Workers' rights

News from the debt crisis in Spain and the rise of a global response

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21 de Mar 2013

Mari Otxandi
Translated by Rob Dyas

Marin Ledun was made redundant from his job as an investigator at France Telecom. He has written the book Perros de Porcelana (Porcelain Dogs) about his time at the company. We talk to him about the modern workplace and its connection to our lives. 


Marin Ledun, 37 years old, worked for seven years as an investigator in France Telecom (Orange). His time with the company ended in 2007 when the privatization of the company, brought into effect in 1998, was beginning to fundamentally change the internal personnel management approach within the organisation. An aggressive cost cutting strategy called the NExT plan was in course during 2006, attempting to deteriorate working conditions to such an extent that workers were psychologically pressured into resigning. Six years after the introduction of NExT, around 60 employees of the company have committed suicide. French public opinion has turned on this "tidal wave of suicides" to condemn modern management practices and the sufferring they cause. In July 2012, the CEO of the company was placed under investigation for "psychological harassment". This is the first time in history that a CEO of a multinational will face such charges in a court of law. Ex-employee, Marin Ledun is now a writer of black novels and in one of his works, Porcelain Dogs, he describes his experiences there with the action set in a call centre. 
In your novel, Porcelain Dogs, the protagonist, a workplace doctor, cures the ailments of the characters but is also in a privileged position to analyze the company world in its entirety.
The characters that can talk about the modern day company are few. To understand a little of the mechanisms of suffering at work, interconnected with the new labour organisations, the new management methods, you need a certain familiarity with medicine, psychology, the psychodynamics at work, the sociology of these organisations, etc. Although it´s very rare for a work doctor to be taught the workings of these subjects, I have tried to construct the character that would know most about such things. Maybe I "over-invest" in her an understanding of the question, but this is so that she can testify as to how it works, relations between people, what is going on in their heads and details about the workings of the company machine.
Medical reports give the story a rhythm. They allow the reader to take breath and characterise, from my point of view, a certain kind of dehumanisation because of their cold and distant nature.
 The idea of these reports was to remind us that the company is not what the protagonist lives, this kind of empathy that she has for the people, the human relations that exist despite everything. What predominates is the clinical manner, really cold, in which men and women are seen as numbers, statistics, like a calculation of "symptoms". And above and beyond a certain number of serious symptoms, it is decided that it is not profitable. Everything must be input into Excel spreadsheets. My intention was to remind that the company was of this type, really cold, very mechanical. The initial idea of Perros de Porcelana could be summarised like this: there exists the fiction characterised by the doctor, and there is exists the reality, the reports. And each time we enter a report, we enter into reality.
 Why the process of dehumanisation of the people in the company? 
 That is due to the dehumanization mechanisms already established in individuals in general society. The corporation is a product of a number of processes; the quality control processes  that appeared in the ´80s and ´90s for example, and, something on which I place much emphasis because of their symbolic quality: the periodic employee evaluation or personal development interview. It is the mechanism par excellence for commodifying the individual, made up of three very important elements to which the individual will be reduced: knowledge (training received), "know-how" (experience acquired) and the personal development / evaluation interview, which entails a new element that consists of the entirely arbitrary measurement of something that does not exist known as "behavioural targets". This can mean anything and is absolutely impossible to measure. 
 There are many things included here that cannot be measured, quantified, but they use them specifically because of this, because this allows them to subjugate the individuals and produce a kind of double mechanism: control of the people - direct control that allows for the "tightening of screws"; if extra pay depends on the interview then the workers are obliged to play the game - and auto-control - the individual internalises all these mechanisms so that they can better anticipate them. They are destructive mechanisms.
Does work still represent an instrument of socialisation?
From the moment work is no longer perceived as something collective. when it is converted into a purely individual act, with individual trajectories and mechanisms, then, necessarily, it will no longer have any socialisation function. But if one considers that work is not limited to the company, which is itself also precisely a mechanism of socialisation and of life, then one may say that the unemployed too work, and much more: when someone does "no work", that is work in the salaried sense of the term, they are still working nevertheless. Someone who decides to detach themselves from the world of work and live simply from their small-holding in self-sufficiency, is working. They are not working in the tripalium sense, a torture instrument, in the salaried sense, exploitation etc., but they are working. And in this sense, work remains an instrument of socialisation. There are those that are militantly opposed to the notion of work but, in the end, they are working. It´s simply that they do not have a salaried job. They have rejected by choice this subjugation, or sometimes because they have no other option.
What is the crux of this subjugation?
The question of subjugation is laid out in the novel and I planned to include it from the outset. Whilst I was contracted to France Telecom in 2004, my purpose was to observe and begin to investigate the mechanisms of subjugation in the workplace. In the end I was caught and was forced to leave, and not on good terms, but once I had time to digest the situation, I remembered that this was however part of my initial objective.
The objective that I had planned was to work under the double mandate made up of the subjugation in work and subjugation in consumption. I set out on the principal that the two were entirely interconnected. It is because we take out loans, because we consume, that we are subjugated in the workplace. This is self evident, but typically the mechanisms of production and the mechanisms of consumption are analysed independently of eachother. Today, when we operate as workers, we are workers in work, in the office or on the production line, but we are also workers permanently situated in everyday life: in our fitted kitchen, with our dishwasher, our food processor, all the things we have bought because they supposedly simplify our lives so that we might work longer hours.
