Since the global economic crisis broke out in 2008, the many-sided protest movement against neoliberal austerity has yet to gain enough strength to force any real retreats from governments doing the bidding of capitalism’s ruling elites.
But the March 29 general strike against the new labour law in Spain — hugely supported and backed by often vast demonstrations in 111 cities and towns — could well point to a turning of the tide.
It lifted social resistance in Europe to a new height and gave millions of people a glimpse of how they might finally make the country’s corrupt and arrogant powers-that-be pay for their crisis.
The right-wing media screamed “flop”, but the behavior of the finance markets told the real story: on strike day the Madrid stock exchange lost nearly 1% (its eighth straight day of losses) and the premium on Spanish public debt rose further over the Italian debt premium that only recently exceeded it.
The Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to appear calm and above the turmoil. Rajoy commented that, while his government respected the right of citizens to protest, he has no choice but to carry on with the grim duty of implementing the tough policies needed to rescue Spain’s economy.
He then introduced into parliament the most brutal budget since the Franco dictatorship ended in the late 1970s. The Madrid stock exchange rose 1.23%.
Straws in the wind
When the new labour regime was decreed in early February, the leaders of the two main trade union confederations, the General Union of Workers (UGT) and the Workers Commissions (CCOO), were wary about calling a general strike, even though the law will entrench almost total employer power in the workplace.
However, the huge response to two national days of protest in February and the refusal of the government to negotiate led them to follow the lead of the nationalist unions in the Basque Country, Galicia and Navarra. These had already slated March 29 for a general strike in their regions.
In the weeks before March 29, everything pointed towards a huge turnout. The day would not only provide an outlet for the rising anger of ordinary people, but also a focus for many local and sectoral struggles.
One measure of the mood was the speed with which posters, banners and spray-ups advertising the strike plastered Spain’s cities and towns.
Another was the big response to union calls for picketers. A third measure was public expressions of support from respectable public figures not known for championing labour's cause.
A further straw in the wind was the result of the March 25 regional elections in the autonomous communities (states) of Andalucia and Asturias: here the “blue tide” of PP advance in elections since 2008 came to a halt.
In Andalucia, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government, in power for more than 30 years and beset with scandals over illegal unemployment payouts to PSOE mates, lost only three seats to the PP. This is compared to losing six seats to the United Left (IU) — opponents to its left.
Andalucia will now have either a PSOE-IU government or a minority PSOE government supported by IU against PP motions of no-confidence — making it potentially a point of opposition against the national government in Madrid.
In the 45-seat Asturian parliament, the PSOE and IU gained seats. Their combined 22 seats equalled the number won by the two right-wing parties, the PP and the ruling Forum Asturias.
Who ends up governing Asturias will be decided by the Spanish-centralist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD), which holds the balance of power.
Both elections were marked by a big rise in abstention. People who had voted for Rajoy only three months ago reacted against his government’s cutbacks and attacks on workers’ rights. Only IU increased its support in both regions.
On the day
So how successful was the general strike, the seventh since the end of Francoism? A few snapshots tell the story:
• As the strike began at midnight, almost no-one beyond the minimum crews negotiated with management turned up for night shift in heavy industry: vehicle, rubber, steel, petrochemicals, food processing, mining, manufacturing, shipping and wholesale distribution stood idle. In Madrid, only six of the city’s 2500 street cleaners appeared.
• Day broke with almost no-one on building sites and 91% of long-distance rail crews on strike. CCOO and UGT spokespersons claimed strike participation in industry at 97%.
• By mid-morning, the news was of 90% support for the strike in Catalonia’s schools and universities. In Madrid’s commercial heart, shops were able to open only because of a huge police presence (“like D-Day”, said one unionist), but few wanted to shop behind police lines. “A real sales catastrophe” said a shop owner.
• The strike was most supported in the Basque Country (95% according to the unions, even 70% according to the Basque government). In Galicia, heavy industry and the ports were paralysed and there was zero activity in industry in Navarra.
