[I intended to write this sooner but I’ve been rather knocked out with flu since Saturday.]
The press was full of it: on the evening of December 3rd, the Spanish military ‘took over’ air traffic control towers across Spain at the request of the government. Air traffic controllers (ATCs) had, we were told, abandoned their duties en masse, calling in sick in a wildcat strike that brought the ‘public infrastructure’ of the airports to a grinding halt. But once again, the story we were being told was a narrow and distorted version of events. One that omitted key details intentionally. So it was little wonder that Spanish workers fel little solidarity for the ATCs.
The truth is that the air traffic controllers strike of December 2010 was precipitated intentionally by an agressive PSOE government, and then dealt with by that same government using the weapons of Franco’s dictatorship.
Step one is always to demonise the strikers, removing the risk that solidarity poses.
- We were told that ATCs had an average state-funded salary of €370,000. LIE. ATC salaries are paid out of airport levies. Last available figures point to an average salary of €138,000. Which sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that ATCs are held criminally responsible for mistakes, and the awful stress that this must put on people. There are plenty of other people who earn a lot more than ATCs but few with such a horribly stressful and injurious type of work. Spanish ATCs are among the lowest-paid in Europe.
- We were told that ATCs phoned in sick, en masse, asking for more money. LIE. On December 3rd, the government announced plans to partially privatise Spain’s airports (the ‘public infrastructure’ that the government fought so hard to protect the very next day). Simultaneously, AENA (Spanish airports management agency) had been engaged in a policy of cancelling vacations, demanding that people ‘pay back’ sick leave. AENA also intentionally named fewer personnel than were necessary for rotas that week, knowing that the puente weekend would see increased air traffic. AENA, without question, intentionally precipitated the situation.
- We were told that the ATCs operate a closed shop and keep numbers down in order to keep their pay up. LIE. AENA is responsible for all hiring. AENA has not announced public entrance procedures for four years.
- We were told that ATCs carried out a strike. LIE. After AENA deliberately sabotaged air traffic control, delays were always going to happen. But AENA publicly claimed that ATCs had walked out. These false accusations led to verbal and physical attacks on ATCs.
So the stage was set for interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba to deal a vicious blow against the ATCs. And that he did. On December 4th, he declared a ‘state of alert’ (you could also use the term ‘state of emergency’ but that lacks something of the nuance of the various ‘states’ Spain can be in, like alerta, excepción, etc). It was the first time in Spain’s current democracy that such a measure had been used. And unless you’d been here in the 60s and 70s, you might well think it was a pretty standard, if very grave, response to a crisis.
The truth is that the state of alert is a peculiar item of Spanish law that has its roots in Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Franco’s government used the state of alert to smash strikes. It works by declaring all workers of a specific convenio (like metro drivers or, in this case, ATCs) as ‘mobilised’ military personnel. So you start the day an ATC and before you know it, you’re a military ATC with orders from military staff to attend work as and when they demand it. It doesn’t matter when your shift was supposed to start because the army can tell you to start when it wants you to. And if you fail to do so? Because you’ve just become a member of the military, failure to turn up for work on their command means that you are committing sedition. Mutiny. And anyone who does this is sent to court martial and can end up in a military prison for up to 7 years.
So the state of alert is a method controlling workers by bringing in the army. Thus, ATCs were forced to work at gunpoint in some Spanish airports.
The lessons here are clear. Firstly, whenever there’s a labour dispute, the last people to trust are (a) the government, (b) the management, and (c) the media. This should have been clear before but it bears repeating. Secondly, the failure of the general strike on September 29th had one major effect: as we warned, the government felt it could move on and get away with anything. Thirdly, the PSOE has once again displayed a flagrant disregard for workers’ rights. The state of alert has set a nasty new precedent. By breaking one of the last taboos of Spanish democracy (the army permitted to take command of civilian infrastructure and the militarisation of civilian staff), the PSOE has made Spain a less just, more dangerous country. Now the cat is out of the bag, we can only wait and see when the state of alert will next be used.
We’ve been warned by the PSOE not to undertake more strikes against its dismantling of Spain’s social system and public infrastructure. Now is the time for another general strike. This time, lets make sure it works.