Agreement reached at Moulinex after six-week strike

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In July 2000, an agreement ended a six-week strike at the Moulinex factory at Barbastro in Spain's Aragon region. The plant's workforce had sought improved pay rates , including parity with employees at Moulinex's other Spanish plant, in the Basque Country.

Moulinex is a French-based multinational producing household electrical appliances. In Spain, it has two plants that manufacture toasters and blenders: one is located in Barbastro, in the province of Huesca, Aragon; and the other in Urnieta, in the province of Guipúzcoa, the Basque Country. The Barbastro factory has a workforce of around 600 (double the workforce of Urnieta) with a weak trade union tradition. The Workers' Trade Unionist Confederation (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO), for the first time, won most support in the last elections of union representatives at Barbastro and has five representatives on the workers' committee, which also includes representatives of the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) (four), the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) (three) and the General Confederation of Workers (Confederación General de Trabajadores, CGT) (one).

The cause of the conflict

In 1997, the company introduced a new production system that considerably intensified working time, leading to a 40% increase in production, a significant rise in productivity and an increase in profitability at the Barbastro plant.

In response to this, after many years of wage moderation and loss of purchasing power, the workers' representatives drew up a joint platform, whose main demand was a substantial wage increase to compensate for the increase in profits and for the efforts of the workers. Moulinex in Spain does not have its own collective agreement but is governed by the Huesca provincial metalworking sector agreement, one of the sector's provincial agreements with the lowest wages. However, every year the management and the workers' representatives negotiate some aspects of pay and conditions through a company pact.

The workers demanded a general wage rise of ESP 15,000 per month and 14 monthly payments per year, in addition to an increase in seniority and transport supplements equivalent to the increase in the real retail prices index (RPI). This wage demand also aimed to bring wages at Barbastro into line with those of the Urnieta plant: a skilled worker, the most common category at the Barbastro plant, earns ESP 800,000 less per year than a worker in the same category at Urnieta. The workers of the Barbastro plant considered that this wage difference was too high and not justified by the difference in the cost of living between the regions – rather, it was the result of a period of industrial peace that had benefited only the company. Another demand was that the company should supplement social security benefits for occupational illnesses up to 100% of pay. Temporary incapacity and disability are increasingly common among the Barbastro workforce, which is thought to be due to the conditions imposed by the new production system based on repetitive "micro-movements" with very high production targets.

The management of the company claimed that it could not increase the wages because the Moulinex group had suffered major losses in other countries, and offered a wage increase equivalent to half the increase in real RPI. It also sought a pact with a three-year period of validity. The parties were unable to reach an agreement, given these conflicting positions.

Mobilisations

After the negotiations over an agreement broke down, the workers' representatives called several mobilisations to put pressure on the company: first, two-hour stoppages on alternate days, then two-hour stoppages every day and finally daily four-hour stoppages. These were supported by all three shifts of the production workforce. After three weeks of mobilisations, the management refused to modify its position on the workers' demands. The workers' representatives therefore called a indefinite strike that was followed by most of the workforce. This was the first time in living memory that an indefinite strike had been called at the plant.

At the end of May 2000, management agreed to negotiate with the mediation of the mayor of Barbastro, but no agreement was reached. The workers therefore decided to continue with the strike. The company called a lock-out and one week later filed a petition for the strike to be declared illegal, considering it as an abuse. It also contacted the workers directly and unilaterally through a letter.

At the end of June, mediation by the director general for employment of the Aragon regional government, Martínez Laseca, also failed.

One day later, the management of the company threatened to close the Barbastro plant and filed an application for the termination of contracts, which caused great public concern. An assembly of workers decided by majority to continue with the strike in spite of the threats by the company. However, the Aragon government and the Barbastro municipal government urged the workers to accept the company's proposal.

Unsatisfactory agreement

A new mediation effort by the Aragon government ended in a preliminary agreement in mid-July that was finally approved by the workers, though with significant opposition: 265 votes in favour, 152 votes against, 4 blank votes and 1 null vote. The chair of the workers' committee, Juan José Leache (USO), considers that the result of the vote, like the indefinite strike, shows the unrest of a large part of the workforce, and that the management should bear this in mind in the years to come.

The agreement is far from meeting the demands of the workers, but it was apparently accepted due to the fatigue of two and a half months of mobilisations, the loss of wages and the pressure from political institutions. It has a three-year period of validity and the workers will receive ESP 125,000 more in the first year and ESP 126,000 more in the second and third year, which will form part of the basic wage, plus a bonus of ESP 24,000 per year that will not. Seniority and transport supplements will increase in line with the real RPI increase of the previous year. The company will also supplement social security benefits for incapacity and disability up to 100% of pay.

Commentary

Bitter wage disputes have been a feature of Spanish industrial relations over the past few years - examples include conflicts at Daewoo (ES9911164F), Tudor (ES0002278F) and Miniwatt (ES9809180F). This is unsurprising, since decent living conditions are at stake.

The Moulinex conflict again highlights the atomisation of collective bargaining in Spain and the need for new bargaining frameworks (a national sectoral agreement) to establish minimum wages, rather than provincial sectoral agreements. Wage differences of ESP 800,000 per year between workers in the same category performing the same tasks in the same company but in different provinces are not justifiable.

For trade unions, a coordinated policy on minimum working conditions is needed at a national and European level to respond to employers' strategies that base competitiveness on precarious working conditions (Clara Llorens Serrano, QUIT-UAB).

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