Category Archives: Capital

Spain: Youth in revolt?

Many people who live in Spain, as well as lots of observers outside the country, have been asking the same question for the last few months: where are the young people?

With youth unemployment as high as 46% and the PSOE (‘Socialist’) government using the economic crisis as an excuse to force through radical changes to the country’s social framework, why weren’t Spanish youths protesting on the street? The clues to the answer lay in the failure of September’s general strike. Young people weren’t interested. This lack of interest in officially organised and accepted methods of protest (the strike was organised by major trade unions, generally seen to be partners of the PSOE) wasn’t the same as apathy, though it did initially appear similar.

The events of the last couple of days in Madrid, then, are heartening. Thousands of young people, using Facebook and Twitter to organise followers there bought them here, converged on the capital’s iconic Puerta del Sol square and protested against the lack of real democracy, the spending cuts, the incredibly high youth unemployment (higher than in many of the north African countries where revolutions were fuelled by similar complaints), new copyright laws, and much more. Hundreds have also camped out in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, mingling with bemused tourists and surrounded by itchy-looking Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan police with a reputation for enjoying beating-up students and anarchists). The protest camps are organised: popular commissions have been established to distribute information, food, blankets, legal advice.

The Spanish political establishment, focused only on this weekend’s municipal elections, was taken by surprise. Its response has been telling: Barcelona city hall switched-off the city’s webcam of Plaça Catalunya. Then the Junta Electoral, Spain’s elections commission, noted that the protest camps would have to be cleared because they are in breach of Spain’s electoral law. The PSOE (PSC in Catalonia) has tried to make it sound like they sympathise with the protestors, Barcelona’s mayor bemoaning “international speculators and the damage they do” (the same speculators he sees it has his job to entice into our city). In Madrid, the police have moved to close access to the protest camp apparently in preparation to fulfill the Junta Electoral’s controversial and unpopular judgement.

What will happen over the weekend remains unclear. It is likely that the police will attempt to clear both camps. If they only clear Madrid’s, then Barcelona’s might grow. Whatever happens, it would be wrong to continue to ask why Spain’s youth has done nothing to oppose the country’s corrupt politics. The kids are on the streets. And they want radical change.

thebadPoll: The Barcelona Siesta – A Myth?

The latest issue of Monocle magazine includes a report on work hours around the world. It starts off by interviewing one Nuria Chinchilla of IESE Barcelona (where I get sent for re-education from time to time). The segment includes this line (written by the author, Sophie Grove, not la Chinchilla):

It’s 15.00 in Barcelona, the time when every shady bench is taken up by snoozing Catalans.

Upon reading this, my immediate response was: “Well this is utter bollocks, no one in Barcelona still works those hours. So how can I believe Grove when she writes about South Korea?”.

But then I thought to myself: before I write a letter to the editor of Monocle stating the above, maybe I should check with the half-dozen miscreants who prowl these pages looking for a fight. Maybe I’m lucky: I work for a fairly forward-thinking Catalan company which has never had a policy supporting 2 or 3 hour lunchbreaks. But perhaps I’m in the minority. So the question is:

In your Barcelona-based job, are you expected to take a lunch break of more than 1 hour a day?

Additional points awarded to anyone who agrees with me that rather than the hackneyed siesta/lazy Spaniard theme, Grove might have done better to cover the jornada intensiva, which lets me work an extra 45 mins Monday through Thursday so that I can leave at 15.00 on Friday. Comments in general about work hours here, in Catalonia and Spain are always welcome.

As usual, you can vote over there to the right of this post >>>>>

State of alert: How the PSOE used Franco’s strike breaking tactics

[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.

Reference links:

Fighting an economic cold

Many of the pundits and newsreaders who refer to the current economic malaise threatening Europe use one term more than any other: contagion.

The suggestion is that the troubles that have afflicted Greece and now Ireland are a sort of water-borne disease, transmitted through the sewage-laden streams of international finance. And all we want to know is: how do we protect ourselves against this nasty infection? How do we beat the contagion?