At the end of the novel, there is the sensation that we have assisted in the triumph of Fordism. 
It is exactly that. In fact, in the masterplans, it is predicted that the scientific organisation of labour will coincide with the scientific organisation of consumption. Historically this was not in the end viable because the Eastern societies were not yet prepared for such consumption as they have been since the ´60s. The plan was delayed somewhat but they´ve made up for lost time since then. The designers are somewhat cynical when it comes to these methods - or sometimes sincere which is even worse - they had predicted the use of these mechanisms. Meanwhile, they have gone about adding other things, such as unemployment, which is also organised scientifically and is an integral part of these two entities.
The Spanish press have highlighted a particular phrase of yours: "Rest or be free" 
This in fact is a quote from Cornelius Castoriadis. It is the idea of the somewhat personal aspect of the work of yesteryear: moments to reflect and formulate questions about our mode of being, the way we work, consume, all of this is itself part of work. It is even more than the job: it is essential. I´ll use an example from a case I was told about (maybe the figures are not correct): a study carried out by two psychiatrists on workers in an abattoir who were given three minutes to carve up an animal. Some technicians arrived one day and decided that the animal could be carved up in two minutes. The workers tried this and agreed that yes, it was possible. So from then on they did it in two minutes. And little by little symptoms such as depression, physical problems began to emerge.... Technically and physically, they were able to do the job in two minutes, but they were missing an unquantifiable minute, that corresponded to a minute of humanity, of respect for the animal that they had just killed, the contemplation of death. And, to rest or be free, is exactly that: they needed, at a given moment, that personal part of the job that was not quantifiable and was implicit in the initial calculation.
To rest or be free" is also to prefer not to see things, not intervene so as to avoid problems. 
To rest is to close ones eyes, for the purposes of general comfort, due to cowardice sometimes. In work, we have all experienced one day or another where somebody did not come to our aid when we were suffering an aggression in which they might have helped, but they do not do so because it is not in their interest. This is to rest. It is the antithesis of freedom, of the mechanisms of liberation, of aspirationvtowards collective and individual autonomy, as Castoriadis says. To rest is to allow things to play out by themselves. I do not implicate myself, I do not stir anything up, I do not join a union. In the end it is not worth it, afterwards I will have problems, I won´t receive bonuses. I will not vote because in the end it is pointless, but I don´t look for alternatives either and I don´t want to complicate my life being a militant, reflecting on other means of struggle. The traditional means of struggle, unions, politics, the traditional political parties etc, all this is obsolete, it is dying (and that´s the truth). What is more there are only extremists on the left, radicals, anarchists, libertarians, this thing or the other...So then I rest, I don´t do anything.
When you say that the political world should take on the subject of the world of work, what are you trying to say?
The politicians will not do it. The extreme left itself has not taken up the cause of the suffering that is going on at work which is, for me, a formidable lever to discuss all the themes: capitalism, globalisation, "collateral damage", as they call it. It´s a shame. From the moment there is even a single case of suicide due to working conditions in companies such as Renault or France Telecom, it is already too many. It is not just a private issue, it does not concern only the company, it should become political. We all have something to say. To begin with, the employees themselves that do not have this right over their instrument of work. They should be able to replace the shareholders, the capital, the general directors that are paid millions at a time to put in place whatever marketing strategy they like because there is "only" one person dead and because that falls within the budget of costs and quotas... At the moment of crisis in France Telecom, the director general, Didier Lombard, was only concerned with the deteriorating image of the company. It´s really scandalous.  
The fundamental thing is that employees re-appropriate their instrument of work, whether that be through a union or another route. How they go about this is something that should be collectively decided. And in these companies, the employees are in no position to do so, psychologically. In France Telecom, there are a certain number of deaths by suicide each year and there is no mobilisation, although there should be a revolution in the company. There are colleagues dying!
They rest, in one sense...
Not really. There is a physical consequence for them also: they are physically incapacitated to react. They are in a survival state. It should also be added that the company machine does all it can to ensure they are unable to react. This is why the issue needs to be politicised once more. It is us, the citizens, that should say collectively that there is a problem that concerns us all: this company is part of the society in which we live, we all use telecommunications. And this is related to all companies, large and small: they employ the same organisational models. Maybe France Telecom is a laboratory, but this concerns all companies. The people who are suffering in the workplace today, physically and / or mentally, are of all ages, at the end of their career or at the beginning, they may have very good salaries or might be paid peanuts, they might be experienced or not, generally they have a family life that is more or less happy...The condition of suffering at work is not that of the unionist, of 50 years old, the civil servant, depressive and alcoholic. It can happen to anybody. The mechanisms of suffering are generalised in the workplace. They are then lived out in very different ways: in some cases they translate into what is discussed in the novel, depression, suicides, murders etc. But on the whole, the situation could be summarised with the title of a book by a French work doctor: Not everybody died but all were affected.
By way of conclusion? 
