Spanish Dockworkers Strike in Defense of Jobs & Dockworkers: the “can do” of the working class

Spanish Dockworkers Strike in Defense of Jobs & Dockworkers: the “can do” of the working class
Spanish Dockworkers Strike in Defense of Jobs
http://www.leftvoice.org/Spanish-Dockworkers-Strike-in-Defense-of-Jobs
On June 5, Spanish dockworkers began the first of a series of strikes that will see eight days of strike action over three weeks. These strikes have been called in response to the conservative government’s new Royal Decree Law that targets the country’s port labor system, and the stevedoring companies’ refusal to protect the jobs of 6,150 currently employed dockers.
Sean Robertson
June 10, 2017
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The jobs of over six thousand Spanish dockers are now in jeopardy. The conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) government has succeeded in getting its new Royal Decree Law, which targets the country’s port labor system, approved by the Spanish parliament. This legal victory has given stevedoring companies the upper hand in their efforts to liberalize the port labor system. All this has left Spanish dockers with little option but to take strike action in order to defend their jobs.

Spanish dockworkers’ unions struck on June 5, 7 and 9. These strikes follow a traditional pattern on the Spanish docks, where strikes take place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday on alternating hours across a 24-hour period, that is, one hour working, then one hour where work stops and so on. Next week will see a 48-hour strike from June 14 to 16. The strikes on June 19, 21 and 23 will follow the same hour on / hour off pattern as those in the first week.

Over the last few months, Spanish dockers’ unions have repeatedly announced numerous planned strikes, only to call them off in a show of “good faith” to parliamentary legislators and company negotiators. However, both the conservative government’s definitive legal victory and the port employers’ pigheadedness would suggest that this tactic has run its course.

Conservative legal victory

After much difficulty, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Partido Popular government have succeeded in getting their anti-docker Royal Decree Law approved in the Spanish parliament.

The government’s first attempt to have these laws approved was blocked by the Spanish Congress of Deputies on March 16. Threats by dockers’ unions to exercise their industrial muscle saw parliament reject the original decree law by 175 votes against, 142 in favor and 33 abstentions.

For more on this, see: “Dockworkers: the “can do” of the working class”.

Nevertheless, the tables were turned just two months later. On May 18, a modified version of the government’s legislation was approved by 174 votes in favor to 165 against with eight abstentions. The center-right parties of Ciudadanos (Citizens), the Basque Nationalist Party and the Catalan European Democratic Party who had previously either abstained or voted against now sided with the government.

For the conservative Partido Popular administration, this parliamentary victory means two things. Not only does it bring to an end the continually accruing fines that the EU has imposed on the Spanish government but more importantly, it guarantees the phasing out of the current hiring hall-style labor system which Spanish dockers have worked under for decades.

Under the current system, all dockworkers belong to the Port Stevedores Management Company, known by its Spanish acronym SAGEP, similar to the hiring halls of longshore workers in the United States. The European Court of Justice has ruled that this system does not abide by EU regulations, and in July 2016 fined the Spanish government 15.6 million euro plus additional daily fines of 134,000 euro for every day that the system remained in place. The government’s May 18 decree law meets EU requirements and brings the accumulating EU-imposed fines, now almost 25 million Euro to an end.

For more on the SAGEP system and the ECJ rulings see: “Over Six Thousand Spanish Dockworkers’ Jobs Face the Axe”.

Iñigo de la Serna, the Minister of Public Works and Transport behind the decree law claims that it “guarantees employment for dockworkers”. Yet in the next breath he stresses that the “European Commission does not allow” for “subrogación,” agreements that guarantee all existing dockworkers’ jobs and working conditions, which is the central demand of the dockworkers’ unions. Dockworkers’ unions argue that these new laws go much further than was needed to comply with the EU requirements and now pose a dire threat to the jobs of 6,150 currently employed dockers.

Royal Decree Law

The Partido Popular’s new Royal Decree Law all but guarantees the extinction of the SAGEP port labor system. After a three year transitional period ending in May 2020, SAGEPs will lose their previous monopoly on the supply of port labor; stevedoring companies will no longer be legally obliged to take part in them; and individual SAGEPs will have to seek legal authorization to continue operating. Port employers will also be able to undertake direct company employment and hire labor from other sources if they so wish.

