Cause and effect of general strike

Spanish unions called the country’s seventh general strike since it became a democracy, on 28 September, to protest against labour reform. It had mixed support and the government, although cordial, has dismissed the possibility of modifying the already approved reform. However, the government seems willing to negotiate over specific reform measures, such as the capitalisation fund and the regulation of placement agencies, which are to be introduced in the next 12 months.

Causes of the strike

The general strike was called by the ‘most representative’ trade unions, the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and the General Workers’ Confederation (UGT), after parliament passed the Royal Decree Law 10/2010, of 16 June, on urgent measures for the labour market reform (ES1007011I). The government announced that the decree would be processed as a project law, coming into force on 9 September, allowing different parliamentary groups to include amendments. However, this did not appease the trade unions, who suspected that the general opposition of the left-wing parties to the reform would force the government to negotiate the formulation of the law with centre-right nationalist parties, namely the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) and the Catalan Political Coalition (CiU).

It must be emphasised that the proceedings in the senate and in parliament have not produced any substantial changes in the decree law despite the different amendments presented. Some of the most noteworthy changes are more precise wordings of the provisions allowing dismissal for economic reasons (with a 20-day compensation), which henceforth may apply, not only in cases of continuing company losses, but also in cases where there are ‘foreseen losses’ and a persistent decrease in income. The law has also made dismissal easier, by reducing the permissible amount of absenteeism. Finally, the decree amends the Law on Social Security, obliging unemployed people and those receiving contributory benefits to accept a training course 30 days after they register as unemployed.

The document (in Spanish, 87Kb PDF), jointly written by the trade union confederations to justify the strike, stresses the argument which they have made since the social dialogue on this reform began (ES0910029I). They say that the ills afflicting the labour market are caused by the productive model and not by its rigid regulation. Consequently, they condemn the cuts in compensation for dismissals, and instead demand policies that focus more on the creation of new training. At the same time, they are worried about changes to collective bargaining that allow enterprises, under certain conditions, to opt out of sectoral agreements and negotiate separate agreements with the workers’ legal representatives at the company level.

Disagreement over workers’ turnout

The strike turnout has not, as on other occasions, given rise to a war of figures between the government and trade unions. Compared to the discrepancies that usually arise in these types of estimates, the government had this time confined itself, via the Ministry of Labour, to declare that the strike had had ‘moderate and unequal’ support in different sectors and regions and to provide data only on the participation of public servants (7%) and public enterprise workers (23%). However, the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organisations (CEOE) and the Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises (CEPYME) issued a statement claiming that ‘where there was freedom, there was no strike’, alluding to the pickets that, in some enterprises, prevented employees from working. Employer organisations provided their own data on the strike turnout in the financial sector (3%), business (5%) and construction (10%). The trade unions calculated the turnout at 70%. Nonetheless, they acknowledged a lesser response in regions such as Ceuta, Melilla and the Basque region, which held its own general strike on 29 June, called by the nationalist trade unions – the Basque Workers’ Solidarity (ELA) and Nationalist Workers’ Committees (LAB).

One commonly employed indicator, that of energy consumption, showed a decrease of 16%, somewhat below the 22% decrease reached during the general strike held in 2002 against the Aznar government. Furthermore, most observers agree that the strike was successful in large industries.

The turnout was particularly high in demonstrations organised in Madrid, Seville, Barcelona and Valencia.

Commentary

Unequal support for this strike from different sectors has once again made it clear that industrial workers still respond more readily to the calls for mobilisation made by class-based trade unions. It is difficult to estimate the impact in the services sector, given the lack of official data and the diverse activities it includes. It can be said that the strike has been moderately successful and that this, despite not having any bearing on the labour market reform, may assist a greater rapprochement between the government and trade unions in future reforms. These issues include pensions, activation policies, as well as the provisions on the individual capitalisation fund, which have not been specified by the general reform act.

Pablo Sanz, CIREM Foundation

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