Sketches of Spain

Issue: 125

Mike Eaude

We are coming out of the tunnel,” affirmed finance minister Elena Salgado creatively, when the third quarter unemployment figures came out in late October. 4,137,500 people were jobless, 17.93 percent of the population available for work. The Spanish state’s official unemployment rate is higher than in any other European country except Latvia (19.7 percent). These official government figures exclude a large number of women and immigrants who want to work but don’t register.

The last 12 months have seen over a million and a half jobs lost. Over one million families have two adults out of work. Some areas, such as Andalusia, have unemployment at nearly 30 percent. Salgado and the PSOE (Socialist Party) government base their optimism on the fact that unemployment “only” rose by 0.5 percent in the third quarter. This is in comparison to a leap from 13.9 percent to 17.4 percent in the first quarter that had panicked the Spanish ruling class.

The recession in the Spanish state began in the second quarter of 2008 and GDP has fallen by 4 percent in the six quarters since. Most analysts think that Spain will recover more slowly than the rest of the EU, despite being Europe’s fifth largest economy. There are structural reasons for this: the Spanish state depends heavily on foreign investment and is not a large exporter. It took longer to recover from the 1970s recession than the rest of the continent, and its unemployment rates have always been higher than in the rest of Western Europe, even in times of boom.

Ever since the dictator Franco opened Spain up to foreign investment in 1959, the country’s economy has been excessively dependent on construction and tourism. The collapse of the 50-year construction bubble in 2007-8, the first manifestation of the crisis in the Spanish state, has left countless blocks of flats half finished and one million new homes unsold, all this in a sector which just two years ago accounted for 9 percent of GDP.

The Spanish state’s biggest export industry is cars, but the factories developed by multinationals such as Ford, Renault, Fiat, General Motors or Volkswagen several decades ago are no longer viable. Although Spain is still a low-wage economy in Western European terms, many capitalists are now relocating to lower-wage countries in Eastern Europe.

Socialist government: workers’ friend?

Prime minister Zapatero was elected in 2004 on the back of the mass demonstrations against the Iraq war and a general rejection of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), and he was re-elected in 2008. After the financial crash Zapatero insisted that the Spanish model was the way forward for capitalism. He argued that the greater regulation of banks Spain meant it was protected against the kind of bank collapses seen in Britain and the US. It is true that Spanish banks have not needed such enormous bailouts, but there are deeper problems within the economy. The level of household debt tripled in the decade to 2008, and major banks have sustained huge losses with the bad debt of construction firms. Surreptitious government support and accounting manoeuvres may keep banks afloat for now, but in a semi-catatonic state, without the ability to invest and so kick-start the economy.

Zapatero has claimed repeatedly that “we will never make the workers pay for the crisis”. His government has used subsidies to employ 400,000 construction workers on public projects and has been paying benefit of €421 a month to the approximately 25 percent of unemployed people with no social security entitlement. The employers and the PP have helped Zapatero appear left wing with their rabid attacks on the “socialist” government. They call for reforms to make labour more “flexible”, arguing that if sacking workers is easier, then companies will take on employees. In a country where labour law reforms over the past 20 years have left workers increasingly unprotected and levels of precariousness extremely high (over 80 percent of the under-30s employed have no fixed contracts), it has been easy for Zapatero to pose as the “workers’ friend”.

In 2003-4 Spain had the biggest anti-war movement in Europe and in June 2002 a one-day general strike defeated the PP’s plans to cut unemployment benefit. The gap between a militant recent history and the low levels of struggle today needs to be explained.

Union response

The measures taken by Zapatero have been sufficient to keep the two major union federations, Comisiones Obreras (Workers’ Commissions) and the UGT (General Workers’ Union), on board. They wield the fear and hatred of the right to keep workers in line. Zapatero and the PSOE are the government that the Spanish ruling class needs at present: resistance would almost certainly be much more widespread if the PP were in power.

Although Zapatero has not had to resort to massive bailouts, the government has made billions of euros available to entities “with problems”. It is not clear exactly how much money has been pumped into the big construction firms to stop major bankruptcies which could ripple through the economy. But these hand-outs will have to be paid for and it is clear that huge cuts in social expenditure, already the lowest in percentage terms of the EU151 in education and health, will be needed. Zapatero’s balancing act of “protecting” workers while administering the capitalist crisis is coming to an end. Just this October, the government announced measures to pay for the crisis that include a rise in VAT.

The subservience of the union bureaucracies and the weakness of Spain’s trade unions (only around 15 percent of workers are unionised) mean that the union left, partly at the base of Comisiones and UGT, but mainly in a multitude of small unions, has a big fight on its hands to unite and mobilise. The biggest of these small unions is the sectarian but militant CGT, of anarchist origins. Others have developed through expulsions from Comisiones. Still others have their origins in the 1970s transition from dictatorship to democracy, such as STE (a teachers’ union). There are radical nationalist unions, such as LAB in the Basque Country, now being repressed. It is notable that the anti-capitalist movement in the Spanish state, capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands of mainly young people, has not spilled over into union activism. Many anti-capitalist militants, prepared to face down the police in the big mobilisations of recent years, do not yet see the need to fight in the workplaces.

The lack of a strong political voice to the left of Zapatero is a major weakness. Millions of people in the Spanish state are part of a “social left”, many of them influenced by anarchist or autonomist ideas, but the organised political left is very weak. Izquierda Unida (Left Unity), the coalition led by the Communist Party, is in long-term decline and has only two parliamentary seats. Unlike neighbouring Portugal or France, no new party has emerged from the anti-capitalist movement. At present, the small forces of En Lucha2 are pressing for unity with the Fourth International group, organised as Izquierda Anticapitalista.

Buses and oranges

None of this gloomy summary means that the working class has been defeated. It is more a question of caution and political perspective. Time and again workers faced with the sack come out and demonstrate, but union leaders seek to divert every struggle to defend jobs into the “realist” option of negotiating greater financial compensation for job losses. Nevertheless, there have been a number of struggles this year, and a clear victory in an important sector could transform the situation.

The most talismanic struggle recently was that of the Barcelona bus drivers. In 2008 they won the right to two days off a week after a long series of strikes. They based their fight on mass assemblies of up to 1,500 drivers and the involvement of anyone who wanted to be involved, whatever their union affiliation. Despite this victory, the bosses have manoeuvred to cut wages and staff in exchange for the two days a week off. At the time of writing the drivers have scheduled an all-out strike from 10 January to defend their conditions. It will be a key test of strength.

A more recent victory was recorded by orange pickers and packers in the Guadalquivir valley in the province of Córdoba. On 5 November these seasonal workers, mainly women and immigrants working in highly precarious conditions, won a nine-day strike. They demanded that the bosses respect the collective agreement to pay €6.42 an hour instead of the common €5 and not force workers to do overtime. The implementation of the agreement will lead to 1,400 more workers being taken on. The orange strike was led by a small militant union, the SAT (Andalucian Workers’ Union). As in the case of the Barcelona bus drivers, the presence of a leadership insisting on workers’ democracy, with daily assemblies of up to 2,000 workers and flying pickets, and confidence that the struggle could be won was key to victory.

We hear a lot about green shoots these days. It is a pleasure to quote one of the SAT’s leaders, Lola, on the new militant unionism: “The tree’s growing and every day it has more branches.”


1: The name given to the group of 15 member states of the EU before the accession of the Eastern European states in 2004.

2: En Lucha is the International Socialist Tendency group in the Spanish state.