These laws do however allow for the creation of Port Employment Centers or CPE in Spanish, which could potentially play the same role as SAGEPs. But there will be no legal obligation for stevedoring companies to belong to them, and like SAGEPs in three year’s time, CPEs will also have to seek legal authorization before being established. Every existing SAGEP and CPE in three year’s time will also fall under the provisions that regulate temporary employment agencies. While these allow for fixed contract and indefinite employment, they also open the door to sweeping casualization across the industry.

These new laws also commit 120 million euros to the funding of an early retirement scheme. Dockers within five years of the legal retirement age (currently at 65) will be eligible to receive monthly payments of 70 percent of the average earned over the previous six months, which will increase in line with rises in state pensions and end once dockers hit the legal retirement age and are eligible for regular state pensions.

One of the few positives in the new laws is that they allow for either a state-sponsored accord or collective bargaining agreement to provide for subrogación, the rollover of all existing jobs and conditions.

Negotiations break down

Just days after the new decree laws were adopted, representatives of the stevedoring companies and dockers’ unions met on May 22 and drew up an in principle agreement. The port employers’ organization ANESCO (National Association of Stevedoring Companies and Ship Consignees) agreed to a guarantee of all existing jobs. In return, dockers’ unions agreed to a ten percent reduction in gross monthly salaries to 2,230 euros and further negotiations on shift changes and work organization in order to increase productivity. Unions have previously offered to accept a six percent pay cut just a week after the Royal Decree Law was first rejected back in March.

However, negotiations broke down at the next meeting on June 1. According to the dockers’ unions, the employers were now “giving contradictory signals with regards to the future of jobs in the sector” and proposing separate port-by-port negotiations instead of a national agreement.

It was after this breakdown in negotiations that dockers’ unions confirmed that the previously called strikes for June 5, 7 and 9 would go ahead, and further strike action on June 14-16, 19, 21 and 23 would also take place.

Solidarity with the Spanish dockworkers

Leaders of the different dockworkers’ unions (CETM, UGT, CC.OO, CIG and CGT)* have made it clear that their primary objectives are maintaining all current dockworker jobs, getting all port employers into the Port Employment Centers and converting these into a SAGEP-style system.

Spanish dockers’ unions certainly have plenty of industrial leverage with which to win these demands. As outlined previously in Left Voice, Spanish ports are a strategic sector of the Spanish economy, with over half of all Spain’s exports and nearly 80 percent its imports moving through them.

Along with their own industrial leverage, Spanish dockworkers will also need practical international solidarity from other dockworkers, especially their European and North African counterparts. Already dockers’ unions in Portugal, France and Italy have refused to handle any cargo diverted from Spain.

But the best chance of victory will arise with a fighting movement that unites Spanish dockers with all those currently struggling against Mariano Rajoy and his conservative government. For instance, Spanish taxi drivers have just held their own strikes along with a 20,000-strong demonstration on May 30, while campaigners for public education held a sector-wide strike on March 9 and demonstrations as recently as June 6. A movement that unites these forces not only has a better chance of victory, but it also has the potential to topple the minority conservative government.

More immediately, Spanish dockers need to take into account the disturbing signs coming from their own union leaders. For one, there is the tactic of repeatedly announcing and then calling off strikes over the last three months. After not having called one day of strike action since 2006, such a repeated on again, off again approach can only have a corrosive effect of dockers’ morale. Even more worrying is the willingness of Spanish dock union leaders to offer up pay cuts – first six percent and now ten percent - in exchange for a guarantee on jobs. “Watch your leaders”, the catch cry first popularized by British Communists in the early 1920s, appears to be just as applicable today as it was almost one hundred years ago.

For months now Spanish dockers have been chanting ¡Ni un paso atrás! (Not one step back!). In order to make this slogan a reality, Spanish dockers will need to use their potential to paralyze the Spanish economy and enlist the support of other Spanish workers and dockworkers from neighboring countries. They will also need to keep an eye on union leaders who have shown themselves too willing to concede unwarranted concessions to the port employers.

