Disagreements arise amongst trade unions

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Over the closing months of 1998, the Spanish press noted divergences in the views and activities of the two main trade union confederations, CC.OO and UGT. Though it has been suggested that the unity of action of the past 10 years is in crisis - and it is true that there are certain problems - it seems that these divergences are not sufficiently important to threaten the unity of strategic action.

As has been normal over the past 10 years (ES9712137F), the two main Spanish trade union confederations - the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) - started 1999 with items in common for the forthcoming year's bargaining round. They have presented a joint strategy on wage demands, working hours, health and safety at work and work organisation, amongst other themes. As in previous years, employment - job creation and stable employment - has moved up to the top of the unions' bargaining agenda.

In the social dialogue on the labour market and employment (ES9812291F), the two unions broadly agree over current demands, such as shorter working hours, protection for unemployed people and the need for greater security in employment. Both unions also agree that the government's economic policy is regressive and tends to increase social inequality. They are opposed to the government's tax reforms and privatisation policy, and feel that little importance has been given to job creation in the state budgets.

However, disagreements exist between the two confederations. These do not concern the overall strategy but rather the way in which to achieve some of these objectives, the extent of social dialogue and how to approach specific problems at company level.

Disagreements in social dialogue

The first point of disagreement between the two unions is a formula for promoting stable employment recently agreed by the Ministry of Labour, the Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organisations-Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (Confederación Española de Organizaciones Empresariales-Confederación Española de la Pequeña y Mediana Empresa, CEOE-CEPYME) and CC.OO, but not by UGT. This formula does not take the form of a signed agreement but of consensus on measures laid down in the law accompanying the 1999 state Budget (ES9810286F). The formula: introduces incentives for companies that transform temporary jobs into permanent jobs with a duration of at least two years (the incentives are greater for women's jobs); creates a guarantee clause against dismissal in jobs that have been subsidised; and eliminates incentives for part-time employment with short working hours (fewer than 12 per week).

Whereas CC.OO claims that these measures are in line with the proposals that both unions had agreed earlier, UGT feels that the deal does not establish sufficient guarantees, and that subsidies may be given to companies with no guarantee of their effectiveness on employment.

A second question has to do with the increase in employers' unemployment insurance contributions in respect of temporary contracts. The deal establishes an increase of 0.5% and 1.5% respectively for part-time temporary contracts and temporary contracts through temporary employment agencies (TEA s). In this case, UGT is opposed because it feels that the increase is too low. Nor has this measure been supported by the employers' organisations (though for opposite reasons), so it is advocated only by the Ministry of Labour and CC.OO.

CC.OO maintains that both these measures will lead to greater security on the labour market, whilst UGT believes that they are very partial and that they may have the effect of legitimising the government's allegedly negative economic and labour policy.

A third problem refers to TEAs themselves, against which the unions have increased their pressure recently. Here, CC.OO wishes to open negotiations to change the regulations governing TEAs, especially with regard to contracts. UGT is not opposed to this, but feels that perceived abuse of the system by TEA companies requires immediate and specific measures, in particular with regard to wages. UGT therefore demands political action to force TEAs to pay workers the same wages as the user companies when working conditions are the same.

Another area of difference is the 35-hour working week (ES9807178F). Though this is a fundamental question for both unions, they approach it in different ways. UGT is clearly in favour of a law followed by collective bargaining. Its argument is that 2 million workers are not covered by collective agreements and will be left out of the process if legislation is not introduced. In CC.OO, the majority view is that legislation and negotiation should be combined, but by placing emphasis on the latter in order to make sure that employers accept the change. However, there is a minority position in the union that is also in favour of a law as a first step.

Disagreements at company level

Recently there has also been disagreement between the unions at company level. Perhaps the most striking case is a disagreement on working hours in the banking sector. CC.OO is in favour of banks opening in the afternoons until 17.30 and closing on Saturday mornings in exchange for maintaining the current employment level, which is threatened by mergers between banks. UGT is opposed to afternoon opening unless it involves net job creation. After a confrontation that took place in Deutsche Bank, where CC.OO had a majority on the workers' committee, there may now be another dispute over the sectoral collective agreement, since CC.OO obtained an absolute majority on the negotiating commission in the last elections for representatives. However, both unions, as well as the minority unions, are in favour of a 35-hour week for the sector, though they disagree on how it should be achieved.

There is also an important disagreement between the unions over a strike in Renfe (Spanish Railways) at the end of December 1998 on wage bonuses and reclassification of job grades. UGT stopped supporting the strike after several days because it saw a chance for agreement that was not recognised by CC.OO.

The significance of these differences should not be exaggerated, because unity of action has never meant, nor can it mean, total agreement between the unions in specific companies.

The unions downplay the differences

The leaders of both union confederations stated repeatedly during the last few days of 1998 that unity of action was not in danger. The same was stated at the time of the joint demonstrations organised on 3 December against the government's economic policy (ES9812291F). Furthermore, this is also the dominant opinion within each union. However, UGT has asked CC.OO to rectify the "error" of the recent agreements with the Ministry of Labour. In turn CC.OO has asked UGT to show greater boldness in negotiating with the government. For the time being, there is no joint public position of the two unions on the topics of disagreement.

Commentary

The disagreements that have always existed despite a general unity of action have perhaps been sharpened over the last few months for a series of reasons.

The disputes between the unions in companies have recently been accentuated by recent elections for workers' representatives. The elections are also creating tensions at a sectoral level (in the banking sector among others) since the development of future collective agreements depends on these elections.

The two union confederations feel a need to reaffirm their independence. After the crisis of 1993 (over a housing cooperative) and the change of leadership in 1994 (the difficult succession of Nicolas Redondo), UGT is facing a new phase with a new impetus, as was seen at its last congress (ES9804251F). Since its last congress, CC.OO has had a strong minority group in favour of using pressure to obtain changes, which has led to disagreements that are aggravated by the forthcoming retirement of its general secretary. Therefore, both unions need successes, especially in view of the proximity of the general elections, in which there will be a strong confrontation between the right and the left. Virtually nobody thinks that the unions will return to lame support for political parties, but the elections will allow the unions to present their demands, which may be closer to one party or another.

All this means that the forms of joint action between the unions are more delicate and complex, and are often difficult to specify at a local or company level, which is where the specific problems arise.

However, an immense majority in both unions believes that an increasingly consistent unity of action is an essential objective for the union sections, the workers' committees and the national leaders (ES9806167N) - an objective of such importance that it rides over and above the individual political sympathies of the general secretaries of the two unions. (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT)

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