The reply we can give as of today, which is the opposite of what we are told; the world of work is not failing just because the economy is going badly. It is failing because the work practices imposed upon us lead to its failure. This is my conviction. It is not viable on a human level. And, contrary to what some say, sometimes rather moralistically, those that have known work in the ´60s or ´70s, the more ancient ones, that are familiar with the more paternalistic companies, the company has really changed its mode of operating, radically, although we still have difficulty in measuring this.
To work on a production line today is certainly less difficult than in the era of Zola or in the ´20s or 30`s. The duration of work has been reduced, there are protections (that are now being removed in full view). It is ¨better¨ to work today than 100 or 150 years ago. But on the other hand, psychologically, working on a production line today is completely different from working on a production line 30 or 40 years ago. There is not the same solidarity, the same collectivism is not there. Before, these paradoxical orders that are given today did not exist, there was not the same policy of numbers, there was not the commodification of our "mental schedule", at work and in consumption, and all this has catastrophic consequences. It is imperative that we now think of work in another manner. //
Overtime without the log book
“I was talking with a union member from Peugeot who explained to me the moment in which they changed the way bonus payments were paid. Before, it was the same for everyone: the team was the important thing, the collective. Then they introduced the personal evaluations and the bonus payments were decided by what each person did individually. At the beginning this didn´t seem like such a bad thing to the workers because: ´In the end, when someone else isn´t pulling his weight, when I´m working harder, there´s no reason I shouldn´t be paid more than him, it isn´t fair to slow down the whole line´. But after some time, they began to notice the suspicion that had been implanted amongst them: the bonuses became a taboo subject, a kind of competition became prevalent amongst the workers, they suspected so-and-so of earning more bonuses...
And it is with these kind of very simple processes that they can introduce the mechanisms that in the end result in an entirely dehumanised company."
21 de Mar 2013
Krisis? Germany at the centre of economic turbulence
The latest German unemployment figures, the lowest in 20 years, prompt us to consider the attributes of an accumulation model that has allowed the country to so far avoid the worst impact of the crisis.
Isidro López, member of Madrid´s Metropolitan Observatory 
Translated by
Esther Ortiz Vázquez & Juan Martin Rodriguez
Many aspects of the Euro crisis have their roots in deep political changes in the post-unified Germany. The traditional structures of the corporatist capitalism in the Rhineland consisted of both domestic industrial and financial schemes. These schemes, although controlled by the German industrial elite, also incorporated the very-powerful German Fordist unions. However, this establishment no longer exists.
The German industrial capitalists had been trying since the early ´60s to "bypass" the financial-industrial credit networks by seeking finance from the eurodollar markets in London. For these industrial elites, the Fordist social pact allowed them to contain the working class struggle at manageable levels but was also widely seen as an obstacle to maximizing profits.
The key political move was the 2010 Agenda from the Socialdemocracy of Shroder and, look out, the Green Party. Between them they have gone about breaking up these Fordist holdings through fiscal reforms and capital deregulations. The process involves transnational financial institutions pressurising to create "open" financial structures that they are then able to enter, generate profits and exit. These kind of structures diametrically oppose those that connected the network of middle-men and elites with productive territories and economic sectors in a stable and organized manner.
From the destruction of this second type of financial structure come two kinds of interrelated results. On the one hand, a large mass of capital linked to local manufacturing cycles is released, estimated at one billion euros
–approximately the Spanish GDP-, to be invested in financial markets.
Thereby an elite consisting of globalized financial yuppies is born
with a social typology which is quite different to the “Rhineland
capitalist, an industrial captain who takes positions within the
political system. On the other hand, and less well-known, in this
very movement, Germany loses control of its more strategic productive hubs while transnational financial capital, American “hedge funds” in particular, take over 50% of the more important DAX companies (the Spanish IBEX counterpart) imposing a strict income discipline; the so-called “shareholder value”. In brief, if you have to fire 40,000 workers to save your dividend you do it. That is to say, during this process Germany loses control of its higher quality assets as well as its ability to rule over its labor-capital relationship.
The gross amount released during this process will end up in two places. Firstly, it is going to be invested en masse in property market bubbles both in Spain and in the USA, especially in subprime-lending, which is the root cause of the huge banking crisis Germany is currently passing through (currently in stand-by mode). And secondly, it goes towards acceleration of the outsourcing process to Eastern countries, taking advantage of investment channels and exploiting the cheap labour created by the brutal shock-therapy policies carried out by the European Union and the IMF in the 90s. From now on, assisted by the traditional State policy support given by the major unions, a savage assault on the German workforce is going to be launched. Germany is the only OECD country where real wages have been going down for seven consecutive years (2000-07) while its customary productivity has plummeted due to, amongst other things, the establishment of longer working days, at the same salary levels (with union consent), without a corresponding increase in technological power. As was to be expected, the result has been the loss of three million from union membership in a decade. 
The banking crisis alongside the budding social crisis are two good explanations for the strategic alliance forged between Germany and the financial powers which is designed to politically manage the euro crisis in exchange for the opportunity for Germany to fund itself at a low price in the markets. The aftermath is obvious, postponing the banking adjustment and holding back, through public expenditure, the collapse of the colossal fordist German middle-class.
In conclusion, we are not talking about exonerating Germany of blame for its European policies, whose goal have always been to avoid taking charge of any responsibility related to wealth redistribution at a continental level (a level at which they have sought to control the accumulation of capital), but rather the rebuilding of the chain of command imposed by the financial powers to better combat them.
16 de Nov 2012

