General strike in Galicia (June 15, 2001): The workers start to move

Since 1994 and throughout the whole period of the right wing PP government in Spain, the leaders of the two main trade union confederations in Spain, CCOO and UGT, have carried out a policy of agreements and social partnership. In 1996 they agreed to a change in the pension system. The old system was based on taking the average wage for the last eight years worked. With the new system the calculations to work out a worker's pension are based on the last fifteen years [the further back you go the lower the wages and thus the level of pensions goes down]. In 1997 they agreed to a new kind of labour contract which reduced the amount paid in redundancy payment. These policies of the trade union leaders led to an unprecedented retreat on the part of the Spanish labour movement. This was reflected in the strike statistics with every year registering a record low level. In 1995 we saw the emergence of a left wing opposition ("Critical Sector") in the Workers Commissions' (CCOO) against this rightward move. This "Critical Sector" has the support of 30% of the union's members.

The right wing Popular Party and the Spanish bosses took advantage of this situation to launch an assault on the rights and conditions of the Spanish workers won over many years of struggle. The facts and figures speak for themselves. Casualisation of labour has reached 32% of the workforce (72% amongst young workers), workplace accidents and injuries increased by 48% since the right wing got into power and five workers die every day at work. Last year's average wage increase was 2.3% with an inflation level of 4% and national income went up by 4% while the average income per worker went down by 1.7%. At the same time corporate profits went up by 30% and the profits of the banking sector reached 1 trillion pesetas for the first time ever (£3.7 bn approximately). On top of this we have the looting (privatisation) of most of the publicly owned companies, the partial privatisation of the hospitals, the increase in indirect taxation, etc.

In the case of Galicia, a recent report commissioned by the regional government, the Xunta, which is controlled by the PP, contains some very telling statistics: 52% of the workers in Galicia do not receive payment for overtime, 25% have no paid holidays and 120,000 have no legal contract and pay no National Insurance.

This situation has had important effects. On the political front this allowed the PP to win the general election again last year (not because of its own merits but because the left wing parties lost 3 million votes); on the trade union front it temporarily consolidated the domination of the right wing trade union leaders.

Thus, on March 3rd, the PP government passed a new reform of labour legislation. The worst aspect of this reform was the elimination of the distribution of hours in part time contracts. This means that now the bosses can decide when they call part time workers in. This law marked the end of the social partnership. The main reasons why the PP has adopted this new strategy are the bad economic forecasts and also their own feeling of confidence resulting from the concessions made by the trade union leaders over the past few years. The Spanish capitalists have always based their profits on the super-exploitation of the working class. Faced with the perspective of an economic recession they need to overturn any remaining legal protection for the workers. Other attacks are in the pipeline, such as putting an end to the automatic renewal of collective labour contracts upon their expiry and allowing individual companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements. These measures are very serious attacks and would mean an important setback for workers' rights and conditions, if they are implemented by the government and the bosses.

The trade union leaders were shaken by these measures. After years of having acted in what they thought was a "responsible manner", the new government decree left them with no arguments. The UGT leaders raised the idea of calling a one day general strike. But this was no easy option for the CCOO leaders. Calling a general strike after six years of waging open warfare against the Critical Sector inside their own union, after having victimised more than 1,000 of their own members for belonging to the Critical Sector (expelling them, disbanding committees with a "critical" majority, purging the list of candidates to be elected onto shop stewards committees, etc.), would amount to accepting the complete defeat of their whole strategy and admitting that the Critical Sector was right. Thus on April 9th they signed a new agreement on pensions with the government and the bosses (which was rejected by the UGT and the Critical Sector), and declared that social partnership had been restored and therefore there was no reason for a general strike.

On May Day, the UGT, together with the Galician nationalist union, CIG, announced the calling of a general strike in Galicia for June 15th. In the past the CCOO use to call strikes which were opposed by the UGT and this created contradictions within the UGT. Now the situation has been reversed. The calling of a general strike in Galicia was intended as a way of putting pressure on the CCOO to call a nation-wide general strike.

The leadership of the CCOO, ignoring the position of the Critical Sector, decided not to join the Galician strike. They argued that there were not enough reasons for it, that it had been decided unilaterally by the UGT, and finally that this was a political strike since there are regional elections in Galicia in October! But the real reason was that the CCOO leaders wanted to reach a new social agreement with the PP government. A successful Galician general strike would increase the pressure for a national general strike, and this is taboo for the CCOO leaders. But events have their own dynamics. If the Galician strike were to be a success, it would mean a defeat for the CCOO. Therefore, their decision not to call the strike forced them to also oppose it actively. But this was too much for the CCOO activists to stomach. Used to being the vanguard, the ones who are at the forefront of most struggles, now their own union leaders told them, not only that there were no reasons for a general strike, but also that on the 15th they should go to work appealing to their "individual right to work" on the picket lines! Obviously they refused to do this.

For CCOO members, declaring that there were no reasons for a general strike was tantamount to saying that the balance sheet of the PP government had been positive for the labour movement. Even worse was the argument that this was a political strike. To start with, every general strike is political as it affects the whole of society. And if by "political" what was meant was that it would favour the left wing parties in the coming regional elections, it could also be argued that the failure of the strike would favour the PP. But even worse are the implications that flow from this argument. Now the labour movement is supposed to be "apolitical" and the workers should be indifferent to who is in government because, as the post-modern thinkers like to argue, there is no longer supposed to be a left wing or a right wing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The right wing and left wing still exist and will exist as long as the class struggle exists. Those organisations which call themselves apolitical or "independent" are precisely those dominated by right wing ideologies. The left wing has always argued the opposite. Everything is political; it is impossible to be apolitical. The leadership of the CCOO also tried to argue against the Galician strike by saying that the strike should be a national strike! In this they were right, of course, but their alternative to a Galician strike was not a national strike, but rather no strike at all!

