'If we stop, the world stops': Behind the millions-strong women’s strike that shook the Spanish state

Issue 
Organisers said as many as 500,000 marched on International Women's Day in Madrid on March 8.

Of all the International Women’s Day (IWD) demonstrations in an unprecedented 177 countries on March 8, the Spanish state stood out as the site of the largest mobilisation for women’s equality. In fact, it was the greatest mobilisation for women’s right in history, with almost 6 million people — overwhelmingly women — striking and demonstrating in about 120 cities and towns.

There were many reasons why. To begin with, the #MeToo campaign of women film stars, media personalities and political figures coming out against sexual harassment by creeps in positions of power had a big impact in the Spanish state, where machismo is all-pervasive.

However, that would not by itself have been enough to produce what was the biggest Spanish mobilisation of women — from all generations and walks of life — ever. The protests were on an oceanic scale that recalled the May 15, 2011, protests and square occupations that marked the beginning of the Spanish state’s indignado movement against austerity and for “real democracy”.

A crucial factor was that, in Spain, March 8 was called as a feminist general strike. This was to be a 24-hour “downing of tools” against women’s double burden of wage labour (unequal with men) and domestic labour (entirely unpaid). It was also projected as a consumer strike.

Its all-embracing slogan was: “If we stop, the world stops.”

‘Feminist tsunami’

The Spanish government of right-wing People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy expected the initiative to be a fizzer — a fringe performance by the often anti-capitalist collectives that have kept IWD alive, but with no power of attraction for the mass of working women. How wrong that was.

Initially, the collectives’ proposal for a 24-hour feminist general strike was campaigned for by the country’s minority trade union confederations, such as the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the Andalusian Workers Union (SAT). But the idea quickly caught on in workplaces where women workers predominate.

In areas such as health and education, the unions with greatest coverage soon came out in support of the stoppage. An important example was the main teachers union in Catalonia, the Education Workers Union of Catalonia (USTEC-STEs).

Women workers, whose sacrifices have kept public health and education going during years of funding cuts, saw the strike as a chance to make their case heard.

Women workers in the private sector — especially those in the worst-paid and most casualised jobs such as the largely migrant hotel cleaners — also grabbed the chance.

Retired women expressed support through pensioner associations — unsurprising, as women pensioners receive €760 a month on average compared to €1200 for male pensioners. Women students also backed the protests.

Adding to the anger behind the growing protest wave was Spain’s dark history of murders of women by partners or ex-partners — 924 since records began in 2003. Women have also become increasingly afraid to go out at night because of rising levels of harassment.

All these factors came together to produce the March 8 “feminist tsunami”.

Before the day

The surge in support for the strike was soon so strong that Spain’s two main trade union confederations — the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Labour (UGT) — had to react.

They announced their own version of the strike: a morning and an afternoon two-hour stoppage. Due to the weight of CCOO and UGT in the Spanish state’s union movement — and the backing of nationalist unions in the Basque Country — this was the main form in which the feminist strike became known by most women workers.

This was to the disgust of the forces who had initiated the idea, especially many IWD organising collectives. In its assessment of the strike, the CNT in the Basque Country commented: “We consider the calling of the first 24-hour feminist general strike as an achievement, despite the work of disinformation carried out by some media close to the government, the boycott of CCOO, UGT, and [the Basque nationalist unions], in addition to the obstacles put in the way of maintaining minimum services by the [Basque] government.”

These differences reflected both the major confederations’ fears of being outflanked by their minority rivals and genuine debate over how best to mobilise working women on the day. However, the strikes were clearly going to succeed as a demonstration of support for women’s rights.

That was clear in the week before March 8. Media and social network commentary centred on who would or should join the strike.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau said that she and other women councillors of her Barcelona Together administration would not work on March 8. Support was also offered by Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena and women media personalities, including even star interviewers from reactionary TV channels.

Among political parties, anti-austerity group Podemos led the way in supporting the strike. The PP and its right-wing rival Citizens said they supported action for women’s rights but not an “ideologically based”, “anti-capitalist” feminist strike.

Women ministers in the government were sent onto talk-back radio and PP-friendly TV channels to explain this position.

In the end, the strike was supported by practically every important social organisation. It became so popular that even the prime minister appeared on March 8 with a purple ribbon on his lapel — to the amusement and disgust of the millions of women who have suffered from his government’s austerity policies.

Strike participation

The CCOO and UGT move to shift the strike to a two-hour stoppage was backed up by attempts by some regional governments to use the two-hour stoppage to undermine the call for a 24-hour strike. There was also an unresolved debate as to whether men could best contribute by also striking or by providing “minimum services” while women were on strike.

Despite this, the action was an enormous success, with people ultimately taking part in whatever way they felt comfortable.

According to CCOO and UGT figures, 5.9 million workers, overwhelmingly women and representing one-in-three workers, stopped work on the day, with about 80% of workplaces affected.

The biggest impacts were in:

  • Education: In Catalonia, participation in the two-hour stoppages was “practically total” in high schools and universities (CCOO figure). About 20% of secondary teachers struck for the full 24 hours (USTEC-STEs figure). In Andalusia, 90% of university students walked out. Women student support for the strike was 90% in Madrid’s high schools and 65% in its universities (CCOO figure).

  • Health: The CCOO’s health federation said participation reached 80% in the two-hour strikes in Catalonia and the Valencian Country, and between 55% and 70% in Andalusia.

