Throughout the economic crisis of the last two years Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, insisted, “My government will never make workers pay the consequences of this crisis.”
But on 12 May he announced government spending cuts. Unemployment has already been climbing. It has officially reached 5 million (20 percent), the highest figure in the European Union (EU), with some areas even higher (30 percent in Andalusia).
Spain suffered no bank collapses in Autumn 2008. Surreptitious state support for banks and bankrupt property companies concealed the problem. According to Spain’s leading investment bank, Goldman Sachs, Spanish property companies’ debts amount to €445 billion, a staggering 40 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product. These losses may bring down some institutions.
Despite this dire situation, Zapatero kept the two main union federations in line by refusing pressure from the employers’ federation and the conservative opposition to reform labour legislation (to make sacking cheaper) and introduce spending cuts. The cuts announced on 12 May abruptly ended Zapatero’s pretensions to be the “workers’ friend”. He announced a 5 percent pay cut for all public employees, the removal of the “baby cheque” (€2,500 given on the birth of a child), a freeze on pensions (with a proposal to raise the retirement age to 67) and a general reduction in public spending.
After a coordinated campaign, led by the European Central Bank and the IMF which included (leaks revealed) personal phone calls from Barack Obama to Zapatero, the government now says it is “essential” to reduce the deficit. This was running at 11.2 percent at the end of 2009 and the aim is to bring it down to the “permitted” EU level of 3 percent by 2013. The government calculates that the cuts will save €5 billion in 2010 and €10 billion in 2011. There is already a VAT increase from 16 to 18 percent next month. The cuts do not affect finance for the Catholic church or Spanish troops in Afghanistan. Instead, they are being made in social spending, which already runs at the lowest levels in Western Europe.
Faced with this, the General Union of Workers (UGT) and Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), the two main union federations, had to react. The UGT promised “maximum punishment” for the government and CCOO leader Ignacio Toxo wrote an open letter to the government threatening “general action”. They organised a small protest on 20 May and called a one-day public sector strike for 8 June.
Faced with such lukewarm action (which received the “understanding” of Zapatero), the question for the left is whether pressure can be built up to force union leaders to call a general strike. If resistance is not built, these cuts (insufficient from the capitalists’ point of view) will be followed by further attacks.
The trade union left is fragmented into a number of small unions. Despite the dynamism and size of the anti-capitalist movement from 2001 to 2004, this generation of activists has yet to make its presence felt in the workplaces. Nor is there any anti-capitalist party with the weight to lead resistance. Nevertheless, the radical nationalist union LAB in the Basque Country and SAT in Andalusia called successful one-day general strikes this year, showing hard work and organisation at the base can gain a response.
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