cap a la vaga general

Last weekend in Barcelona was lovely, the best time of the year: crisp air, free outdoor music, fireworks and correfocs, castellers and wine tasting. It was great.

The town festival starts with a speech, the pregó, and this year's was from architect and poet Joan Margarit. I hope he will forgive my poor translation of this excerpt of his speech:

Freedom is a strange journey.
It is a bullring with chairs
on the sand at election time.
It is danger, in the morning, on the metro,
newspapers at day's end.

Freedom is making love in parks.
Freedom is dawn's breaking
on a day of general strike.
It is dying free. It is the Persian wars.
The words Republic and Civil.
A king leaving by train in exile.
Freedom is a bookshop.
Going without identification. It is songs
of the civil war.
A form of love, freedom.

The mayor was quite irked, to have his event spoiled by talks of strikes! Indeed, the town's festival only comes once a year, but tomorrow, the 29th of September, we have something even more wonderful: a general strike.

we strike!

I grew up in the US, in a particularly union-hostile region. I never knew anyone in a union. So, with that perspective, and with the idea that many of my readers might be in the same situation, I'd like to explain a little about what's up with this.

The proximate cause of tomorrow's strike is a piece of legislation making it easier for businesses to fire workers, and generally giving more power to businesses at the time of salary, benefit, and contract negotiations. I recently looked at the Spanish wikipedia page for the 1988 general strike, and to be honest, not much has changed.

The idea is to generally paralyze the country, and force the government into negotiations. It's something of a farce, given the close relationship between the majority unions and the governing party, but I think they couldn't maintain credibility among their members without calling a strike.

Still, there hasn't been a general strike since I last moved to Spain at the beginning of 2005, so this is a big deal. Tomorrow could be quite a mess, for good and for bad.

Things are bad in Spain -- really, really bad. The unemployment rate for 20- to 25-year-olds is something like 40%. The problem is that this strike, as it is conceived of by the majority unions, is only about reform, and reform is not good enough.

A colleague of mine said to me yesterday, regarding the strike, that "the numbers just don't add up!" Like, how can people get all these benefits when the country is so bad off? The problem with statements like these is that they assume the limits imposed by capitalism. Why is there a credit crunch when 40% of young people are out of work, and can be put to work? Why are the banks not making new mortgages, but there are so many vacant flats?

And then economists have the nerve to chide Spain on its profligacy. It is galling.

Unfortunately, this acceptance of capitalist false-scarcity logic applies to the dominant unions' meek requests for reform. On the other hand, I think the people (as usual) have outpaced the majority union leadership, and things could become quite interesting.

I belong to an anarchosyndicalist union, which has been calling for a general strike for years. The idea is that yes, it's fine to strike for reform -- but one must also strike for revolution. The logic of empty flats and tight credit and wildly disparate renumeration, the logic that promises the world that it cannot -- cannot! -- give to all, this logic is crisis. It's not simply that we are in a crisis, it is that capitalism is crisis.

So really, we strike against capitalism, wittingly or not. Of course it's much better to be conscious of the place of things, but we work with what we have. That is the function of the radical trade union -- a bridge between the working people and radicalism.

Maybe tomorrow we'll have the Seattle '99 we deserve. Here's hoping. Until then, happy striking!

10 responses

  1. Ciprian Mustiata says:

    I am a foreigner that moved to Spain for some years and in my view Spain case is not that critical, for example compared with Italy or Greece. Spain though was somewhat building extensively and blocks it's economy in cascade.
    The solution? I think is not the syndicate union but more a culture of working and less vacations and such (that are an issue in Italy also). Another part s that I rarely found a Spanish guy to work extra hours and workaholics, when a country as Germany or US is full of them. No work, no income, no exit from crisis.

  2. Robin Munn says:

    "... a piece of legislation making it easier for businesses to fire workers ..."

    "... The unemployment rate for 20- to 25-year-olds is something like 40% ..."

    This is the typical result when it's difficult to fire workers: the young have trouble finding jobs. Imagine yourself as a business owner or manager for a minute. You're thinking of hiring a new worker... but do you want to take a risk on someone just out of school with no work experience? He/she might be a great worker, who works hard, is honest, and earns his/her pay by adding value to the business. Or he/she might be lazy, do only the bare minimum, and end up costing the business more (in salary, medical benefits, retirement funds, etc.) than his/her work is gaining the business in income. You would have been better off NOT hiring that person at all. The problem is, "they don't work very hard" isn't a good enough reason, by law, for you to fire them -- so you'll be forced to employ them, at a loss, for years.