DIAGONAL Editorial notes / Translation: Rob Dyas

The European economic commissioner has made assurances that there is no need for Rajoy to make more cuts in 2013, this the same day that five countries within the EU executed their first joint general strike. The activities of the day represented a social response to the politics of austerity imposed upon millions of people in the euro zone. The day was brought to a close with the now familiar police harassment of protesters.

Businesses closed, businesses open or with the shutters just half open, empty or nearly empty, people without shopping bags and groups of ten or fifteen people waiting for the next march to link up with. Organised picnics on every open space. Groups of cyclists, of mothers, fathers and grandparents with shopping carts or with small children. Mercamadrid (food retail market) in complete stoppage, the industrial parks half empty and public transport on minimum service. Telemadrid (regional TV channel) “blacked-out” and public hospitals hung with hundreds of hand made signs against privatisation. Classic pickets mixed in with civil disobedience actions such as spontaneous road blocks. And police, lots of police.

These are the images from the morning of the 14N general strike, that together with a hundred other cities and localities (Barcelona, Valencia, Milan, Lisbon etc.) have shown the other side of Europe, a side that rebels against the payment of debt and the austerity measures. The EU felt obliged to make an appearance, in the form of the European Commission (EC) economic vice-president, Olli Rehn, to assure us that they will not be demanding more adjustment measures than those already presented by the government of Mariano Rajoy in the summer. Rehn also announced the delay until February of the next review of the Spanish deficit reduction.

The appearance of normality that the leaders of Europe have presented during this period of permanent shock from the crisis did not undermine the strikes success. Several hundred thousand people in the protests in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia, amongst the more populated cities, – 800,000 in total according to the Interior Minister – attended the evening marches that terminated with police baton charges and a heavy riot police presence in several areas in the peninsula. The unions are in agreement that the attendance in Madrid alone was more than a million and in other cities they bypassed the figures of attendance seen in previous strikes.

