Spain next in line for a tough battle against austerity

The debt crisis is extending and deepening across Europe. As European governments force working people to pay for the costs of the crisis through austerity measures, more and more are standing up in opposition.

A general strike paralysed Spain on September 29 last year, and Portugal too was brought to a halt on November 23. Five general strikes have rocked France in the last four months amid a wave of resistance to pension reforms. Local strikes and mass demonstrations have rocked the UK, Ireland and Greece as people turn their frustration with austerity into action on the streets.

One of the next in the line for cuts is Spain. Under pressure from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and eager to fend of speculation against Spain’s debt, Spain’s Labor-type government (PSOE) of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has begun to slash public spending and attack pensions.

Public spending will be cut by 7.9 per cent. Spending on education will be cut by 8.1 per cent, public health by 8.2 and the environment by a staggering 31 per cent.

In 2010 alone 176, 470 people lost their jobs. Yet the government plans to cut spending on alleviating unemployment by 5.5%. In addition they are scrapping unemployment benefit for long term dole recipients, leaving 1.64 million people with no source of income.

A very severe part of the new laws is a neoliberal pension reform. Workers will be forced to work for longer as the retirement age is raised by 65 to 67 and by changing the way that pensions are calculated, the government is effectively reducing them by 5.5 per cent.

In early December, Zapatero announced the privatisation of 45% of AENA, a state company that runs the airports. This is the first of a series of 24 partial privatisations and 14 closures of public companies. AENA air-traffic controllers who staged a spontaneous partial strike in response to a massive 40 per cent wage cut were hunted down and forced back to work by the military. This violent repression of workers’ rights by the army was the first since the end of the fascist dictatorship in Spain—yet the major unions barely registered opposition to the attack.

Outrage is fermenting across the country. People are furious with the hypocrisy of the “socialist” government that promised to, in Zapatero’s words, “never make workers pay for the crisis”. Jesus Castillo of the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT) expressed the popular sentiment: “The PSOE is passing profoundly anti-social laws which were not a part of the electoral program for which they were voted in almost three years ago … neoliberal measures like the labour reform clearly show that the PSOE governs for the big businesses and not for the people in the street”. Disenchantment with the PSOE is reflected in their plummeting popularity in electoral polls.

On December 18, unions and social justice organisations mobilised hundreds of thousands across all major cities in a nation-wide day of demonstrations. The month of December was filled with rallies and demonstrations against the cuts and reforms. In Madrid, protestors vented their anger with the government chanting, “not one step back, no to the cuts, we need another general strike!”, “make the rich pay for the crisis!” and “Zapatero and the king should tighten their belts!”.

But the major unions have been slow to provide direction to the mass mobilisations. They remain committed to negotiating with the government, leaving it up to left organisations to organise local and national demonstrations.

As SAT member Pau Alarcón points out, “negotiation has lead to nothing but a more brutal offensive of cuts”. The government is taking full advantage of the unions’ inaction, stating that they will “push forward the pension reform with or without agreement from the unions”. As Pau concluded, “What will stop the cuts is a show of our strength in the street and the workplace with another general strike amid a long-term plan of resistance”.

Unions in Basque country have led the way by calling for a general strike on the 26 January, before the reforms are passed, and the anarcho-syndicalist union the CGT has called a state-wide general strike for January. But success will depend on the participation of the majority unions UGT and CC OO.

As SAT member Jesus Castillo said “the coming general strike in January is a good opportunity to start 2011 fighting to make those who created the crisis pay for it”. The major unions must break with the negotiations to take the necessary action to stop the reforms—a move that could inspire everyone across Europe fighting back against austerity.

Daisy Farnham, in Madrid


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