Cadiz metal strike ends: a Spanish revolt defused ... for now

Issue 
More than 22,000 metalworkers went on strike demanding better wages on November 14. Photo: Brigadas Amarillas/Twitter

By November 23, the 9-day looked certain to continue dominating media coverage, with ongoing scenes of burning barricades, angry rallies and assaults by the National Police Corps (CNP) riot squad, , in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods.

The Cadiz and Algeciras Metal Employers Association (FEMCA) refused to budge, rejecting the metal unions’ demand for a 2%, 2.5% and 3% wage rise for 2021, 2022 and 2023 and ruling out extra automatic rises to cover inflation (running at 5.6% in October).

Yet, only 24 hours later and following 10 hours of negotiations, the two sides announced they had reached a draft agreement.

According to the two union confederations party to the deal — the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Workers (UGT) — their workplace delegates then gave the accord 100% support, with 90% of metalworkers voting in favour at workplace meetings held early the following day.

The CCOO and UGT, which represent the majority of Bay of Cadiz metalworkers, then called off the strike: Cadiz had gone from class warfare to class peace in less than a day.

Minority denunciation

The UGT assessment of the deal was that “our main demands have been met, among them maintenance of the purchasing power of the workers”.

The CCOO said it was “much closer to the positions we representatives of the workers were defending than to the pretensions of the employers”.

However, the organisations not seated at the negotiating table — the Federation of Metal Unions of the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (FESIM-CGT) and the rank-and-file Bay of Cadiz Metalworkers Coordinating Committee (CTM) — denounced the agreement as a sell-out.

The CGT’s November 26 media release read: “[T]he wage rise is well below the present CPI and even further removed from the original claim. Moreover, the agreement is shown to be an assault on casual workers, those who most suffer the consequences of instability in this sector.”

The CTM said: “We haven’t struggled through nine days of strike, losing most of our wages and resisting the attacks and brutality of the police, to end up resigning ourselves to a contract that is a gift to the employers.”

FEMCA spokesperson José Muñoz described the deal as “satisfactory”, adding that “agreements are reached when the parties give ground on the priorities that are explained to them, and in this case, although it took time to find the point of equilibrium, we got there and we hope this will help to create businesses and jobs”.

Winning or losing?

How can both sides claim victory from this accord? Which side yielded most? And how were such seemingly distant positions able to reach agreement so quickly?

The heart of the deal is that the CCOO and UGT yielded to the employers on two issues — a three-year contract (the unions wanted two years) and a maximum 2% wage rise for each year from 2021 to 2023 — while FEMCA gave ground on the principle of compensation for price rises.

FEMCA did not, however, accept the automatic adjustment of wages to the inflation rate (as now applies to pensions in Spain).

It agreed that 80% of the CPI increase for any year above 2% would be locked into wage rates for the following year, while the 20% not compensated for would be added to wage rates at the beginning of the following contract.

For example, if the CPI for 2021 turns out to be 6%, then 80% of the 4% by which it exceeds the 2% money wage increase (i.e. 3.2%) will be added to the wage rate for 2022.

The 20% of CPI increases that is uncompensated over the 3 years of the contract (in this example 0.8% per year, 2.4% in total) will be added onto wage rates to apply at the start of the next contract, in 2024 at the earliest.

This scheme of “delayed full indexation” meant that the CCOO and UGT could claim the workers’ major concern, maintaining purchasing power, would be met (eventually).

The majority unions also stressed that compliance with the agreement would be guaranteed by a monitoring commission of the two sides, with input from the Spanish government’s industrial inspection service.

A CCOO negotiator said that this point had provoked the greatest resistance from FEMCA: it will now be harder to flout the contract in poorly organised workplaces, a widespread practice in the 700 smaller firms that provide components and services to the big plants.

Pains that remain

The agreement’s outcome will depend on two factors — the inflation rate (rising because of surging energy and raw material prices) and the unions’ capacity to compel employer compliance.

However, even in the best-case scenario for workers, their pickings are thin and the major problems that led to such strong worker and community sympathy with the strike—in Cadiz, Andalusia and across Spain—remain untreated.

There was no attempt at catch-up for wages lost in the decade since the financial crisis and no mention of compensation for future gains in productivity, even though these are quite likely given the increased investment in large-scale infrastructure envisaged in the European Union’s Green Deal for Cadiz’s industrial area.

The very worst scenario employers face is a wage bill that rises, in the example given above, by 6% in real terms, while any rise in income above this figure will go straight to company profit.

The deal’s worst feature is that it does nothing about casualisation. — workers’ defencelessness in the face of employer demands for overtime (often unpaid) and weekend work, and the threat of the sack in case of refusal — contributed to the huge support for the strike.

During its 9 days there were media stories about how bad life as a casual can be, that boilermakers repairing cruise ships were being paid €5 an hour for 12-hour days.

There is nothing in the agreement requiring casual workers to be made permanent after a certain time on the job.

Cadiz mayor José María González (“Kichi”) of Forward Andalusia (AA), a backer of the strike from day one, wrote in the November 25 La Voz del Sur: “Obviously, it’s not my agreement, but I would have preferred one that included more improvements — just and called for — to the situation of casuals, that would put an end to part-time work.”

Massively supported?

How much support did the CCOO-UGT-FEMCA deal really have?

The CGT issued a communiqué on November 26 stating that more than 100 enterprises had not voted on the draft agreement and that in many other workplaces workers reckoned that the result had been doctored, because the entire workforce was prevented from voting.

The CGT also stressed the “suspicious” speed with which the vote was taken: “The agreement was settled in the last hour of Wednesday the 24th and within scarcely 10 hours, without workforces having sufficient information, voting was already taking place.”

In one rare example of a workplace where proper debate of the draft agreement took place, it was overwhelmingly rejected.

Conclusion

The Cadiz metal strike ended so quickly because immense pressure was brought to bear from the Spanish and Andalusian governments to put a stop to a struggle that was inspiring new waves of support and sympathy every day it lasted and raising the risk that other sectors of workers might follow its lead.

It was also heightening tensions within the Spanish coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP).

While Attorney-General Fernando Grande-Marlaska (PSOE) sanctioned the operation of the CNP riot squad’s armoured car and local PSOE leaders accused mayor González of being a “pyromaniac”, Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz (UP) felt she had to defend the workers and González and call for the withdrawal of the armoured car.

PSOE industry minister Reyes Maroto was the conduit of the pressure to end the dispute. According to the November 25 Público, she facilitated resolution by insisting that the CCOO and UGT negotiate as one team and that FEMCA resist the temptation to walk out of the negotiations and starve the workers out. While never present at the negotiating table, her “suggestions” helped shape the draft agreement.

Once this was achieved, the CCOO and UGT machines could be entrusted to produce the necessary “overwhelming majority” in support.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]