espanya turned into a column of thousands. Police quickly repositioned their forces to protect the congress.
In short time, the students had filled Pl. Espanya. Police had to block the entrance to the Congress and evacuate the mega-mall next door. Anarchist workers inside the congress reported an atmosphere of panic, with the rumour circulating that the city was burning. Students pelted the police with stones, who responded with targeted arrests, generally picking easy targets not involved in the fighting. Subsequent media coverage had to be satisfied with dramatic footage of heroic cops trying out judo moves on frail, geeky students who had been filming events with their cellphones. The media, for their part, also got their comeuppance, with several pesky reporters beaten by cops and others assaulted by protestors. More than one TV camera was smashed, and one journalist was reportedly hospitalized. Protestors chanted: "the press aim, the cops shoot!", an anarchist chant that had generalized after over 20 people were arrested on the basis of media footage for assaulting politicians during a siege on the Catalan parliament the previous June.
At several times throughout the day's fighting, the police had appeared overwhelmed. They were hamstrung not only by the number, unpredictability and disunity of the protestors, but presumably also be higher orders to keep things peaceful and not use a heavy hand, due both to the cellphone congress and the damage caused to the Spanish international image by the brutality in Valencia a week earlier (it was this loss of image that was most bemoaned by those politicians who had criticized police).
Around 5:30, the cops took control of Pl. Espanya and the protestors marched to the police commissary to hold a solidarity demo with the 12 detainees. Just two hours later, a rowdy demonstration pre-organized to travel through the metro system, chanting, vandalizing, and handing out flyers, surfaced at Pl. Espanya. The crowd of several hundred, exultant in the atmosphere of streets that had recently been liberated, marched back to Pl. Universitat, filling the air with brand new chants, each one more combative and radical than the last. On that note, a new chant that was greeted by anarchists with skepticism earlier in the day proved to be more than just hot air: "Contra les tisores, pedra pedra pedra! Contra el rectorado, guerra guerra guerra!" (Rock against scissors [representing the cutbacks], war against the rectorate!)
When the march reached the university, another pair of journalists were attacked, another TV camera smashed. This time, only a solitary voice could be heard chanting, "Freedom of expression, no to violence!" Word circulated that the student assemblies had decided to continue the occupations for a couple more days at least. A few groups of World Mobile Congress delegates cavorting through the city that night were harrassed, spat upon, and had bottles thrown at them. People went home with smiles on their faces. Subsequently, the main platform behind the protests refused to condemn the violence.
In the days after the riot the media succeeded in shaming a large part of society for this outburst, creating the impression, even among some of the same people who were delighted to see the events in person, to believe that something horrible had happened, or that the student protest had been hijacked by professional thugs. A smaller yet perhaps more important group of people overcame their docility, or participated in their first riot, or realized that something vital had been accomplished.
As a possible general strike approaches, important lessons have been learned about the power of the media and the erosion of the practice of solidarity in society. But the faith in movement leaders, be they unions or student politicians, has also been eroded, and in at least some cases people have turned not to apathy and cynicism but to direct action. The future, fortunately, remains unwritten.