General strike held on 20 June

Download article in original language : Es0207201NES.DOC

Spanish trade unions organised a 24-hour general strike on 20 June 2002 in protest at the government's reform of unemployment benefit. There was major disagreement between the unions and the government about the number of workers who supported the strike, and conflict over the provision of minimum public services during the action.

The Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) called a 24-hour general strike on 20 June 2002 (ES0206204N). The aim of the strike was mainly to oppose the reform of unemployment benefit introduced through a Royal Decree in May by the conservative People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) government (ES0206210F). It was the first time that a general strike had been called since 1994, and it came during the Spanish Presidency of the EU and on the eve of the European Council summit in Seville on 21-22 June. It was also the first major strike against the policy of the PP government.

In the afternoon of 20 June, the unions claimed that the general strike had achieved massive support - an average of 84% (more than 10 million workers) in the whole of Spain, with far higher levels of participation in regions such as Asturias and Andalusia, and lower levels in the Basque Country because the nationalist trade unions had called a strike for 19 June, and in areas with a low concentration of wage-earners. There were also high levels of participation in demonstrations held in many Spanish cities. However, the government, the public television channels and some private channels that have affinities with the government downplayed the importance of the strike and the demonstrations. Early in the morning of 20 June, a government spokesperson announced 'there is no general strike', and later government announcements claimed that support for the strike was only 17% of the working population. An example of the differing assessments was that organisers stated that 400,000 people took part in the demonstration in Barcelona, while the government put the figure at 15,000.

There seems no doubt that the protest was widely supported, judging from the reports by the press, the radio and some television channels. Furthermore, the consumption of electricity was as low as on a public holiday, and the effect was visible in large cities. Critics claim that the government and its supporters clearly sought to minimise the general strike by ignoring it or giving false figures, indicating that the protest was not without political consequences.

The minimum services to be provided during the strike were a major issue. The current legislation on strikes in Spain - dating from 1977, before the adoption of the Constitution - does not regulate this issue. This has led to disputes every time that public service workers go on strike without a previous agreement on minimum services provision, as in most cases. It has also led to rulings by the Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional, TC) and the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema, CS), which have in general condemned the 'abuse' of minimum service requirements by the public administration. On this occasion, minimum services were agreed for the health sector and the regional railways in some regions (autonomous communities). However, in the parts of the transport system depending on the central government, minimum services were imposed by decree. This had two consequences: some workers were deprived of the right to strike, and there were confrontations between the police and workers refusing to respect the minimum services which they regarded as excessive. However, these were the only cases of violence on the day of the general strike.

Since the strike, the trade unions have refused to resume social dialogue unless profound changes are made to the government's unemployment reform. The left-wing political parties have called for the relevant Royal Decree to be declared unconstitutional because it threatens fundamental rights. The Catalan regional government is in conflict with the central government because the former accepted the strike as a normal exercise of labour rights. Disappointment has been expressed in many quarters with what is seen as the government's crude manipulation of the strike. It is to be expected that all this will have major consequences.

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