Spain: Growing militancy of working class while reaction raises ugly head

A militant mood is developing among Spanish workers. Thanks to their mobilisations a PSOE government is in office. Now reaction has reared its ugly head, including army officers, but the leaders of the left and the trade unions are doing everything they can to hold back the workers. At the same time the bosses are on the offensive, announcing plant closures and sackings. However, the workers are not always prepared to stay calm and do nothing.

In recent days officers in the Spanish army have added their weight to the reactionary campaign of the right wing. Lieutenant-Colonel Mena was the first to come out publicly stating that the negotiations taking place between the Spanish government and the Catalan regional government over a statute on autonomy for the region – that will include the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” – are a threat to the unity of Spain.

It is not surprising that elements within the military should come out with such statements precisely at this moment in time. This is in line with the campaign of the reactionary media, the Catholic Church and the right wing, which has been attempting to whip up fear about the “break up of Spain” in an attempt to undermine the Socialist Party government.

Immediately after these outbursts, the daily newspaper ABC, the mouthpiece of the right wing in Spain, received letters from military officers of all ranks expressing support for Mena. The Minister of Defence, José Bono, a member of the extreme right of the PSOE, was forced to suspend this rebellious officer because of the scandal his statements had provoked.

It is significant that only one major ranking officer within the army voiced any criticisms of Mena. This was Colonel Fernando Abalo, who is based in Brussels and is the head of operations at NATO Headquarters. He has now also been put under house arrest because he publicly expressed his views while in service. It seems that the Minister is playing a balancing game. He has punished Mena as a way of sending out signals to Spanish society that the government is going to be tough on such elements. But he has also punished Abalo, as a way of appeasing the entire officer caste who may not be too pleased with the way Mena has been disciplined. Thus the PSOE minister is trying to keep everyone happy, without actually solving any of the problems.

These measures, however, have not had the desired effect. Unease among army officers is still being expressed. Today, January 18, Captain Roberto González Calderón declared that he intends to march on Madrid with his troops, to tell the Minister how “strong is the feeling of unease within the army” (El Pais digital, January 18). Captain Calderón belongs to one of the most reactionary section of the Spanish army, the “Legion”, (significantly his battalion is known by the name “Comandante Franco”, a clear reference to the Fascist past of Spain). The same officer sent an open letter to Melilla Hoy, his local daily, expressing his views.

These public outbursts of Spanish army officers are a clear indication of the dangers that lie ahead for the Spanish working class. In the coming period we can expect a greater involvement of the army in national political affairs, in the best traditions of the Spanish military officer caste.

For now all this remains at the level of open letters and public statements. The army is not about to launch any coup, but what it does reveal is that the Spanish ruling class is using every means necessary to create a situation of instability in the country in order to undermine the present PSOE government. The aim is twofold: to pressurise it to move even further to the right and at the same time discredit it and prepare the ground for the return of the PP that was ousted from office by the mass movement of two years ago.

All this confirms what we recently reported on. The reactionary forces in Spain (the Popular Party and its allies) have been put on a war footing. We have seen demonstrations against same sex marriage, against the new law on Catalan self-government – because it supposedly threatens the “unity of Spain” – and also against the “attacks of the Socialist Party” against the Catholic Church (of course, these attacks against the Church are only in the twisted minds of the PP leaders and Bishops). And now we have the officer caste adding it weight.

The problem is the weak response of the leading lights of the PSOE and the trade union leaders (both of the CCOO and the UGT) to these reactionary manoeuvres. In fact at the same time that reaction is organising its forces, another process is taking place that goes almost unnoticed in the mainstream media, but which is very important for millions of Spanish workers. While the Bishops (now aided by the military) are mounting a hysterical campaign about these “attacks”, the big multinationals – and sometimes not so big – are moving their factories and plants out of Spain and to countries where cheap labour is available.

A silent campaign

In the last period we have seen two of the main car companies that operate in Spain discussing the possibility of moving production elsewhere. General Motors in Zaragoza has threatened to move production of their Opel Meriva (Vauxhall in the UK) to the plant in Gliwice in Poland. According to their figures this will mean that 3,000 direct jobs will go. Of course the reason is because Polish workers earn about 25% less than their Spanish fellow workers.

Also SEAT (owned by Volkswagen) has announced that they will cut 600 jobs, which the trade unions have unfortunately accepted, and have sat down with the employers to negotiate the losses. The company then moved onto the offensive and announced that 1,400 jobs would go. This is just another sign of the servile attitude of the present trade union leadership.

However, the workers at the SEAT plant in Martorell, Barcelona, have shown their willingness to fight back. The one-day strike that took place on December 2 in the plant had 100% support and 15,000 people demonstrated in Barcelona in support of the SEAT workers. This is the mind of movement that the union leaders should base themselves on to start the fight back.

In the end the two main unions accepted more than 600 redundancies without a fight and just before Christmas day the workers received their redundancy notices. But it proved not be any normal reduction of the workforce. It was more like a political witch-hunt, as 25% of the workers sacked were activists who belonged to the more militant CGT that had not signed the agreement. In fact, most of those sacked had been at one point trade union activists. This is a lesson for the whole left in Spain, the bosses do not forgive those who organise for better terms and conditions.

This campaign of attrition by the multinationals to close down their plants and move them to countries where greater profits can be made is also combined with the treacherous policy of the Socialist Party Government. They are trying to negotiate with the trade unions a new employment bill and a tax reform. The leadership of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and UGT are just only too willing to hold back their members in defence of workers’ rights and jobs. They are also concerned not to be seen to be attacking the Socialist Party Government when the capitalists and reaction are engaged in their campaign.

