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:

38 thoughts on “State of alert: How the PSOE used Franco’s strike breaking tactics

  1. Why have a general strike when the whole country – as part of its plan to impress the Bundesbank – goes on holiday for five days two weeks before Christmas? Did Rubalcaba come round personally to administer his biowarfare jab? And where did the silly idea come from that the PSOE or the PCE were any less totalitarian than their colleagues?

    1. Actually, it stands to reason that only the PSOE could really get away with the state of alert thing. If the PP had done it, we’d have barricades on Carrer Escoles. As it is, this whole incident is about as nice an example of a labour incident brought about by the state, and then smashed by same, as I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness. One for the textbooks.

      That Rubalcaba is a wily fox.

    2. I have to say the background Tom provides is very interesting and worth going back on his links. Up to today I was quite ok with the state of alert, now I have my doubts.

      (Note: “at gunpoint” means threatening to shoot somebody, which surely was not the case. Let’s keep it real.)

      (Another note: Get well soon, Tom!)

      1. Ta, Candide.

        “At gunpoint” is no exaggeration. El Mundo probably feels a bit sexy about stuff like this and so couldn’t resist publishing:

        “Los controladores del aeropuerto de Son Sant Joan permanecen en sus puestos de trabajo “a la fuerza”. Así lo cuenta Javier Zanón, portavoz en Baleares de la Unión Sindical de Controladores Aéreos (USCA) mientras denuncia que los agentes han irrumpido en la sala de control de Palma “con las pistolas en la mano y obligándolos a sentarse frente al monitor” “

        1. This accusation seems to be what in Spanish one so well calls “descabellada”. What Zanón relates is not only far from standard procedure, it would be a grave violation and should have legal consequences for the Guardia Civil agents involved and their superiors.

          The sources, one of the parties in conflict cum El Mundo, do not seem very credible ones.

          So from the distance we can only wait what comes out of this. Zanón must follow up at the courts.

          1. OK. It was actually widely reported, including on TVE and 3Cat24. I don’t have the energy to go much further into it, but if there’s one place it wouldn’t surprise me happening, it’s Palma de Mallorca.

          2. I’m not sure what grave violation this would be under the ‘state of alert’. Doesn’t that give military (including GC) exactly that right?

          3. I am still very very sceptical. I know the modus operandi of the Spanish military, and this accusation seems to be outworldish, however much it is being reported, probably citing the same source.

            Another article of El Mundo seems to contradict the one you have linked to:


            The absence of said accusation both in the article and in the blog there mentioned is revealing.

            Again, if Zanón is right the issue must be brought before a court. It is that serious, and the ATCs involved would have a very good chance of winning the case. If, well if this was true.

            (Note: audio communications are taped, I think that also security cameras are installed.)

          4. No military personnel has the right to pull their gun except in self defense. And no way they can do that in order to coerce in the way described (“los agentes han irrumpido en la sala de control ‘con las pistolas en la mano'”). Actually, in no way at all: orders will be given, and if they are being disobeyed, the person is then arrested, and not even that at gunpoint, except that person is posing a clear threat.

            Unarmed persons cannot be threatened with a gun. Every soldier knows that, even common sense indicates that much. Both civil and military law punishes it.

        1. I went on the links you gave but did little more. Which means no, I have not made up my mind yet. This issue demands more research than I was able to spend time on. Christmas holidays might help.

          1. It might or it might not.

            Is this lack of response because you can’t bring yourself to criticise any aspect of your beloved 1978 Spanish Constitution however democratically deficient and abhorrent it turns out to be?

        2. Tom, I just can’t come to a final conclusion on the issue as a whole.

          Some points are, however, more or less clear to me. I’ve finally been able to check with a friend in the military. Indeed, as I said the use of a weapon as it has been described (the “at gunpoint incident”) would be illegal. It most likely has not occured: I hear, but have not been able to confirm, that the source of said claim has not only not filed a lawsuit but corrected his or her account.

