Strike on the Barcelona Metro

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Recent months have seen an intensifying and unresolved dispute over pensions at Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), including 14 days of strike activity starting on 21 February 1997. This is the first time in four years that all the unions represented on the TMB workers' committee have acted jointly to claim what they understand as a right laid down in previous agreements.

Workers on the Barcelona Metro have been in dispute with the company management for the last four years. They are demanding a pension worth 100% of final pay for workers taking early retirement at 60. The company is prepared to add only a 20% supplement to the retirement pension payable under the normal social security system (worth 60% of final pay), so workers who retire early would receive 80% of their pay.

According to the unions, the cost of its proposal is ESP 35 billion. According to management, however, the figures are very different: ESP 45 billion would be needed to subsidise the pensions of the Metro workers retiring at 60 at a rate of 100% pay, and this amount would reach ESP 90 billion if it included the allocation for workers retiring over the next 15 years and the cost of the pensions for bus drivers.

The causes of the conflict can be found in the creation of the Barcelona Metro in the 1920s. At that time the working conditions of the Metro were quite arduous and wages were lower than average. To compensate, the company guaranteed a good pension plan for employees. When in 1967 the new social security act established retirement at 65 for all workers, the Barcelona Metro remained outside the normal social security system, and for 24 years workers at TMB continued to retire at 60 on 100% of pay. Under the general provisions of the social security system, those who retire at 60 receive only 60% of pay, and in order to receive 100% it is necessary to retire at 65.

In 1992 the Barcelona Metro was brought into the normal social security system. TMB management proposed an agreement to supplement the pensions of those taking early retirement to cover 80% of pay. Between 1995 and 1996 about 20 workers retired under this provision. However, the workers' committee of TMB came out against the scheme, thus starting a dispute that led to the current strike.

There have been few meetings between the management of the company and the workers' committee during the dispute. The first meeting was not called until a fortnight after the dispute had started, and during the whole strike the two sides sat down at the negotiating table on only two occasions.

According to the unions, the company's refusal to enter into a dialogue fostered closer relations between the members of the workers' committee. At the end of April 1997, the company attempted to solve the dispute by proposing a pension plan to Metro workers. This proposal had been previously rejected by the workers' committee, but was now sent individually to the Metro workers. The workers' committee then became even more irritated, which helped to bring the six unions represented on the committee even closer together. In mid-April the company launched a new proposal, this time through the workers' committee, offering the chance to bring retirement down to the age of 62, but it was again rejected.

Owing to the failure to agree with management, the Metro workers' committee called a further 18-day strike from 27 May.

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