The problem is that the crisis affecting Europe isn’t bacterial or viral at all. As Portugal, then Spain, Italy and France stand like dominoes waiting to be toppled, economic ministers (who often know nothing of economics) flail around looking for a vaccine. They don’t seem to realise that the contagion isn’t contagious at all. It’s a cancer.

The cancer of neoliberal capitalism has metastacised in multiple countries. It sucks the marrow from the bone and leeches the oxygen from the blood. The only way to get rid of it is surgically. By removing the financial sector from the centre of our national economies, we free ourselves from the carcinogenic effects of its vapours. We might be weakened after the operation but we’ll come back stronger.

If there is a spectre haunting Europe at the end of this miserable decade, it is the spectre of neoliberalism. And socialism is the doctor we need. Or the ghostbuster, or something.

Catalan independence and socialism

One of the aspects of my questions for supporters of Catalan independence touched on an issue I hold to be of vital importance: What model do you see an independent Catalonia adopting? Some sort of republic? How would it be organised? – This question, while it did receive some responses, didn’t attract the interest I’d be hoping for. That’s probably because I fudged the wording a little. What I was really getting at was: what type of state will Catalonia be?

The reason I feel this is important, indeed the main reason that I’m unable to personally back independence, is the socialist question. Or rather, What Would Trotsky Do? Because while I love Catalonia and would only wish the best for it, I would have trouble backing what I considered to be an independent Catalonia that conferred new rights on itself, but not its citizens. That is, for any such movement to deserve support, it ought to be either genuinely revolutionary or committed to serious socialist policies.

And at the moment I don’t see that happening.

For what it’s worth, Trotsky stated various times that the the cases of of states in the Soviet Union and Poland, independence was an understandable urge, and not at odds with revolution. He would probably not have been quite so supportive of Catalonia’s current bourgeois republicans.

It is true that the Catalan independence movement seems to be generally connected to left-leaning parties and organisations. ERC, the largest openly pro-independence party has certainly shifted away from what was a more chauvinistic “We are who we are” message. But the party continues to struggle with just who they really are. Are they ‘Esquerra’ first or are they ‘Republicana de Catalunya’ first? This question, trite as it seems, sums up the problem with the movement for independence here. I’m not an ERC supporter and nor do I expect that party ever to become a revolutionary force for change. I consider it all too likely that they’d sacrifice the ‘Esquerra’ bit before they sacrificed independence.

But perhaps I’m wrong about ERC and wrong about the chances for a revolutionary independence movement here. If one exists, even in nascent form, I’ve yet to encounter it. And that’s why, for the moment, I still find it difficult to make a blog that supports independence. At the very least, I would need to see a referendum that included a clear promise as to the republican and socialist nature of the state to come. Otherwise, maybe we should all just support the socialist movement in Spain.

Why I’ll be taking part in Spain’s general strike (29S)

This September 29th, a general labour strike will take place across Spain. The strike is supported by all the major trade unions (CC.OO, UGT, CGT, CNT et al).

The strike has been called against economic and labour reforms proposed by Zapatero’s PSOE government, ostensibly to save Spain’s economy. Those of us taking part reject the PSOE’s legislation for various reasons. Here are some of them:

  • Sacking people will be made easier and cheaper for businesses, with some of the cost absorbed by public funds.
  • It’ll be made easier for companies which choose not to correctly apply collective labour agreements.
  • More permanent workers will be forced onto temporary contracts with fewer rights.
  • Labour will be further marketised, and safety standards will drop due to the use of temporary employment agencies.
  • The reforms will force workers to compete for worse paid jobs, with fewer rights.
  • Freezing pensions will increase the number of people living in poverty.
  • Public services will suffer by withdrawing funding and cutting salaries.
  • Taxes on the rich have not been increased.
  • The banks, who are to blame for much in this country, have received much public money they’re yet to return.
  • Now the IMF and OECD are calling for investment, not cuts, to protect our economies and our societies.
  • There is a general attempt across Europe to break our social model and push for a less equal society. This must be resisted.
  • Failure to show solidarity and resistance this time around will only mean worse if the PP get in after the next elections.

