Spanish General Strike Shows Power of Workers

by Michael Livingston

This article was begun in Seville on the day of the general strike, and completed in Segovia on June 26.

Standing in the 95-degree heat on a narrow street in the ancient Jewish Quarter of Seville, I watched hundreds and hundreds of workers march by behind the banners of their union locals. This was just one small stream that contributed to the main march on Calle de Menendez Pelayo. The main march was massive, estimates placing the number of marchers at 200,000 to 300,000.

Before the march began I walked through the streets of the business district of Seville. The city was, with the exception of an occasional bar or tourist shop, completely closed down. The strike lasted for 24 hours and affected the entire country on Thursday, June 20, known in Spain as 20-J.

Seville was not unique. Industry, transportation, and construction came to a complete stop in the entire country (the exceptions were the minimum bus, train, and airline flights that the unions permitted, as well as the hotels, which the unions also permitted to operate). The strike also closed the schools, hospitals (again except for minimum services allowed by the unions), and most government offices. The unions estimated that 80% of all business and commerce was stopped. From my observations, the figure for Seville was close to 95%.

Demonstrations took place in all the major towns. In Madrid and Barcelona, 300,000 to 500,000 marched. In all, over 3 million people demonstrated in a country with a population of around 45 million. Union leaders were surprised at the massive turnout and success of the strike. The government and media tried vainly to downplay the success.

The strike took place in response to a ferocious attack on workers rights carried out by the conservative government of José Maria Aznar and his Popular Party (PP), which holds an absolute majority in the legislature. The PP passed a new labor law that drastically reduces benefits for the unemployed and makes it easier to terminate workers. The unions responded with a call for a general strike. The strike came after years of compromises and give-backs on the part of the union leadership and the movement toward the center by the Socialist Party  (Spanish initials, PSOE) and its sometimes partner, the United Left (dominated politically and numerically by the Spanish Communist Party but including a number of other very small left groups).

Many of the unionists I observed wore stickers with their union name on them and the statement “I’m on strike.” Others had papers pinned to their shirts reading “Papers for Everyone,” a reference to the attack on immigrants and immigrant rights that the government is also carrying out. Sprinkled through the marchers were people wearing stickers for the Spanish Communist Party or with T-shirts with Che Guevara on them. (Che is still a popular figure among Spanish young people.) A large number of young people also marched with the unionists, some behind banners, others in small groups of friends.

In an attempt to gain political advantage from the strike and the meeting of the European Union that was held in Seville on Friday and Saturday, ETA, the Basque separatist group, exploded five bombs in 36 hours. In the last several years ETA has carried out a number of car bombings and a large number of assassinations. The targets of the assassinations (usually done by masked gunmen at close range) are typically union leaders or social movement leaders in the Basque region (many of whom are socialists or Marxists) who represent a political alternative to ETA.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in Spain and the government and major media go to great lengths to fan the flames of hatred. At least some of the unionists, however, realize the connection between the attack on immigrant labor and the simultaneous attack on organized labor. Some of the unionists wore badges supporting the over 450 migrant workers who are currently occupying the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, demanding work permits and legal residency permits. The occupiers have the support of students and some unionists and have vowed not to leave until the government acknowledges their demands.

The Friday and Saturday after the general strike the European Union (EU) held a summit in Seville. Protest marchers against globalization demonstrated on both days. Their demands included immigrant rights, cancellation of the Third World debt, and a change in EU policy toward the Middle East. The demonstrations on Friday and Saturday were large — between 100,000 and 200,000 people both days — and made up of more of young people and people from outside of Spain. The demonstrations had an almost festive air, with street theater (including a demonstration by nude men), singing, and chanting.

Ignoring the protests, the EU summit adopted new and harsh measures against immigrants and immigrant labor, although the media emphasized that the measures were not as harsh as those called for by the Spanish government. The other notable feature of both the general strike and the anti-globalization protests in Seville was the massive police and military presence. While the unionists and anti-globalizaton demonstrators in Seville were not violent (in fact, I observed that the unionists were downright cordial to the few bar owners and shop keepers that stayed open), the police and military were armed to the teeth and had installed massive barricades around the site of the EU summit. In the entire country there were only about 100 people arrested during the general strike. A few of these were skinhead counter-demonstrators, but most were union leaders singled out by the police.

It is unclear what the union leadership will do next. They have promised a continued struggle against the new labor law but have no concrete plans other than a call to debate the government. What is clear is the power of the Spanish working class, once mobilized. Will the union leaders and left political parties continue a militant fightback, or will they now retreat? The government has no intentions of backing down. Only the power of the workers can make the PP alter its attack.