  • Transport: For all of Spain, long-distance and regional rail services were slightly affected. Interurban and suburban services were harder hit (a 25% service reduction in peak hour and 50% for the rest of the day), and metro, tram and bus services — where women drivers are most common — most of all. In Barcelona, these services were cut by 50% in peak hour and 75% for the rest of the day.

  • Media: The strike was particularly visible in this sector, with women TV and radio presenters absent from many stations. Women media professionals also helped build the strike, with their manifesto in support signed by more than 7000 fellow workers.

Adherence to the strike in other sectors, such as heavy industry and commerce, was by small minorities. But even in these sectors there were important exceptions in services where women predominate. For example, the CCOO said women cleaners in Catalonia walked off the job in major sites such as Barcelona airport and the SEAT and Nissan car factories.

The CGT said its flying information pickets led to the precautionary closure of shopping centres. Women in call centres also responded to management threats of the sack with go-slows.

The strike was also accompanied by protest tactics often seen in the Spanish state, including roadblocks and street and square occupations. In Catalonia, major highways were cut while the centre of Madrid was brought to a standstill from the early morning by rallies and sit-downs.

Many women interviewed on the day said they fully supported the goals of the strike, but simply could not risk participation for fear of losing their jobs. They reflected passive support so widespread that even the Spanish equivalent of Australia’s shock-jocks were nearly reduced to silence by a turnout for an action they had initially condemned as a “subversive plot”.

Huge turnout, radical demands

The strike was accompanied by unprecedentedly huge demonstrations, even going by the authorities often conservative figures. In Barcelona 200,000 marched (organisers said 600,000) while in Madrid the figure was 170,000 (organisers claimed 500,000).

Madrid’s IWD march last year, by comparison, was 40,000-strong according to authorities. Barcelona’s 2015 march drew only 4000.

Other cities produced demonstrations comparable to the biggest seen on any issue.

In centres with less of a history of mass demonstrations, the importance of March 8 was even clearer. For example, 13,000 marched in the Galician city of Pontferrada, a turnout as large as previous protests against mine closures or for a better public health system.

In Santander, capital of Cantabria, 22,000 turned out in a march that local police admitted was bigger than anyone could remember.

Writing at Magnet on March 9, Esther Miguel Trula tried to calculate the likely total number mobilised, based on the numbers marching in the 14 largest cities and adjusting for official understatement and organiser overstatement. She arrived at a conservative figure of 5 million — more than 10% of the population of the Spanish state.

The demands of the marches were radical. This reflected the angry mood among younger women facing the uncertainty of an economic future in a casualised labour market, combined with the ongoing certainty of machismo.

Examples of lead banners were “There Is No Revolution Without Feminism”, “United in Diversity Against The Patriarchy And Capital”, “We Are Striking To Change The World” and “Patriarchy and Capital, Criminal Alliance”.

In Catalonia, the involvement of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) — the grassroots groups behind the successful October 1 independence referendum — guaranteed the self-determination struggle was reflected. This year’s March 8 featured chants such as “the [independent Catalan] Republic will be feminist or it won’t be at all” ringing out in the demonstrations in Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida.

Reactions

The best gauge of the success of any popular mobilisation is how its enemies and false friends react to it. By that measure, March 8 was an overwhelming victory.

The PP’s and Citizens’ line had to change abruptly, symbolised by Rajoy’s miraculous transformation into a sensitive purple ribbon wearer. Only six weeks earlier, when asked about women being paid less than men in the same job, he said: “We won’t get involved in that.”

From patronising talk about the strike as “posh” and “trendy”, the PP line shifted rapidly to acceptance that, in the words of Community of Madrid’s PP Premier Cristina Cifuentes, “was something very positive”.

Pedro Sanchez, federal secretary of the official opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), offered: “We are facing an historic moment for Spanish society, one led by the women of this country. From today onwards, nothing will be the same in the struggle for equality.”

On March 9, PSOE’s shadow minister for equality Carmen Calvo called on the Rajoy government to immediately negotiate the adoption of bills on gender equality and eliminating the gender wage gap.

Three bills have been tabled by the PSOE and the left-wing Unidos Podemos coalition. That PSOE, the traditional party of Spanish social democracy, has included Unidos Podemos as a partner in this struggle is an indication that it is aware that its rival for left hegemony has greater credibility within the feminist movement.

The PSOE’s tactic for the moment is to present the movement as above party politics. In the words of its Spanish congress spokesperson Margarita Robles on March 9: “Yesterday’s demands by women were transverse and no party has the right to capitalise on the spontaneous movement of women.”

For Unidos Podemos, March 8 represented a big boost, given its support to building the day and the capacity of its women MPs to champion the demands of the feminist struggle. As Unidos Podemos Congress spokesperson Irene Montoro told TV interviewer Ana Rosa Quintana on March 9: “Citizens said this strike was a strike of communists. The PP said it had been called by [Podemos leader] Pablo Iglesias.

“They worked for weeks to smear the feminist movement and the calling of the strike [while] the PSOE didn’t respect the 24-hour strike that had been called...

“The 24-hour strike was needed so as to shout out to the whole world that we women are treading strong, that we are here to defend our rights and that it’s now impossible not to talk about feminism in Spain.”

She concluded that “feminism is Spain’s banner for the 21st century” and that “economic and social foundations have to change” to meet its demands.

[Julian Coppens is a Podemos activist based in Merida. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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