All workers are permitted to take part in the general strike. The law states that you must inform your employer at least 5 days before the strike of your intention to take part.

I urge my fellow workers to join in and show your disapproval of Zapatero’s reforms.

(Update: The text above has been adapted into an English-language flier for non-Spanish speaking workers in some workplaces in Barcelona. You can access the flier for printing and distribution here.)

thebadPoll: Working in Spain

This poll was inspired by a brief conversation I had with a couple of other expats over at another website. The discussion started as a debate about January 6th being made a ‘new public holiday’ – which made little sense to me as Magic Kings’ day already was a holiday.

A generally held view seems to be that the last thing Spain needs is more public holidays, but I couldn’t quite establish whether the people who were espousing this POV were themselves employed in Spain, or whether they simply wanted to be able to go shopping whenever they wanted and sod the workers.

So what do you think? Do you work in Spain? How does your company treat you? Has Spain caught up with the UK in terms of worker exploitation modern labour practices? Is Spain a good place to work? As usual, you can select one answer from the list on the right >>> but it’s your comments that I’m most interested in.

Some reasons why you should boycott Lidl

There are lots of reasons I could offer for avoiding Lidl like the plague. The design of their logo, for example, or the way their shops make you feel like you’ve stepped into some sort of future/past hell where they only sell unrecognisable foodstuffs in a great concrete hall at slightly lower prices.

But the real reason you should boycott this company is the abysmal way it treats its employees. Labour rights for Lidl workers are practically non-existent and there are dozens of accounts of the firm’s frankly astounding abuses of workers. Things like:

  • A culture of terror in many Lidl stores, which forces employees to do what they’re told or face loss of shifts
  • Regular, unpaid overtime (resulting in sometimes absurdly unfair working hours)
  • Intimidation and humiliation of women (including a special cap given to a menstruating woman)
  • Pressure on workers to prevent them organising or joining trade unions
  • A campaign of spying on employees during breaks
  • Denial of sick pay by moving shifts when a worker is ill; invasive ‘checks’ at workers homes by management

Now, any one of those reasons should be enough for anyone interested in solidarity or workers’ rights to stop shopping at Lidl. I’d add that from what I’ve seen, the majority of their products are of very low quality and are generally of the processed variety. If you value your own well being and that of your fellow workers, shop somewhere which sells locally-sourced, quality food. It may cost a little more but food is so important that spending a little more in exchange for much better quality makes complete sense.

Look after yourself and your fellow worker: avoid Lidl and eat healthy, natural food.

Some further reading:

Cheap but not so cheerful

Every Lidl hurts

Lidl international campaign

Lidl accused of spying on workers

The Lidl shop of horrors

Are Spanish banks in trouble?

I’ll be honest: except for Marxist theories about capital and exploitation, I generally eschew any discussion that covers banking and that huge, murky industry known as ‘finance’. This is a weakness on my part, I’m sure: a true socialist should be well versed in the movements of capital and cash. And much as I hold the FT to have some of the best reporting about Spain that you’ll find in the British press, I find it difficult to understand what its market journalists are writing about.

So it was with some dread and awe that I read this blog post concerning the state of Spain’s two largest banks, Santander and BBVA.

Apparently, it’s pretty obvious that these two large banks are hiding massive liabilities which, if suddenly exposed, could cause the Spanish economy to collapse. Ignore the bullshit on that blog about ‘racial pressures’ and you still have a coherent case that decries the secrecy behind the apparent miracle of Spain’s two massive banking success stories. And it makes sense: how could it be that these banks could be 100% safe when their American and British counterparts have received billions of Euros in bailouts?

I therefore invite finance-minded readers of this blog to tell me just how precarious our situation here really is. Are we fucked? And if so, to what degree?