Unions hold day of action

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On 3 December 1998, in response to a call made by the CC.OO and UGT trade union confederations, demonstrations were held across all the Spanish provincial capitals in protest at the position of the government and the employers' associations on unemployment cover, shorter working hours and tax reform.

Over the last two years, the dominant feature of Spanish industrial relations has been the quest by the social partners to seek agreements on matters of mutual interest. However, social dialogue has not yielded the results expected by the trade unions (ES9810286N).

Although progress has been made in areas such as part-time work (ES9811289F) and vocational training (ES9804152F), the government and the employers' associations are unwilling to negotiate topics that the trade unions consider to be of prime importance. For example, the extension of unemployment cover and shorter working hours have not been included on the negotiating agenda. In addition, the government is preparing a tax reform that the unions consider to be regressive with respect to the distribution of income. Against this background, the two principal trade union confederations, CC.OO and UGT, organised demonstrations in December 1998 across the entire country to put pressure on the government and the employers' associations.

Extension of unemployment cover

The unions are demanding a change in the eligibility requirements for unemployment benefit because half of Spanish unemployed people receive no benefit (ES9810183F).

Although the level of unemployment cover and the amount of benefit paid are similar to those in other European countries, in Spain insecure employment and the lack of a general system of minimum income leaves a large number of people in a situation of need without any protection. More than 800,000 unemployed people have no economic protection, and 156,800 of these support families without any income in the family unit. The unions therefore feel that it is necessary to extend eligibility for benefit, paying special attention to long-term unemployed people with family burdens and insufficient incomes.

Equal taxes to consolidate the welfare state

The unions are opposed to the reform of personal income tax (IRPF) being undertaken by the government, which is currently going through parliament (ES9812290F). Their opposition is based on the argument that the reform will reduce revenue for the Treasury and that the main beneficiaries will be people on high incomes. The unions therefore believe that the reform involves a less equal distribution of wealth. In particular, they say that it fails to deal with the current shortcomings and imbalances in the system, and maintains the unfair tax bias against incomes from work in favour of more generous treatment of increases in capital gains. The unions also fear that social benefits will be reduced and that the already limited Spanish welfare state will be eroded and jeopardised.

Job creation through shorter working hours

The 35-hour working week has become the flagship of the union demands, as it combines improvements in working conditions for those already in employment with job creation for those who are not (ES9807178F). However, neither collective bargaining nor social dialogue is progressing in this direction. The unions consider that this situation is due to the unwillingness of employers and the government to make a commitment to reduce working time. They therefore demand legislative measures to stimulate the transformation of shorter working hours into the creation of new jobs (ES9804251F).

Demonstrations

The unions' slogan in their campaign against the position of the government and the employers is For better economic protection of the unemployed. For employment, towards the 35-hour week. Against tax injustice. UGT and CC.OO also signed a joint manifesto and on 3 December organised rallies in companies and demonstrations across the entire country, setting aside for a few hours the differences that have characterised their relationships since summer 1998. They received wide institutional support. State and regional left-wing parties and organisations of all types (representing for example young people, consumers, neighbourhoods and parents) expressed their support for the demonstrations, and leading members of these organisations duly attended.

Thousands of people braved the cold and rain to attend the demonstrations in the Spanish provincial capitals. However, with the exception of Gijón, participation was far lower than expected, even in Barcelona and Madrid where demonstrations always receive solid support.

In mid-December, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales) counteracted some of the unions' arguments by publishing favourable data on its employment policy. The employers' organisations CEOE and CEPYME, as is their custom, made no declaration.

Commentary

This is the first time for many years that general demonstrations have been called in Spain, and the first time for many years that participation has been so low. As always, the reasons for this are complex and diverse - including, for example, the rain and low temperatures in all the Spanish cities - but organisational problems have been notable. There was little preparation of the rallies in companies and not much information was provided either, and it all took place against a background of tension at various levels between CC.OO and UGT. Furthermore, the demands were difficult for the target audience to understand and support. The 35-hour week as a means of creating employment is a proposal that is far removed from the daily reality of most Spaniards. The direct and immediate effect of the reform of personal income tax for most workers is an increase in monthly income, because the tax withheld at source has been reduced. Unemployed people, who are the subject of the main demand, are not very organised and have little contact with (or are excluded from) the unions (ES9803249F). However, despite all this, the demonstrations carried a serious warning to the government - which is very interested in keeping an atmosphere of social peace - that the trade unions will not accept just any proposals. (Clara Llorens, QUIT-UAB)

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