In Italy, the scene was set in the morning by the massive demonstrations in Trieste, Milan and Rome. In some cases these ended with confrontations between protesters and police. In Portugal, where the strike was characterised by the high level of stoppages in the transport and industrial sectors, thousands of people surrounded the Congress opposite the San Bento Palace in Lisbon.

According to the UGT (union) estimates, of the 14 million people called to the general strike of he 14N, just five million went in to work. Amongst them are included two million people who were required to attend to comply with the minimum services agreed between the unions and the government in the various strategic sectors (administration, transport, health etc.).

As with the strike on 29th September 2010, the government has opted not to present the estimated figures of stoppages and, have instead chosen to publish details of electricity consumption on the day from the Spanish Electricity Network (along with a note to the press with details of the number of arrests). Considered one of the few reliable indicators of the impact of the strike, it showed that 84.2% of the electricity on a normal day was being used at 11am on the day of the strike. The collective Economists Against the Crisis spent the day explaining and qualifying this figure. Regardless of this, the information in the mass media pointed to a massive stoppage in the industrial sector, in schools and in transport.

The police security measures on the day of the 14N, with 4,500 officers in Madrid alone, was in the event overwhelmed by the variety and diversity of actions that took place across the state. From the classic pickets – confrontations led to 142 arrests before 10pm according to the Interior Ministry – to the lock-ins in hospitals (30 in Madrid, according to the Coordinadora Antiprivatización de la Sanidad – Anti-privatisation in Health Collective), bank offices or university faculties, or the road blocks created by bicycle pickets in cities such as Madrid, Seville or Valencia, or the expropriation of food by a feminist group in Barcelona. The general strike again shifted the matrix of power relations between the 1% and the 99%. In addition we are left with images of police attacks on the press and children and indiscriminate police charges against peaceful demonstrations.

[This article was originally published in Spanish on November 14th 2012]

17 de Sep 2012

By Bernat Costa Reimondez (Sevilla Editorial) / Translated by Robert Dyas

Despite the recent media furore following the action of the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (Andalusian Workers Union), this is a kind of civil disobedience that is not unusual in Spain.

On 7th August, in a large comemercial building in Écija, Seville, several union members walked in with shopping trolleys and filled them with pasta, rice, chickpeas and other basic products. There were 10 trolleys in total. In Arcos de la Frontera, Cádiz, the same occurred. They passed by the tills; today, they decided, they were not paying. They are here to expropriate food for the families in the town most in need. They are labourers from the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT - Andalusian Workers Union) that are hoping to bring to light the fact that there are families in Spain going hungry, that there are 1.7 million households with all family members unemployed. In Arcos de la Frontera, the Guardia Civil stopped them leaving with the goods. In Écija, a cashier had a panic attack.

In the latter case the unionists were successful and filled a van with ten trolleys of food thanks to a strategy of distraction. A similar strategy to that followed in another supermarket in the locality; a recognisable face stationed at the front of the store with megaphone in hand, namely Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinelda and member of the Andalusian Parliament. The food therefore reached the needy families in the Corrala Utopia, an apartment block in Seville occupied on the first anniversary of the 15M to re-house 32 families whose homes had been repossessed or were in imminent danger of being repossessed.

The day before, the SAT had notified the press that they were preparing a surprise action. As such they ensured the media reaction they were looking for was achieved. The day after the event, the Interior Minister came out “to play sheriff” according to Sánchez Gordillo. He ordered the arrest of the unionists involved and the police followed the orders: three unionists were detained. The mayor of Marinaleda also received a summons which was delivered to him an open space owned by the army that had been occupied by the SAT a couple of weeks before. They were accused of theft with intimidation with possible jail terms of two to five years. “It’s like the times of Franco, there’s no separation of powers”, the SAT claimed in relation to the behaviour of Fernandez Diaz, Interior Minister. The MP of the IU (Izquierda Unida – left wing parliamentary party) and SAT member Sánchez Gordillo has confirmed that the expropriations from large supermarkets will continue “until the Government guarantees by law that food be donated to the most needy families at least five days befote its expiry date.” Currently only 20% of the supermarkets comply with this measure according to members of the SAT.

