Workers at the logistics centre in Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, Barcelona of the Spanish Supermarket chain Mercadona are entering the fourth month of their indefinite strike.
The strike is organised by the CNT anarcho-syndicalist trade union.
Mercadona, whose slogan translates as "supermarkets of trust", is Spain's biggest national supermarket chain by sales, with 990 outlets across the country and 54,000 workers. The company likes to pride itself on its claim that 100% of its staff have permanent contracts.
In reality, employees have found that their jobs are not quite so secure once they start demanding their rights. At the start of the year local conflicts were ongoing in the provinces of Almeria, Cordoba and Huelva after supermarket workers suffered unfair dismissals and mistreatment. In March a court in Cordoba ordered the chain to pay 30,000 euros compensation to a worker who was the victim of harassment.
The present conflict came to a head when workers at the logistics centre, located in a town forty kilometres outside Barcelona, set up a CNT branch and began to organise for improved working conditions. Management's response was to refuse to recognise the CNT delegates, then to sack three union members.
"We started our union activities before these workers were fired," says Jose Uribe, secretary of the CNT section in the centre, "We've been fighting the daily harassment of workers at Mercadona for a while. We also demand safety and hygiene, because we handle a lot of merchandise daily, unloading boxes, preparing orders etc. A single striking worker can prepare and unload two tons of Mercadona merchandise in one day-- that's why we need safety and hygiene. We have none -- we don't even have a food handler's card. With these conditions, you could kill yourself any second. We also demand a paid half-hour lunch break. Mercadona doesn't pay breaks -- not even lunch
On March 23rd the CNT called a strike, initially for ten days. When management refused to negotiate, the strike was declared indefinite.
The response has been heavy-handed. Pickets outside the centre have been attacked by private security, as well as the police. Individual strikers say they have received anonymous threats, including death threats, by telephone.
"Mercadona's attitude is one of repression, fear and harassment," says Uribe. "They tried to bribe and blackmail us-- insinuating deportation of the (mostly Latin American) strikers and other such tactics. The other day, someone sent two men pretending to be policemen to my house -- I was with my wife and daughter when they told me that they wanted to have a few words with me. They knew I was a spokesman for the union, and when we sat down to talk they threatened us with deportation and with 'grave and unknown consequences'."
The other main tactic has been the old standard of scab labour. A large proportion of the workers came out in the first few days, and management bused in around 100 scabs to fill their places. As the strike has gone on, the numbers have been whittled down – there are now just twenty strikers. But, says Uribe, the full complement of 100 scabs has been kept on, enabling Mercadona to temporarily lower the workload.
"If they maintain it as high as it was before we began striking," he says, "the other workers will begin striking again."
So what are the prospects with only twenty workers still out? The strikers are fighting a tough battle, with the Catalan government as well as the 'reformist' UGT and CCOO trade unions lining up against them. (UGT representatives signed the agreement with management foregoing lunch pay, and testified against sacked CNT strikers.) On the other hand, Mercadona is paying a heavy bill to maintain security guards and scabs and reduce the workload so that other workers don't rejoin the strike. Nationally the CNT is running an ongoing campaign of demonstrations and boycotts to keep the pressure on. There has also been international support, including a recent picket of the Spanish Consulate by Manchester Solidarity Federation.
"As is obvious, business doesn't want to yield an inch," says Uribe, "but time and persistence gives us the hope we'll win someday. There's always fear and very few times has it been possible to organize workers in big corporations -- that's why anytime there's a struggle against one of these behemoths, we must support it as an example to all workers."
The CNT is appealing for urgent financial help for the strikers – the union needs at least 50,000 Euro a month to maintain the strike. Bank details for sending donations are:
Spain: 2100 (La Caixa) - 1183 - 35 - 0100505773
Europe: IBAN: ES08 2100 1183 3501 0050 5773
Rest of the world: BIC (Swift): CAIXESBBXXX 2100 1183 3501 0050 5773