Associations of unemployed people form central organisation
In February 1998, a central organisation was formed by Spanish associations of unemployed people, aimed at claiming the right to work and social protection. The new body, which has put a series of demands to the Government, has received a mixed reaction in trade union and political circles.
On 19 February 1998, a National Commission of Associations of the Unemployed for Employment (Mesa Nacional de Asociaciones de Parados para el Empleo) was founded by 15 associations of unemployed people, with the objective of claiming "the right to work and social care" for the 3.92 million unemployed people in Spain.
This first meeting of the associations of the unemployed raised more interest than was expected by its promoters. The background to this initiative was the exemplary recent French experience of protests by unemployed groups, which is perceived to have forced a change in policy by Lionel Jospin's Government (FR9802199N). Nevertheless, Spanish jobless people are not merely imitating the French. The Spanish unemployed associations have been active for over half a decade, and for some years have been organising rallies and demonstrations that have gone almost unnoticed. However, it seems that the demonstrations by unemployed people in France have created greater awareness because of the media impact of their activity.
Origins of the unemployed associations
The associations of unemployed people that have been created in Spain over the last five years can be divided into two main groups.
The first group consists of associations of unemployed people over 40 years of age, with varying ideological origins. In these associations one can find highly qualified people - professionals, graduates and even former company managers - though the majority of members are manual workers, with a high proportion of women. The most important association in this group is Senun-40, which was founded in 1992 and has a membership of 20,000 distributed across several provinces. Its aim is to provide services to its members, such as support for job seeking and business start-ups. This association receives no grants. PM-40 is the second largest association. It is based in several provinces of Andalucia and provides services to the over-40s, whom it considers to be especially discriminated against: "discrimination begins at the age of 40 in the labour world. That is why we specialise in the problems of people accustomed to a wage packet whose life has suddenly changed." Other important associations are the Federation of the Unemployed over 40 (Federación de Parados Mayores de 40), Aparte, Aparca, CAM-40 and the Galicia n association Xuntos-40. These associations have a very local and mainly provincial base. Therefore, their organisational power is very dispersed, which raises problems of coordination and communication. These groups of unemployed people over 40 reflect the true drama of unemployment, with potential problems including: a fall in social status, reduction in income while still needing to support a family, depression, psychosomatic illnesses, heart attacks, emotional problems, family disintegration and the risk of poverty.
The second group consists of associations of young unemployed people. The most important is the Spider Network (Red Araña), an association of 21 centres across 12 regions, devoted to giving labour advice to persons under 30 years of age. For this group, the drama of unemployment is often attenuated through the family, although this does not mean that it is unimportant. These groups emphasise other strategies for job creation, such as demanding facilities for setting up companies, a reduction in the social contributions of workers which are considered a "tax against employment", support by the government administrations for associations with a local base that can create employment, and promoting new sources of employment.
Common strategies and divisions
Some 20 associations representing about 400,000 unemployed people attended the founding meeting of the new body in February, but finally only 15 associations committed themselves to founding the Permanent Commission. Divisions arose during the course of the meeting; there was a consensus on the need to mobilise but disagreement over the strategies to be followed. Some felt that it was necessary first to attempt a dialogue with the Government whilst others were in favour of immediate action. Nevertheless, they did all agree that it was necessary to put pressure on the Government to negotiate and to put pressure on the social partners to claim the right to work and social protection.
There is also disagreement over relations with the trade unions. The associations recognise that the unions have made some effort to promote employment, but unemployment rates have remained high for many years and the problem has not been solved. Therefore, some now criticise the unions for defending only their members in employment. This is why they have now decided to organise themselves outside the unions. However, other associations, such as the youth association, Spider Web, prefer to wait to see what will happen with the new organisations of the unions (see below) in their negotiations with the Government.
The main union confederations, CC.OO and UGT, have been critical about the new parallel organisation of the unemployed associations and have decided to found specific unions for unemployed people linked to their respective organisational structures (ES9801143N). The unions criticise the fact that some associations of unemployed people are ideologically very close to the conservative People's Party (Partido Popular) and claim that they are ultimately only trying to reduce the strength of the unions by creating parallel associations and social movements. However, criticism has also come from within the trade unions. One of the sections of CC.OO has stated that the unions give priority to the demands of employed members and pay less attention to unemployed people. This argument is based on the fact that unemployed people find it difficult to associate because they do not have an opportunity for daily interaction - as they would in a company - and on the idea that unemployed people can negotiate only with the government administration: an organisation that is sometimes abstract and distant from the specific place where the problems of unemployment arise. By contrast, the wage-earning members of the unions have a place for daily interaction at work, which facilitates their association and cohesion as a group, and they have a perfectly identifiable and specific bargaining partner: the company.
As for the political parties, only the United Left (Izquierda Unida) has expressed its clear support for the associations of unemployed people. It even seems willing to take an active part in these associations if the trade unions do not reconsider their position and become more clearly committed to defending the unemployed. Possibly as a result of this pressure, towards the end of March 1998, the unions radicalised their stance on the problems of unemployment and on the Government's national employment plan, in response to the 1998 EU guidelines on employment policies, which is still being drawn up (ES9712235F).
The Permanent Commission wishes to open a dialogue directly with the Government and to participate in the discussion of the employment plan. Its main demands are: the development of dignified and secure employment; new measures for giving permanent work contracts to the least favoured workers; eliminating discrimination in relation to wages and social benefits in temporary contracts; increasing unemployment benefit, which now only reaches 47% of the unemployed; and reinforcing the social economy.
The Commission also demands: the reduction of the working week to 35 hours; worksharing; elimination of overtime within two years; support for new sources of employment; free basic services for long-term unemployed people (such as transport, medicine, water and electricity); participation of the unemployed organisations in the administration of the European funds devoted to training and self-employment; and a schedule for negotiating these demands. Many of these demands coincide with those of the unions - especially those referring to a shorter working week, worksharing, eliminating overtime and developing secure employment - but other demands are very specific to the associations of unemployed people.
The mobilisation of unemployed people is a response to a crucial problem for Spanish society. It can be solved only through the collaboration of the associations of unemployed people, the unions and the Government. However, it must not be forgotten that both public and private investment are essential in order to create employment, so it is essential to create an awareness of the problem in society as a whole.
Today few unemployed people are able to express their demands through collective organisations, and solving this problem seems to be a fundamental objective for both trade unions and associations of the unemployed. (A Martín and F Miguélez, QUIT
"Los servicios de proximidad: ¿un yacimiento de empleo" Teresa Torns, Revista de Treball Social, nº 147, Barcelona (1997).
"¿Trabajo voluntario o participación?", Ariel Jerez, Tecnos, Madrid (1998)