Expropriation precedents

Six years have passed since the first of May when, as part of the protests organised by the May Day South in Seville, a group carried out a similar action based in the concept of “autoriduzione” (auto-discounts). This is a form of protest common amongst the autonomous movement in Italy that has been replicated in times of crisis in countries such as Argentina during the corralito (measures taken to stop a run on the banks such as freezing bank accounts).

In 2006 it was a group of poor people who expropriated a supermarket in the Andalusian capital. That action led to a trial in which the prosecutors demanded two years in jail for the accused. They were eventually acquitted. Javier Toret, who was charged, remembers that their defence lawyers were themselves from the SAT and the CGT (another union). On that occasion, Toret recalls, they chose a supermarket from the Plus chain that had sacked one of their workers for requesting a reduced timetable due to maternity pressures. The action was characterised by its media relations nature, with a reading of a manifesto by “the virgin of poverty”. The expropriation of a supermarket on May Day in Seville in 2006 concluded with the acquittal of all the accused.

A similar action was also carried out in the area of Nou Barris in Barcelona. On 19th December 2009, the Asamblea d’Aturats de Barcelona (assembly of unemployed peoples) filled up several trolleys in a supermarket of the Caprabo chain. At the tills they attempted to negotiate down the price and the response from the management was to call the Mossos d’ Esquadra (Barcelona police division). Three years after the event, three people remain charged with complicity in the action. The three were those that remained outside the line of the tills in the supermarket, two of which were identified by the Mossos. Their lawyer, Hibai Arbide, stated that the trial would take place in spring of next year despite there being video evidence that clearly shows the accused did not even participate in the action.

We have here then just three of the actions that, in the past six years, in various parts of Spain, have served to highlight the margins, abusive prices and working conditions in the major supermarket chains. The SAT, a union with much influence in Andalusian agriculture, say that they cannot understand that a basic food item that “costs 60 cents when collected from the fields, can be sold for 6 euros in a big supermarket”. They condemn the price of food which they say has been inflated by the great number of intermediaries that now operate between those that work in the fields and those that consume the final product. Meanwhile the actions of the SAT have now been copied in Mérida, where 50 members of the Colectivo la Trastienda y de la Plataforma por la Renta Básica (Backroom Collective and Platform for a Basic Income) attempted to remove several trolleys of basic foods from a Carrefour before being intercepted by the police.

Other actions by the SAT

March of the workers On the 30th August the fourth stage of the workers marches organised by the SAT began in Granada. In September they will take place in Malaga (3rd and 4th September) and Seville (5th, 6th and 7th September).

Eleven detained in La Caixa On the 27th of August, 50 members of the SAT carried out an action in La Caixa (bank) in the Puerto de Santa Maria (Cadiz). This was in protest at the bank’s demands on homeowners that were resulting in repossessions. During the protest, which took place during the union’s third workers march in Cádiz, eleven participants were arrested.

A day at the palace The SAT, the self-proclaimed “most legally persecuted union in Europe”, also occupied the area of land known as Las Turquillas (land owned by the military) for three weeks before being removed by the Guardia Civil. On the 21st Augut two hundred people also occupied a hotel in the palace of Moratalla en Hornachuelos (Córdoba) for several hours.

[This article was published in Spanish on August 30th, 2012]

27 de Jun 2012

By Daniel María Ripa / Translated by Robert Dyas.

José Ángel Fernández Villa, the leader of the Mining Workers Union of Asturias since 1979 (Sindicato de los Obreros Mineros de Asturias [SOMA-FITAG-UGT]), having helped set light to barricades over the past few days, comments: “If they want a battle, we’ll give them a battle. I’ve been 60 years on the front line of this industry and I won’t stand for repression whether it be under a dictator or a democracy.”

The leader of SOMA, an organisation that has for decades maintained a suffocating clique network in the Asturian mining pits, became one of the most influential individuals in the PSOE [socialdemocratic party] (as a member of their federal executive between 1979-1993, 24 years as a regional member of parliament) and ran the Asturian party according to his whim, appointing and dismissing its General Secretaries as he chose. This relationship is one of the paradoxes of the mining movement that came to a head when the ten miners of the SOMA-UGT (two unions) began their sit-in in the Candín and Santiago pits on the 28th May (a sit-in that is already the longest in the history of Asturias).