* CETM / La Coordinadora – Coordinadora Estatal de Trabajadores del Mar (State-wide Coordinating Committee of Maritime Workers), the main dockworkers’ union covering 80 percent of Spanish dockers.
UGT - Unión General de Trabajadores (General Workers’ Union), aligned with the Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE).
CC. OO. - Comisiones Obreras (Workers’ Commissions), historically linked to the Communist Party of Spain, the PCE.
CIG - Confederación Intersindical Galega (Galician Inter-union Federation), a radical nationalist union federation
CGT - Confederación General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labour), anarcho-syndicalist.

SPANISH STATE
Dockworkers: the “can do” of the working class
http://www.leftvoice.org/Dockworkers-the-can-do-of-the-working-class
What can the victory of the Spanish dockworkers teach us? That class struggle is the way to twist the arm of the government, the European Union (EU) and the way to make the capitalists pay for the crisis.
Santiago Lupe
April 11, 2017
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Editor’s note - March 16 saw the Spanish parliament vote against the Royal Decree Law that sought to scrap the country’s port labor system. The decree put forward by the conservative Partido Popular (PP - People’s Party) government was voted down - 175 votes against, 142 in favor and 33 abstentions. Crucially, 32 of these abstentions came from the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party that helps to prop up the minority Partido Popular government. This vote is the first time in nearly four decades that a royal decree has been rejected by the Spanish parliament.

The simple threat of a strike was enough to ensure the overturning of the anti-worker Royal Decree Law drawn up by conservative leader Mariano Rajoy. The “no” vote was not just a blow for the current Partido Popular government but also for the EU Court of Justice and its threat of sanctions.

One of the most concentrated, unionized and coordinated sectors of the labor movement has flexed its “muscle”, which this time round was enough to stop the parties of the post-Franco regime from voting for the “national interest” as they have done in the past. The threat of a strike was not only to have economical consequences - an estimated potential loss of 50 million Euros a day - but also political consequences. The flexing of this political “muscle” raised the specter of a big labor dispute taking center stage in Spain, one that could potentially recreate the solidarity and militancy of the Spanish coal miners’ dispute of 2012 and direct this at all those who voted “yes”. This is a scenario that the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE - Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) fears as it enters its worst crisis in recent history.

If anything, what this demonstrates is that - despite all the skepticism about social mobilization and all the illusions in “storming heaven” through institutional means – determined class struggle is the way to defeat a government and the European institutions which shield its anti-labor policies. But not only that, it is also the way to open up the opportunity to bring the “democracy of the IBEX35” (the Spanish stock exchange) to an end and impose a program that makes the capitalists pay for the crisis.

As the media have pointed out, parliament’s rejection of the Royal Decree Law is historic. It has only happened twice since 1979, and one of these was by accident. Not only that, but among the “no” voters were key social-democratic PSOE deputies. These deputies belong to the same “socialist” party that, under pressure from the European Union (EU) and the financial markets, amended Article 135 of the Spanish Constitution in 2011 to ensure budget stability; that introduced a series of austerity measures in 2010 at the behest of the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund; that implemented the industrial reconversion process in the 1980s that closed down and sold off much of the country’s state-owned enterprises at the EU’s request ... if anyone knows anything about offloading economic crisis onto the strategic sectors of the labor movement, it is the “socialists” of the PSOE. Nevertheless, the dockworkers have taken advantage of the current crisis affecting this political pillar of the regime and shown that they could twist its arm and force it to vote “no”.

There is no doubt that the attacks on the dockworkers are far from over. Now the “cavalry” will come from the EU capital of Brussels; the media campaign against these so-called “privileged workers” will start again ... and the last word has not been spoken. Nevertheless, there are some interesting lessons that can be drawn from this first victory that go well beyond just the dockworkers.

Since 2014 we have seen the imposition of a new “common sense”, one that has been fueled by the rise of the neo-reformism of political parties such as Podemos (We Can), one that suggests that social mobilization is incapable of finishing off a rotten regime and the policies it uses to unload the crisis onto the majority of the population. This new “common sense” suggests that the key is to take the movement off the streets and into the electoral arena. Through these electoral projects, these forces would fight for social, political and economic reform with the idea of taking hold of government institutions and using them to make social change.