          Official numbers have it that some 300.000 people were stranded at airports all over Spain. I don’t trust the official numbers, but we can safely say they were many. No strike had been called, therefore I do not see the workers’ rights violated. As with everything, there are rules you have to respect when you want to go on strike. A sick-out is not protected by the law, not in Spain neither in any other democratic country. The interest of the general public also merit respect.

          Issues that remain: Has the Spanish government lied to the public in the ways described in your entry? I can’t check.

          Should a law from Franco times be changed just because it was installed by a dictatorship? This would be cheap demagogery. In other countries that have suffered a dictatorship in their recent history, fascist or stalinist ones, there are still many laws that remain in full force. This is nothing strange. Each law should be looked at if it complies with the now valid constitutional setup. In the case at hand I again insist, without knowing the particular law applied, that in no case a strike was broken, for there was no strike.

          I cannot do more research or thinking on this matter but I feel obligated to give the best answer I can to your question, keeping in mind my lack of time and other limitations.

          When the state of alert was declared I was ok with it. You have made me doubt. An overall acception of the measures still persist together with the doubts caused by your entry and the ensuing debate. I’ll have to leave it at that.

          1. I’m afraid I can’t agree.

            The single most important point in this story is that the government instructed the military to occupy civil infrastructure, even though not all air traffic controllers had walked out. It was this that triggered the flights being cancelled because the military are wholly incapable of managing Spain’s civil airspace: they shut it down.

            The question of ‘at gunpoint’, you’ve not answered with anything resembling clarity. Until I’m shown otherwise, I’ll go with the original eyewitness report. That it would have been illegal is exactly the point! But you can’t seriously be arguing that the Guardia Civil wouldn’t have done that because it’s illegal? Do you also refute any other claim of a crime committed by the police or military?

          2. Tom, air traffic went back to normal under military control! Or did I miss anything? It was only military *control*, but the staff remained civilians. They did not staff the control rooms with military personnel. They wouldn’t have had enough of them! So yes, the only aim was to keep the civilian personnel at their desks and thus the sick-out was ineffective. Things went back to normal, I insist *with the normal staff*.

            I cannot refer to “any other claim of crime”, that’s too general for me. But the Ley de armas gives clarity on the case presented: such a behaviour would have been against that law. If such a thing happens you happily go to court, but fact is that nobody went to court. Then it remains as precisely what you say, an eye-witness account. Now ask any jurist for the value of eye-witness accounts…

            I argue that a) if the Guardia Civil breaks the law you don’t only tell the press. And b) common sense dictates that brandishing arms is absolutely innnecessary in such a situation. Picture it: an army colonel and two Guardia Civil officers enter the control room. They say, who is here, who is not here? Who should be here, and why are they not? And then they get down to business which is making the birds fly and land.

            Have you any idea what mess a colonel is in if he authorises the illegal use of arms?

            And what need is there to brandish a side-arm from the get-go? Such a thing would defy any logic. You don’t threaten the very people you’ll have to be working with for the next weeks. A nervous ATC makes the planes crash.

  2. Whether or not arms were bradished, it’s absolutely disgraceful that civilians can be placed under military jurisdiction in an industrial dispute, and I wonder how this fits with EU law.

    1. I’m sorry to say, but if you can define civilian air-transport as strategic for the general wellbeing of a country, and provided that this is only an exceptional measure in an exceptional situation, such a measure can very well pass in any EU country. I have seen no criticism yet on foreign TV channels, and it was news all over the world.

      This might even have sent a positive message of the Spanish government being in control, nothing we should disdain in the present economic crisis.

      Still, this says nothing about the points brought up by Tom, and there are dangers attached to such a measure that might only become obvious on the long run.

      1. “…such a measure can very well pass in any EU country” evidence for this, please.

        “I have seen no criticism yet on foreign TV channels, and it was news all over the world.” relevance of this, please.

        “This might even have sent a positive message of the Spanish government being in control, nothing we should disdain in the present economic crisis.” – oh, it sends a message alright… ‘don’t worry: the project is safe.’

        1. Emergency legislation is quite a regular thing. Do I really have to dig into the texts?

          It seems relevant to point out that I have seen no criticism from abroad when da boy wondered how this would fit with EU law. That was only my observation, and only based on the TV news of various countries, so we can still check the newpapers online.