The whole situation left thousands of CCOO members perplexed. They saw the efforts their leaders were making to defeat the general strike and were asking themselves how many more attacks from the right wing government it would take before a general strike is called? They clearly understood that the only ones to benefit from a failure of the strike would be the PP government, not the workers, not the unions, not even the CCOO. Thus many amongst the ranks of the CCOO supported the strike. All the shipyards in Ferrol and Vigo, where the CCOO were founded and who represent the vanguard of the Galician labour movement, went out on strike. Particularly important is what happened at the Izar shipyard in Ferrol. This is the second biggest employer in Galicia with more than 3,000 workers. It has the biggest CCOO branch in Galicia, and is also where the general secretary of the CCOO metalworkers comes from (and he was personally involved in the campaign against the strike there!). The CCOO also has a majority in the shop stewards committee (16 out of 27) and 50% of the unionised workers. The Critical Sector in this shipyard, which is led by Marxists, represents 30% of the CCOO members and has 4 members in the Executive of the union branch. Despite the efforts of the CCOO official leaders, a mass meeting of the workers voted for the strike with 70% in favour. The mass meetings in other shipyards produced a similar result.

In Vigo a CCOO shop stewards meeting with 400 present was also organised, in which the national general secretary of the CCOO, Fidalgo, was present. Many protested against the position of the CCOO leaders. The following day, under the headline "Schizophrenia in the CCOO", a local paper described the mood:

"The Critical Sector members distributed leaflets in favour of the strike which were literally snatched out of their hands. Local union leaders admitted they did not know how to defend their reasons for opposing the strike in the workplaces. The convenor of the shop stewards committee of Seragua received an ovation when he said there were 'thousands of reasons for the strike'. 'We know what we want' said the leadership of the CCOO, explaining why they were opposed to the strike... But some leaders of the CCOO are asking themselves whether this is not a schizophrenic situation. Luis Rodriguez admitted that in the mass meeting in his workplace he said one thing, but in the CCOO meeting he said the opposite. Rodriguez said: 'we have said no to the strike because it is a decision of the leadership which we must obey, but there was a lack of debate before the decision was taken'". Another newspaper's headline said, "Fidalgo lands in Galicia to stop workers' support for the strike".

On the 15th the strike was successful in the large companies and in Ferrol and Vigo, the most industrialised areas. For instance the CCOO had to admit that there had been a participation of 90% of the workers in the industrial areas of Ferrol. There was also a significant turnout in other cities, such as in Coruña. But what was most remarkable was the participation in the demonstrations. Tens of thousands of workers came out onto the streets. In Vigo the police reckoned there were 35,000 demonstrators and according to the media there were 50,000. There was also a significant participation of CCOO members.

The attacks on the rights and conditions of the workers that have been taking place over the last period had to provoke a reaction sooner or later. In 1999 we already saw the first symptoms of a change in the situation, with a slight recovery of the level of strikes and, above all, an increase in the number of hours lost through strikes, which reflected the growing radicalisation taking place. The strike figures for the year 2000 and the Galician general strike are a confirmation of this tendency.

The mood among the workers, the anger due to their deteriorating conditions and their willingness to protest, were the key factors that led to the success of the strike. The truth is that the UGT and CIG campaign was very low key. On May 30th they still had not published any material on the strike and the first posters were only distributed at the beginning of June! There was a lack of information and in many workplaces no meetings were held. This is a reflection of the period of lull we have just been through. This created a certain inertia and pushed some of the most active elements into leaving the unions, and this in turn made it more difficult to start the movement going again. Obviously the conditions in which the strike was called could have been better. It should have been a national, not a regional strike, it should have been called by all the unions, etc. However, the workers were able to separate the fundamental from the secondary and decided to strike against the plans of the right wing government, despite the low key campaign and the attitude of the CCOO leaders.

The success of the June 15th Galician strike will have far reaching consequences. First of all it will serve to strengthen the call for a national general strike in the next few months. The attitude of the CCOO leaders in Galicia will open up internal contradictions in the union. As Lenin once said, sometimes for the workers an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of theory. The attitude of the leaders has revealed to the rank and file of the CCOO the real nature of their leadership. A section of the apparatus will understand that in order to recover part of their lost prestige they will have to present a more radical face, because they are being seen as too close to the government, which is always dangerous for a class based trade union. The UGT already had to learn that lesson, in a traumatic way, in the 80s under the Socialist Party government, but the position is even worse under a right wing government. Should the unions adopt a more militant stand, the PP government may draw the conclusion that since there is no longer any social partnership, they might as well launch an all-out assault on the rights of the workers, and this would definitely provoke an explosion of class struggle.

The workers must make use of the regional elections in October in order to strike another blow against the PP. This would be the second political defeat for the PP after the Basque regional elections in May.

Whatever the rhythm of the events, the really important thing is that the Galician general strike marks the beginning of a new period in the class struggle right across the whole of Spain, a period which will be much more favourable for the ideas of Marxism.