Scenes rarely witnessed since the harsh union struggles against the “reconversion” of Spain’s shipbuilding, coalmining and steel industries in the 1980s reappeared on TV screens and social media here last week.
They would have been startling for those whose idea of “trade unionism” has been formed by media coverage of the leaders of the main union confederations — the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and General Union of Workers (UGT) — signing another tripartite agreement with the president of the Spanish Confederation of Employer Organisations (CEOE) and the labour minister.
In the Andalusian province of Cádiz, 22,000 metalworkers started an indefinite strike on November 14 for a new contract, throwing up barricades topped with burning tyres, cutting roads and train lines in the capital (Cádiz) and clashing with the heavily armed riot squad of the National Police Corps (CNP).
A general strike in the Galician shire of A Mariña (Lugo province) on November 17 was massively followed, not only by workers in private industry, but by all workers in local business and public administration, and by most secondary and tertiary students.
The day’s protest march, through the streets of the regional town of Burela, attracted 15,000, the biggest in its history. The protest followed on three similar strikes in other Lugo province shires earlier in the year.
The two actions, taking place on the northernmost and southernmost mainland “periphery”, apparently had nothing to do with each other.
The Cádiz strike was called by the local metal divisions of the UGT and CCOO in response to the lack of progress in contract negotiations, mainly affecting workers in the 700 firms that supply parts and maintenance to the region’s heavy industry: shipbuilding, submarine platform construction, aircraft production and aerospace technology.
The strike in Galicia, called by the CCOO, UGT and the left-nationalist Galician Interunion Confederation (CIG), was about guaranteeing the region’s economic future. The foreshadowed closure of two major multinational-owned industrial plants, the Danish Vestes (windmills) and the US Alcoa (aluminium), was its immediate trigger.
Yet both disputes occur against the same background: the threat of deindustrialisation leaving thousands of workers and school- and university-leavers with emigration as their only road to a future.
In Galicia, the workers of A Mariña shire only need look across to the country’s Atlantic coast, where the former shipbuilding city of Ferrol has lost 25,000 of it's 1981 population of 92,000 and now holds the Spanish records for most aged population and smallest portion of the population in work.
An industrial volcano erupts
In Cádiz province, where the unemployment rate is already 23.2% (second-highest of mainland Spain), the metalworkers’ strike follows on the impending closure of the Airbus plant in Puerto Real.
Although agreed to by the CCOO’s and UGT’s all-Spanish metal division leaderships on condition of no job losses within Airbus itself, the closure will cut many jobs among companies that supply the Puerto Real plant with components and services.
When made public on November 12, the UGT’s Cádiz convenor distanced himself from the agreement, which was denounced as a “betrayal” by the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Workers (CGT), with minority representation in the plant.
Teresa Rodríguez, Forward Andalusia (AA) spokesperson and MP for Cádiz in the Parliament of Andalusia, said that the closure would continue the Bay of Cádiz’s decline towards“industrial cemetery” status.
The Cádiz strike seemed to come out of the blue. According to metalworker Jesús, interviewed by eldiario on November 17: “What’s coming out these days is all the repressed anger at the loss of rights, loss of purchasing power, such as our €160 extra [a month] for working with toxic chemicals. They took that away in the 2012 crisis on the promise it would be restored in 2016, but the bosses haven’t given it back.
“We want an increase in purchasing power, but also in rights: to take a holiday without fear of losing your job; to turn down a Sunday shift without them threatening me with the pink slip.”
Another worker said: “The bosses have taken care to have first-grade workers, those in the workforce [of the big firms]; second-graders, the permanents in the support firms, who are kept to a minimum; and third graders, the rest of us casuals. They’ve managed to divide us and to keep everything under control.”
He added: “The law says that to stand for union delegate you have to have at least six months employment in one firm, but with work so temporary you can’t build up the hours. The delegates get appointed by the boss himself, and the bulk of workers in the support firms feel betrayed, not represented, by the majority unions [UGT and CCOO].”
Replying to media, employer, and Andalusian government slurs that he was sanctioning violence by supporting the strikers, Cádiz mayor and AA leader José María González (“Kichi”) told a November 18 rally: “Violence is having to lie to the hospital emergency department after an accident at work that it happened at home [so the employer isn’t liable] ...
“Violence is a wage that doesn’t get you to the end of the month while your company pockets millions in public subsidies…
“And violence is that they only listen to us in Madrid when this land, fed up with its own exhaustion, burns.”
At the time of writing, the two sides in dispute remain far apart. The employer body, the Cádiz and Algeciras Metal Employers Federation (FEMCA), is offering a 2% raise each year for 2021-2023, with “consideration” for inflation-based top-up payments that would have to be negotiated retrospectively.
The unions’ demand is for 2%, 2.5% and 3% for the same periods, with extra automatic, adjustments for inflation (now running at 5.3%).
For the FEMCA, this would mean “the end of Cádiz-based industry, which would have to compete with that of other provinces that would start from a more advantageous position”.
This is such nonsense that FEMCA spokespeople must struggle to keep a straight face as they utter it: heavy engineering in Cádiz is about to receive a huge serve of European Next Generation funding for infrastructure construction under the European Green Deal.
The employers’ concern is to lock in a contract that gives away as little of this massive bounty as possible, while for the workers it signals a chance to catch up on wages and conditions lost.
Cádiz saw a 5000-strong demonstration of support with the metal strike on November 23, with university student participation and the local leaders of the UGT and CCOO straining to echo the workers’ militant mood and avoid losing support to more militant forces like the CGT.
The demonstration ended in the most violent clashes to date, leading to tensions within the Spanish government, with deputy Prime Minister and labour minister Yolanda Díaz publicly questioning Attorney-General Fernando Grande-Marlaska about the police charges.
Fighting for a future
In contrast with Cádiz’s classic labour-versus-capital conflict, the A Mariña stoppage was supported by practically all layers of the local population, institutions and political trends.
All political players in the shire had to be seen at the November 17 march through Burela. Not only the mayor and town councillors of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the councillors of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), but the right-wing opposition People’s Party (PP) councillors as well.
The PP marched to blame the Spanish PSOE-led government, its junior partner Unidas Podemos and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for not taking the threat of Alcoa’s closure seriously and for doing nothing about the spiralling price of electricity, the main cost in aluminium smelting.
The PSOE and the BNG were there to blame declining investment and ageing infrastructure in Lugo on the Galician PP government of Premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo.
So far, no proposal has come from the Spanish government about either conflict, save for pressure on Alcoa to seek purchasers for its Lugo plant.
The main statement on the Cádiz conflict has come from Enrique Santiago, Communist Party of Spain general secretary and secretary of state for Agenda 2030.
“What I ask for from workers is that they trust the work this government is doing. Obviously, the economy in this country is not under state intervention and depends on the decisions of private enterprises, but on the government’s part we are doing everything possible to advance reindustrialisation.”
Santiago also warned about the dangers of protests being used by a “right-wing opposition that has been implacable during the pandemic”.
That message looks set to fall on deaf ears: not only is the Cádiz metal conflict intensifying, but other sectors, like road transport and small farmers, are about to begin their own fights.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]