Unionisation of the self-employed
For some time, Spain's two main trade union confederations, UGT and CC.OO, have been promoting the unionisation of self-employed workers, who form a large part of the country's active population. January 2000 saw the creation of the Union of Professionals and Self-employed Workers within UGT.
The self-employed (autónomos) form an important part of the active population in Spain, representing a total of 1,800,000 people, including self-employed workers and members of the liberal professions, in addition to the 335,000 persons who work for them as "family helpers". This means that the self-employed represent over 15% of the active population, located mainly in retail, agriculture, construction, transport, manufacturing, catering and community services.
One of the problems facing the self-employed is how to organise in order to defend their interests and objectives in relation to the state, large companies and other groups. Of course, forms of association already exist. In theory, the employers' associations are open to this group, but most self-employed workers do not identify with them. In agriculture there are already independent farmers' unions, in some cases - such as the Union of Small Farmers (Unión de Pequeños Agricultore ) - linked to the UGT trade union confederation, and in other cases - such as the Farmers' Union of Catalonia (Unió de Pagesos de Catalunya) - with a tradition of specific alliances with trade unions. However, there are no specific organisations for the industry and services sectors. The liberal professions also have professional colleges, which cover some objectives but leave others unaddressed, and their members also include salaried professionals. A small number of the self-employed are members of trade union federations, since unions have always been open to them. However, this membership is not significant.
The situation of the self-employed varies greatly, and the differences between them must be clarified in order to understand their problems. This is the first task being undertaken by the new Union of Professionals and Self-employed Workers (Unión de Profesionales y Trabajadores Autónomos, UPTA) (see below). Some self-employed workers work in companies, with a relationship that in fact is an employment relationship, although this is not their legal situation (the "false self-employed"). Others, who work for several companies, could be classified as the "subordinate self-employed". Finally, a third group is the "pure self-employed", those that offer their services directly on the open market.
The traditional unions and the self-employed
For some time trade union confederations such as UGT and CC.OO have been aware of the need to promote the unionisation of this group of workers, who are far closer to wage-earners than to entrepreneurs.
Since its last congress in 1998 (ES9804251F), UGT has therefore promoted the creation of a union for the self-employed, which finally emerged in January 2000 as the Union of Professionals and Self-employed Workers, which will hold its founding congress at the end of 2000. UPTA has established two objectives in the run-up to this congress: to establish the "platform of demands" of this group through assemblies, debates and contributions of various types; and to identify and define the diverse categories of self-employed workers (see above) in order to clarify the aims of the union.
CC.OO also considers this issue in the documents for its forthcoming congress in April 2000. To meet the complex requirements of this group, it has chosen flexible organisational formulae within the respective existing union federations. However, CC.OO in Catalonia has gone far further by proposing a formula halfway between that of its national organisation and the UGT initiative. In the documentation for its congress, it proposes the creation of an organisation of self-employed workers within the confederation, to be called "Trade" (trabajador dependiente, or dependent worker).
Different solutions have thus been found to deal with a group with similar problems to wage-earners but with less individual power and little capacity for association. The traditional unions are offering the self-employed the possibility of organisation, or support in their organisation, as well as services and support in institutional representation at different levels.
The demands to which unions of self-employed workers and professionals must respond are not the same as those of wage-earners - eg wages, hours of work and recruitment. These unions must also deal with fields such as taxation (the decrease or reform of certain taxes), business (self-employment policies, facilities for setting up companies), working conditions (recognition of occupational illnesses and industrial accidents) and social questions (continuing training, incapacity cover and contributions to the social security system).
It seems unlikely that these demands can be fully developed within the same trade unions as those of salaried workers. However, none of them is contradictory with the demands of wage-earners, so a close link with the unions seems appropriate.
The position of the employers' organisations
The employers' associations stress that they are not only open to the self-employed, but that they offer the most suitable option for them. However, they do admit that these people are those that least often join employers' associations, except for some very specific associations in which the self-employed traditionally associate with small entrepreneurs.
The reality is arguably that the interests of many of the self-employed are not only increasingly removed from those of the entrepreneurs, but often enter into conflict with them, because in many sectors the self-employed are becoming a workforce that is controlled by the companies
Over the last few years the number of self-employed workers has increased, particularly in the service sector but also in industry. At the same time, as in all developed countries, it has fallen in agriculture. However, this quantitative growth has been accompanied by a weakening of their professional and labour status, so on one hand they have an increasing need for collective representation and on the other hand their situation is becoming increasingly close to that of employees.
The issue of the appropriate forms of organisation for this group was first expressed by the self-employed and professional members of the traditional unions, because the advantages of association can be seen better from within. The trade unions are actively promoting the unionisation of this group because it is advantageous for both the workers and the trade unions. However, it is a pity that the majority trade unions have not achieved a common project that guarantees the autonomy of self-employed workers, trade union unity, and close links with the general trade unions (Fausto Miguélez. QUIT).