          Yep, that’s the eerie part of the message. But don’t mix things up, it’s not my message. I have no message. I’m still chewing on your initial arguments.

  3. Candide mate, whether it’s legal Europeanly or not, you can’t go cancelling human rights because its convenient. If civilian air traffic control is strategically vital, probably a quarter of the rest of the economy is too, so who is left with the right to strike? People who nobody would notice striking.

    To place somebody under military jurisdiction at the stroke of a pen is terrifying, to do it to stop them striking an atrocious abuse of civil rights. To think that a self-declared socialist party did this makes my blood boil, this is worse than the GAL to me.

    1. Totally agreed, in principle. But I understand that the ATCs were on what the Beep called a “sick-out”, not a strike. Yet again, makes me wonder if that should make a difference.

      I can’t tell. Can’t make my mind up on the whole issue today.

  4. Well, this is what happens when the legal framework for the modern Spanish state was set up without making a clear break with the Fascist regime.

    The first voice to object to the principle of this sorry tale was Vilaweb, in a superb editorial:

    The Guardian followed up two days later.

    After the bravado of Jose Bono during Constitution Day on the 6th December, linking the response to the strike with a potential response to separatism, more and more people are seeing this for what it actually is: a practical demonstration that if the Spanish state can use military intervention to resolve a civil matter, it will.

    If anyone is happy that things returned to normal by the use of the military and the threat of Martial Courts, then people has lost sight of what democracy and civil liberties are about.

    I have no sympathy with the strikers, if indeed it was strike, and their jobs are the envy of most, including myself. However, if I had to choose between politicians abolishing basic civil rights and resorting to military force to resolve what dialogue has been unable to do, and employees, I will tend to chose the workers before the threat of the pistol and the court martial.

    Others may chose the rule of the law, however ruthless, unjust and morally reprehensible, above basic civil rights. That is an attitude which in the past has led to untold suffering.

    1. “and their jobs are the envy of most” – their salaries, perhaps. But their jobs? Seriously? You could pay me 3 times that and I wouldn’t go near it. It sounds fucking horrible.

    2. BTW: have you found any corroborating evidence for the Bono quote “Somos millones con la Constitución frente al separatismo”? I can see it referenced on a few sites but they all seem to refer to Vilaweb. I’m not saying he didn’t say that, just trying to find some supporting quotes.

      1. Original version from the man himself:

        Interesting emphasis in some words:
        01:45: “ alertarnos a todos”
        02:06: “ni han vencido en esta ocasión ni vencerá quién lo intente de nuevo”.
        03:00: “por mucho que algunos se empeñen en separarnos, o en separarse, somos millones los que sabemos que con la Constitución de nuestra parte no hay peligro, no hay peligro de ruptura”.

        Wee dig at the PP, and the Spanish nationalist right of course. But in my mind it is clear that the message is directed to the pesky separatists and in particular to the new CiU government in Catalonia, which was elected to office with a campaign based on the transfer of fiscal powers and the right to decide. Both are not allowed in the Constitution.

        Listening to his discourse makes me shiver. No difference between the underlying message in this discourse and what the PP and Libertad Digital think, save for the reference about the right to vote and probably the 5 years of democracy during the Republic.

        Overall, it is so reactionary that even Manuel Fraga, Franco’s Minister, is delighted with it, as was the pro-PP press of El Mundo and La Razón.

        What I find hilarious is the lie about all Spaniards being equal.

        Tell that to the Basques and Navarrese who collect their own taxes and contribute zilch to overall Spanish budget: it shows when you go to their hospitals and schools, when it snows and the roads are kept clear, etc, etc, etc.

        1. So, from an actual quote we now have diverged to getting an insight into what is “clear” in your mind.

          Transfer of fiscal powers and “the right to decide” are not against the constitution. Some aspects may be, but then the constitution can be changed, and for one time this should be done without trying to use any backdoor.

