New strategies emerge at UGT's 37th confederal congress

The March 1998 congress of UGT, one of the two main Spanish trade union confederations, was an important event at a time when the unions are producing new strategies to face the challenges affecting employment and the welfare state. Amongst other policies, the congress issued a call for a statutory 35-hour working week.

The 37th congress of the General Workers' Union (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT), held on 11-14 March 1998, projected an image of unity, strong leadership headed by secretary general Cándido Méndez, and support for new strategic guidelines, thus marking an end to a period of internal crisis that could have reduced the confederation's effectiveness and marred its public image.

The new congress also put an end to the tension with the Socialist Party (PSOE) to which many UGT members feel close, though the union maintains a position of total autonomy in its organisation and policies. Indeed, the search for trade union autonomy was one of the reasons for which UGT chose to mark its distance from the party. The PSOE is no longer in government and UGT has called for the creation of a common front of the social and political Left in order to present a progressive alternative to the Government's conservative policies (ES9804250F).

Opening up to society

Though membership of Spanish trade unions has been increasing in recent years, many workers - such as unemployed people, the young, women and pensioners - find it difficult to join owing to their position on the labour market. Although the situation is not as bad as it was 10 years ago, adult males in secure employment still form the vast majority of trade union members. The UGT congress believes that this situation must be changed, and that the organisation must be adapted to a more complex, plural and multi-ethnic society with representation for all. Two proposals put forward at the congress open new perspectives in this area. Though they have not yet been fully defined, the debate that they have provoked is a sign of their importance.

The first proposal is the organisation of unemployed people (ES9803249F), in particular first-time job seekers. The initial proposal was to set up a specific federation for unemployed people. This idea was favoured by those sectoral or regional union organisations whose connection with unemployed people was more problematic, but those that already had many unemployed people amongst their members were more reticent. The final solution was one of compromise: unemployed people will have their own structure of services with which they can register to receive information, training and guidance. However, their trade union identification will be expressed through the existing sectoral organisations, which they can join according to their previous employment or their professional or academic qualifications.

The second proposal, which is even more novel, attempts to deal with self-employed workers. This is of great significance given that there is a trend towards a world of work in which telework, "mini-firms" and self-employment may replace a large proportion of traditional wage earners, and that the new type of worker has little chance for expressing his or her demands. In this case, the congress favoured the creation of a specific autonomous union with its own identity but maintaining close ties with UGT.

An effort is also being made to encourage the presence of women amongst UGT members, and especially in the management of the trade union. To this end, a quota of 20% was established to guarantee the presence of women in union management bodies, although ultimately this directive has the status only of a recommendation. It is also intended to encourage women's departments at a regional level as instruments of a policy of equality.

With regard to young people, the trade union wishes to combat insecure employment and to open itself up to imaginative forms of organisation that provide space for them. In fact, some regions have already set up young people's associations within the trade union.

New policies for society

The strategic thrust of the congress can be summarised by two proposals that perhaps express most clearly the new tendencies: the decision to place employment at the centre of trade union action, on the assumption that it is a social right; and the fight for the welfare state.

Employment as a strategy

Perhaps the most eye-catching proposal of the congress - and indeed its slogan - was the demand for the 35-hour working week, established by law and without loss of purchasing power. On this point UGT, has made a forceful contribution to the debate on worksharing and has come out in favour of one of the two positions defended by the Left in Europe and in Spain. UGT wishes to find a "French-style" solution (FR9803197N), a position that up to now has been mainly advocated by the United Left Party (Izquierda Unida) in Spain. The other main union confederation, the Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO), has a non-defined position, and the PSOE is in favour of using bargaining between employers and trade unions rather than the law to determine working hours.

However, the 37th congress of UGT did not limit itself to demanding reduced working hours in the fight against unemployment, but also called for active measures to create employment by regenerating production structures and encouraging job-creating activities. It also requested more and better training initiatives. At a time of economic growth, UGT insists once more that the government must substantially increase investment in employment. However, it also calls for employers to reinvest a substantial part of their dividends in job creation. Trade union action and bargaining at a sectoral and company level should be aimed at creating and improving employment.

In other words, creating employment and improving existing employment are the main objectives of the trade unions. The old union philosophy that employment was the business of companies, while the function of the union was to improve as far as possible the conditions of wage earners, seems to be a thing of the past. This is an important change of strategy, though translating this orientation into the daily practice of union activity is something quite different. Therefore, improving the conditions of wage earners is no longer the exclusive focus of union demands, though it has not been left aside, and increases in purchasing power are demanded to increase consumption and improve the economic situation.

Consequently, with this new philosophy the congress wants to place employment at the centre of debate and to carry it into companies, schools, institutions and on to the streets with more forceful action such as demonstrations and strikes if necessary. The first landmark of this new combative outlook has been created by the National Action Plan, in response to EU employment guidelines, that the Spanish Government is to present to the Cardiff European Council Summit meeting in June 1998 (ES9712235F).

Consolidating the welfare state

The economic improvement that Spain is experiencing is seen as being contradicted by the weakening of social policy and an increase in inequality. Therefore, the trade unions have mounted a strong defence of the welfare state, as UGT has now expressly declared at its congress. The unions thus wish to increase their "radius" of action beyond wage earners to embrace all citizens.

The congress stated, firstly, the need to consolidate the minimum conditions that guarantee a reasonable standard of living for all citizens: a minimum income in situations of need with active policies for eradicating poverty; improving and extending unemployment benefit; improving contributive benefits; defence of an effective public health system; fair pensions; and the defence and improvement of public education.

The congress underlined, secondly, the demand for an equal allocation of social burdens. It is therefore opposed to a reduction in employers' social security contributions and to the cuts that are being made in health benefits (ES9803251N). Above all, UGT is firmly opposed to the reform that the Government is trying to introduce in the direct taxation system, which the Left in general and the unions in particular claim will lead to lower government income and therefore weaker social policies (ES9803250N). The reform is beneficial mainly to earners in the average to high income brackets. UGT joins the other left-wing political and social forces in demanding an end to what it claims is a retrograde reform that will increase inequality and hinder policies of social cohesion even further.

Commentary

A congress is an important time for reconsidering policies, not only for UGT but also for all Spanish trade unions. At its 37th congress, UGT has adopted new strategies by taking a clear stand against the Government's policies that are seen as detrimental to the millions of workers with lower incomes and with insecure jobs, and by taking an important step towards unifying the more progressive proposals of the Left. The congress is therefore an important statement of change in labour relations.

Nevertheless, some proposals must be viewed critically, either because they have not yet been fully developed or because they express a trade union vision that is insufficiently open to the complexity of society. For example, one should perhaps ask why the trade unions are unwilling to give a greater role to unemployed people. Regarding the 35-hour week, it is a shame that the trade unions and the whole political Left have arguably failed to make coherent proposals that take into account not only employment but also free time in general at a moment of great cultural and social change. It is true that there is an employment crisis, but technical progress offers the opportunity to reconsider the relationship between free time and working time in a new light. (Fausto Miguélez and Clara Llorens, QUIT)

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