    And as you think about that potential risk, you're much more likely to start looking for older employees to hire, who have worked at other jobs before and whose work history can be seen. That way, you hope, you'll be able to tell before you hire them whether they will earn their salary or not.

    But who loses BIG in all this? The 20-25 year olds, who can't get hired because they have no job experience, and can't get job experience because they can't get hired!

    There aren't very many solutions to this situation. You could force businesses to hire younger workers... but many businesses will react by saying, "Well, then we don't really need to hire any new people at all. We'll be content with our current profit level, because hiring anyone new would be too risky." Or you could make it easier for businesses to fire people, which would make them more willing to take a risk on hiring new people also... but then you get massive protests and threats of strikes by the very people who would (in the long run) be helped by this move. It's a tricky problem.

  3. miguitas says:

    The problem is more complex that making it easier for businesses to fire workers, the big problem is that Spain don't have any industry to create employment. Another problem is the traditional thought about work culture in employers and workers. And about to extra hours, Spain is one of the workers make more extra hours, the difference is that is very strange that the bosses pay these hours.

  4. Russ says:

    I'm confused, why should the government have any say in whatever negotiations I make with an employer?

  5. John Cowan says:

    Capital as such is not the enemy of labor; labor needs to employ capital to get the work done better and faster. (The notion that "capital employs labor" is not capitalist at all, but a holdover of feudalism.) But capitalists often are the enemies of labor, because every capitalist would much rather be a monopolist if he could; without monopoly, wages and profits will both be high.

    By the same token, if flats are going untenanted, it is because the rentiers are holding out for higher rents (above building maintenance and such, which are not really economic rent at all). Break the monopoly by diverting the rent to the community, and you break the deadlock between labor and capital.

  6. Mauro says:

    :set troll

    I find your faith in an anarchist utopia is a bit puzzling. I read "The Dispossessed" back in the day and found it charming and everything, but still... let's assume that, in another trouser-leg of spacetime, man is fundamentally good, somehow the anarchist dream was achieved, and the resulting planetary anarchist commune doesn't degenerate into a global Somalia. Would the internet exist then? Would a microelectronics industry churning out gigaflops microprocessors for peanuts have developed? Would programming as a profession even exist, or, for that matter, computers?

    Sorry, but I live in a third-world country and I've seen the anarchist utopia that ensues when the two local police forces go on strike at the same time. It's not pretty.

    :set notroll

  7. Lluís says:

    Dude, I know it shouldn't be like this, but I'm happy to read this post because it's written by someone from some place else (and the US, not less), talking about my home :)

  8. jordi says:

    Very nice, Wingo!

    I plan to do my own post-strike writeup, but as Lluís says, it's great to see posts like this in PGO.

    I hope you had a good day last Wednesday!

  9. Phillip says:

    I'd like to know what you thought of the way events turned out. I happened to be there when it happened, and it seemed sad that what was an important march in solidarity was marred by (and rendered less believable by) stupid kids causing trouble. There's a lot to be said for an open planned march, and a lot more to be said for the kind of civil disobedience of a general strike. But setting fire to cars with your face covered is cowardly and pointless and just makes everyone look bad. Vandalising each other's homes and businesses, intimidating strike breakers.

    The stupidest thing I saw was all the cash machines that had been painted so as to be unuseable. Now, even if you are caught up in some sort of anti-capitalist hysteria (which wasn't exactly the point of the strike in the first place) surely you don't want to make it HARDER for people to take their money out of the banks?!

    From my point of view (and I come from somewhere with an important legacy of strikes and their failures) it seemed like their was an all-too large element of 'radical' kids with some idealised idea of fighting the state without stopping for a moment to think about the results of their actions. And in my experience these people are usually the ones with the least to lose.

  10. Ricky Youngblood says:

    I hate to say it but a lot of why my hospital sucks has to do with the unions. Your position is eliminated but you have seniority? We transfer you into a job for which you have no training and boot somebody that may have been decent. Their sin? They were hired after you. This sucks the most at the management level as these people actually decide how things get done. At the floor RN level it just means that you can never get vacation when you want it. So, although unions have done some great things for nurses in CA (mandated pt ratios and salaries that are ridiculous) the biggest reason my work is dysfunctional and frustrating is that the place is run by a bunch of unionized fools with nowhere to go.

    What this has to do with the general strike I am not sure, but I needed to vent today.

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