          It was so foreseeable that the issue with the ATCs would be used by those who can drone on endlessly about the bogeymen in Madrid. This is not genuine concern about the matter at hand but pure opportunism out of ideological self concern.

          1. Do you know the meaning of the expression “in my mind”? Or are you now also a language teacher? Your talents are unlimited.

            Bono has drawn a clear link between the response to the strike and the response to any potential act of separatism. What part of his speech you do not (want to) understand?

            The problem with you is that all you can see is the context when we are discussing a principle. If you try to rise above your perception of any given context, you will be able to judge the application of principles for themselves.

            The principle of using the Army to resolve a civilian matter under threat of the Court Martial is shocking in a so-called modern democracy. It is an abomination and a worrying precedent. Who will be next? Train drivers, bus drivers, delivery men, chorizo-makers, bin-men?

            That is the matter at hand. I content that the principle is wrong, regardless of the justification (i.e: context) for it. This applies to a strike by air traffic controllers or to the independence issue, which was brought on by Bono himself in his speech and picked up by the press, part of the yearly ritual of the 6th December, Constitution Day speech. I am just acknowledging what Bono has said. Blame him if you don’t like it.

            So, again, back to the issue at hand.
            The principle is plain wrong, and it evidences a democratic deficit of the Spanish state.

          2. You have shown that you are unable to distinguish between democracy and dictatorship, what is worse, you have been unable to admit it. Admitting it would have shown honesty on your part.

            Instead you are again erecting yourself as a defender of democracy, and that sounds now hollow and dishonest.

  5. We all find different things stressful, I guess. I find it very stressful to know that some people have trusted their life savings and pensions to people like me. Some of my colleagues don’t give a shit of course, they are only worried about their next bonus, but I alwasy keep in mind that someone out there may have been so stupid as to put all their eggs in one basket and that I could be losing them all their retirement money if I screw up. That keeps me focused.

    I know someone who works for AENA, althought not a traffic controller, and I would return to Catalonia if I could land a job with them. For once, at least I would have the time to keep one’s blog reasonably active, get a hobby, etc.

    Apart from the criminal liability (I assume it only applies if negligence can be proven in court) it is not as stressful as we are led to believe. The software does most of the job, and the key skill is to keep calm and monitor that systems are working correctly and the rules are being adhered to by the pilots.

    I think there are other jobs with similar levels of stress and much less pay: teacher, nurse, social work. Workers in these professions are subject to high stress levels, and mistakes are also very costly, yet they get paid a fraction of an air traffic controller, whilst their value to society is imho at leat as high if not more.

    1. “The software does most of the job”, my holy tush.

      But nice to know you’re in one of the professions that brought the world the present economic crisis.

      1. Well, I know half a dozen air traffic controllers in Ayrshire, I met them in the pub watching La Liga games in Sky Sports, and that’s what they told me (in confidence of course). Then I have a friend who works for AENA and has corroborated this.
        But you of course know better. You always do – and I accept that.

        I also acknowledge that I caused the economic crisis single-handledly, sorry about that.

        So, again, “back to the issue at hand?”

  6. Ah well, Rab, if it’s a mate of a mate that’s told you, the matter’s settled.

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute (and the wrongs seem to be on the governments side to my mind), you can’t have armed men telling people what to do when they’ve refused to obey their bosses. It would be wrong even if the workers we being completely unreasonable, a worker has the absolute right to withdraw his labour, if he is forced to work by somebody using the threat of violence, this is a gross afront to all principles of freedom.

    1. I have though a bit about whether it makes a difference when it’s not a strike but a sick-out.

      A regular strike gives the public that depends on your services crucial information, and provided that getting stuck on an airport is a serious limitation to your freedom of movement I find the absence of this information quite serious.

      I still can’t make my mind up to come to a more general conclusion, so I’m just throwing this out here and maybe someone else has something enlightening to say.

    1. True, I was pissed off and one should not react with too much anger. I’m sorry, but I do also trust that this anger of mine was humanly understandable.

      It would be ludicrous to try and seriously judge someone by that little info about his profession. But I did take a cheap swipe at Rab. My bad.

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