After nearly three years, the growth of various parliamentary groups for “change”, beginning with the 71 Congress deputies of Unidos Podemos (United We Can) and its allies*, has seen these forces take hold of a number of important municipalities and legislative bodies. However, their political practice is very different from what has been promised. In the municipalities of “change”, government debt is paid religiously, demands such as remunicipalización (taking previously privatized entities back into public hands) are abandoned and either their minority status or the existing legal framework is used to justify their refusal to take effective measures to end unemployment, evictions or energy poverty. In the Congress and the regional parliaments, they allow themselves to make very left-wing speeches and come out in support of existing mobilizations such as those of the dockworkers, but they do not propose one single measure of struggle or organization that would help to implement concrete measures against major social problems.

The dockworkers have shown us that just flexing their “muscle”, without even having to put their fighting ability into action has, to date, managed to overcome both the problem of the parliamentary majority - 268 of the 350 deputies are from neoliberal formations that have turned obedience to the EU into a dogma - and the threats from Brussels. It has not been the threat of strike action alone that has achieved this, for the division among the employers and especially the conditions of open crisis in the regime and its political agents have undoubtedly played a role. But this critical situation is not an exceptional one, for it has in fact been the norm since 2011. What dockworkers have demonstrated is that there is another way to occupy the electoral space.

You have to wonder about what we could achieve if the reformist left, which speaks of “change” and even of “returning to the streets”, started demanding that trade union leaders end their criminal policies of compromise and social peace? What could we impose on the parties of the regime if the reformist left took advantage of their positions and called for the organization and mobilization of workers, young people and women?

Examples arise by the dozen. The municipalities of “change” say that they cannot take privatized firms back into public hands because they are in a minority, or that if they generate quality public employment, then Partido Popular Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro will audit them. Both things are as true as the fact that the EU Court of Justice will sanction the Spanish government if Rajoy cannot get his ‘reforms’ to the port labor system approved. Then what should be done? Resign yourself as local mayors for change such as Manuela Carmena (Madrid), Ada Colau (Barcelona), Pedro Santiesteve (Zaragoza) and José María “Kichi” González (Cádiz) have done? Or, on the contrary, prepare a great movement that fights to impose its demands on the politicians that serve big business and their courts, just like the dockworkers have done?

The same can be said of the parliamentary work of Podemos. As Pablo Iglesias himself says, in the Courts you can draw up little more than proposals that do not become law. But why is it that in over one year as a deputy, he has not called for a mobilization, or an assembly, or demanded that the union bureaucracy moves a finger ... for an increase in the official minimum wage, for the repeal of various labor ‘reforms’ or the nationalization of the criminal energy sector?

The dockworkers have shown us what they think of the new “common sense”, fueled as it is by the reformism of “change” that tells us that we cannot aspire – “because it is one thing to form government and another to have power”, “because I am only going to promise what I can get, in agreement with the PSOE and existing legality”. This “common sense” can be quickly surpassed once the road of social mobilization is returned to, with workers on the front foot and consistently defending the only realistic program to solve the great social problems: one that directly affects the profits and interests of the capitalists.

The most important conclusion that those moved by the victory of the dockworkers can draw is that the whole working class “has to do it like them. Our class has to learn how to flex its “muscle” and set it in motion a massive movement of workers together with young people, women and immigrants... in order to end unemployment by imposing the distribution of working hours with no reduction in wages, at the expense of the record profits being made by large corporations; by demanding the nationalization of banking and large strategic companies such as electricity providers under workers’ control; by refusing to pay all government debt; and by taxing large fortunes in order to guarantee good education, universal health and public services, among other urgent and fundamental measures.

The dockers’ victory is a victory for the whole working class against the precariousness of work. It is necessary to use this victory as a launching pad. They are going to keep attacking the dockworkers in order to try to break them, so for that reason we need to close ranks and surround them with our solidarity. At the same time, we must demand that if the trade union bureaucracy and the ‘neo-reformists’ want their declarations in favor of the unemployed, the precariously employed and other workers to have some credibility, they must call assemblies in every workplace for the organizing of a real plan of struggle that imposes a working-class solution to the crisis.

Translation: Sean Robertson

This is a translation of an article which first appeared at the Spanish Izquierda Diario website

* Unidos Podemos (United We Can) is the left-wing coalition that contested the 2016 Spanish general election. It consists of Podemos (We Can); Izquierda Unida (United Left) which has the Communist Party of Spain at its core; the Green Party “Equo” and other smaller, mainly regional parties. In various regions, it ran under different names, such as En Comú Podem (In Common We Can) in Catalonia and En Marea (En Masse) in Galicia.