What the trade union leaders fail to understand is that this is the trap the Popular Party and the bosses have set for the government. The only way to enthuse and mobilise the youth and workers is by giving a clear answer to the real problems of Spanish society: housing, privatisation, employment…

So far the SEAT mobilisations have remained isolated, but more and more there are signs that the Spanish labour movement is preparing for big mobilisations in the coming period. This is the music of the future, the not too distant future. It is not a question of the personal whims of this or that worker. It is a mass phenomenon, the workers have been pushed far too much not to respond.

Miners and Students show the way

At the moment the two main forces that are showing willingness to fight and indicate what is the way forward for the labour movement are the miners and the students.

The miners went on strike at the end of October because of the raw deal that they were getting from the government. In Spain, like elsewhere in Europe, mining communities are facing a severe process of de-industrialization. The miners in the pits jumped over the heads of the local trade union leadership that was actually campaigning to reach an agreement with the government. Despite the lack of a fighting leadership and the willingness to reach a quick agreement on the part of the trade union tops, the government had to come up with a better offer. The new agreement did not actually solve anything. It merely postponed the real agenda of privatising the remaining state mines and selling off the rest at cost price. However, the miners have shown the way forward: that negotiations should only be held under the pressure of mass mobilisation.

The students are the other group that has shown great determination in resisting the government’s attacks. As we explained in a previous article, the PSOE government has caved in to the pressures of the most reactionary section of the right wing. The Spanish Students’ Union (SE) decided to call a strike of students, jointly with STE’S (a teacher’s union) and the radical CGT (much smaller than the two main trade union confederations). The idea was to try to push the left (PSOE, UGT, CCOO and CEAPA, the progressive parents’ association) to defend a more progressive education law (LOE). On December 14 thousands of students took to the streets despite the exam period, the repression and the strike breaking role of the local authorities and some so-called left-wing organisations. The demonstrations were smaller than the previous days of action. But the Marxist leadership of the Students’ Union has kept the flag flying, trying to mobilise as widely as possible to force the trade unions and left-wing parties into real action.

On the trade union front, however, we have also witnessed the defeat of the longest running dispute in Spain, that at the “El Caballito” plant in the Basque Country on November 14. After two years out on strike, the workers stopped their protests. What has happened here is that basically an isolated group of workers has been defeated The main lesson of this dispute is that we cannot fight one factory or one plant at a time. The divisions among the trade unions (especially bad in the Basque Country) are a ready-made recipe for disaster. The labour and trade union movement should learn from their defeats so as not to repeat them again. The “El Caballito” plant was owned by Pferd Rüggeberg, a German multinational which has more than six factories worldwide and 1,700 workers. What was needed was to spread this struggle to the rest of the Basque Country and eventually link it up with the other factories. The union (ELA) did not want to spread the movement and instead tried to base itself on its own limited union funds. After two years of defiant but isolated struggle came the defeat.

In Spain a term has become very popular, “deslocalizacion”, delocation. This is the closing of plants and factories in Spain and their removal to Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. The main reason is the cheap labour that those countries offer. This is leading to de-industrialisation. The trade union leaders have put up a very weak response. Their reaction has been to try to negotiate to convince the bosses about how good Spanish workers are. But it is not a question of good or bad, it is a matter of profit. Put very simply: Spain does not offer the level of low wages that it did 20 years ago.

At the same time the PSOE government has adopted the so-called “Neoliberal” agenda and like any other Social-Democratic government in Europe, they will pay for it dearly. The have just passed a tax reform that only benefits the rich and business people and, like in Germany, there is talk about raising the age of retirement. The workers of Spain will not forgive a government that is taking such a stand, a government that was put in power by the masses after a general strike and mass mobilisations.

The PSOE government will have to choose between two enemies

The workers’ mobilisations are only the very beginning of the process that is going to shake from top to bottom both the unions and the traditional mass parties of the working class. They are part of a deep running process of differentiation in Spanish society.

A few years ago in Spain all parties (including the Communist-led coalition Izquierda Unida, IU) were keen to lean towards the so-called political “centre”. Now the right-wing parties are breaking with this tendency and lining up for a fight. The movement of all that is reactionary in Spain is making the workers understand that they also need to mobilise their forces, but the leadership of the movement is not willing to lead the way.

This can only continue for a certain period. If the current leadership proves not to be up to the task, the workers on the move will push it aside and replace it with more militant leaders. What we are witnessing at the moment are only the first shots in this important battle.

The PSOE Government seems to have made their mind up by attacking the workers and students and leaning on the so-called “progressive elements” (the Catalan bourgeois nationalists, the less reactionary press, etc). This is the kiss of death, for if they carry on with this policy they will lose their electoral base and then Spain will again have a right-wing government at some stage.

The present PSOE leadership with its compromising position is preparing a disaster. In the short term it would be an electoral disaster. In the long run it could be even worse, as the present rumblings in the army would indicate. But there is another side to the coin. The workers will learn from all this. The lines are being drawn for an almighty conflict between the classes in Spain in the coming period. In this process the Spanish workers will rediscover all the revolutionary traditions of the past, the traditions of the Civil War in the 1930s, when they tried to transform society. This time round the working class is far stronger both numerically and in its organisations.

January, 2005

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