• Participation was weakest in public administration and commerce, and mixed in health, as the doctors’ unions refused to support the protest. Only in the Basque country was there clear majority support in the health sector.
• Throughout the day, various government spokespeople maintained a steady flow of “situation normal” and “low participation” declarations, but these only referred to the public sector and were contested by the unions. However, the president of the Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE) refused to comment on participation in the strike because it was “extremely difficult”.
• In the welter of conflicting statistics on turnout, one stood out: Website “Economists Facing the Crisis” said the fall in electricity usage in production was greater than in the two previous general strikes of 2010 and 2002 — 87.2% against 67.5% and 82.1% respectively.
Further confirmation of the huge support came at the day’s marches and rallies — by far the biggest yet in the wave of protest that began with the indignado (“the outraged”) marches on May 15 last year.
The demonstrations were also more varied, with participation from forces critical of the two major union confederations. In Barcelona, there were two separate marches. One was led by the major confederations and the other by the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT).
In Madrid, Barcelona and other centres, 15-M (indignado) detachments took part in alternative marches or “critical blocs”, along with the CGT, CNT and the anarcho-syndicalist Worker Solidarity (SO).
In Madrid, the Christian socialist Workers Trade Union (USO), the third largest in the country, held a separate information mass picket before joining the main march.
Madrid 15M publicity called on supporters to “seize the strike”. In Barcelona, 15M posters said “Reinvent The Strike!”, proposing that people also strike against consumerism, excessive energy use, and dependence on commercial transport, communication and media.
High school and university students and the younger unemployed predominated in the 15M blocs.
In Bilbao, the separate marches of CC.OO., UGT and the nationalist confederation Patriotic Workers Commissions (LAB) came together for a huge combined march and rally. About 100,000 marched across the Basque Country.
What was most remarkable about the rallies was the presence of tens of thousands of new faces.
In Barcelona, where crowd estimates ranged from 270,000 to 800,000, primary and secondary school students, entire families, small business people, executives in suits and sub-Saharan and Latin American migrants came together with unionists and indignados to make March 29 a day when almost all Catalan society stood up against injustice.
That result was not spontaneous. On March 28 and 29, at least 70 local neighbourhood protests took place in Barcelona alone, including eight feeder marches to the main demonstration. 15M activists played an important role in building these.
In my neighbourhood in Barcelona, more than 1000 people joined the local march, including many parents, teachers and students from the local primary school, decked out in the yellow t-shirts of the “No Cuts to Education” campaign.
So vast was the Barcelona march that it could shrug off the inevitable burning of garbage containers and smashing of shop windows that counts as “revolutionary struggle” for about 100 “direct actionists” in this city (and is invariably featured on the front page of the “horrified” right-wing media).
In Madrid, the march was so large (put as high as 900,000) that it was one-and-a-half hours late arriving at Puerta del Sol. Across Spain protest numbers broke all previous records, with Valencia leading with 350,000.
For many. the strike and protests of March 29 brought back memories of the huge protests of the 1980s.
IU national coordinator Cayo Lara compared them to the protests after the failed military-Francoist coup of February 23, 1981. Lara said: “The workers are aware that democracy has to be saved again, because it can’t exist without the labour rights that this government wants to extract from those who are suffering most from the crisis.”
What next? The CCOO and UGT leaders have stressed that they want the government to renegotiate the labour law, but Rajoy is refusing to alter its basic content.
The prospect is for another general strike. The question is how to make it more powerful and painful, strengthening participation from those sectors who participated least on March 29.
One possible option is for a combined general strike in the countries where workers’ rights are most under attack — Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
The stakes are huge. If Rajoy succeeds in sacrificing labour and social rights in Spain, the neoliberal nightmare of a “competitive” Europe finally freed from the burden of welfare-state payments and workers' rights will loom closer.
But if mass resistance wins out, the struggle for a social, ecological and democratic Europe will take a big stride forward.
In an eerie reminder of its 1930s’ civil war, Spain today is increasingly being viewed by all shades of politics as Europe’s key battleground.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Read more of Dick Nichols' articles.]