To give some recent history to the current struggle: an indefinite strike exploded at the beginning of the ’90s with a force that galvanised the workers movements against the industrial restructuring that was scorching Asturias (as covered by the Canal+ documentary El polvorín asturiano [The Asturian Powder Keg] - 1997). The struggles at Naval, Duro Felguera or Hunosa (Spanish mining and energy companies) with barricades, rockets, sit-ins, occupations, hunger strikes or the burning of cashpoints, have stayed in the collective Asturian memory. Unions such as the Junta de Personal Funcionario del Principado de Asturias (the Public Workers Committee of the Principality of Asturias) emerged from the struggle as did the Corriente Sindical de Izquierdas (the Common Left Union) - today a majority shareholder in companies such as Cajastur (Asturian building society). In addition, Asturias, along with the Basque Country, now has the highest rate of general strikes in the country.

“If we fight like these workers they could be forced to slow up the spending cuts” explains Rubén Rosón, student activist and native of the mining areas. It is a sentiment shared by nearly all Asturians but in practice it has yet to translate into a youth awakening against the high levels of unemployment. For Rubén Vega, professor of contemorary history in the University of Oviedo and author of a book about the mining strike of ’62, it seems that this is “the last battle that will bring to a close 100 years of strike history. A romantic finale in accordance with its tradition while us University professors, for example, go passively to our graves; it is a salutary lesson to all who want to react and do not know how.”

A restructuring stretched over time

In the middle of Christmas 1991, the leaders of the mining unions SOMA-UGT and CCOO had begun in a sit-in in the Barredo pit along with 34 workers, for 12 days, at a depth of 400 metres with the aim of pressurising concessions from the government of Felipe González (PSOE). Little by little and in a more subtle way than the miners in the current crisis, those workers also lost. The restructuring was stretched over time in a dismantling process that has lasted 20 years. The investment for the re-industrialisation of the region, given as compensation for the loss of the miners traditional livelihood, never became a real source of employment.

For example, 13 companies received up to 30 million euros of miners funds simply to make redundant 844 workers that they employed rather than funding long term solutions. Of the 70,000 miners that were employed in the ’70s in Asturias, less than 5,000 now remain (from 7,000 to just 60 municipalites with active mines in the country) despite a large part of the economy in these areas depending on mining (and connected industries). The corresponding demographic drain has resulted in a 25% reduction in the Asturian population the the last 3 decades, a similar process to that seen in Teruel.

It is not surprising therefore that the words “reconversion” and “restructuring” hold little credibility: they have been buzzwords in the closure of public companies or occasionally their privatisation, enriching “friends” and making workers unemployed. This is something that Adrián Redondo, member of the regional CCOO executive (union), believes could be hidden after the current miners’ conflict. For him, “in 10 years time coal will still be necessary. There’s still no alternative. Germany has some 270,000 miners and there are companies here buying up all the mines that are closing.” The main difference is that in the private Asturias-Leon mine, headed up by Victorino Alonso, the contractual terms for new workers are much worse than those given historically and the workers are sometimes used as a means of “blackmail” against the government.

A swing of the sword to “calm the markets”

President Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party, PP) made the final blow to the mining sector on 30th December 2011. With the objective of “calming the markets” he included the Mining Plan (Plan Miner) amongst the swathing cuts of his now historic first address of parliament, bringing forward by 6 years the date which the EU and the government had agreed for the end of public assistance for the coal sector. Investment for mining would reduce from 703 to 253 million euros – to all intents and purposes the closure of the sector. The workers were also made aware of technical modifications that were being demanded in the combustion process for imported coal, changes that would require multimillion euro investments. However, according to them the dismantling of existing plants is much more costly than their maintenance. Indeed in Andorra (Teruel), Endesa itself has recently improved its installations to ensure a further 20 years of funcionality, explains Marco Negredo, a mining worker for this firm. He reminds us that both the two private mining companies in the region are equally as profitable as the principle electricity providers. He explains furthermore that in any case, in the rural world, “assistance is necessary in order to maintain economic sustainability.” First and foremost, bread on the table.

Light and shade in the mine

CO2 combustion is one of the central causes of global warming. However, importing coal from outside the country, historically more economical (although now, according to the unions, less profitable than using state resources) does not solve this problem. Sovereign energy, as with the food supply, should be based on local production networks. Consumption should be reduced to the level of current resources and the nuclear and non-nuclear power stations replaced over the medium term. Oviedo is one of the most contaminated cities in the country due to carbon emissions and the power station at Aboño (Xixón) is one of the most contaminating plants in Europe. In this case a short term solution is obviously necessary.

Although the mining industry is not the only sector that receives state subsidies (the Casa de Alba [Spanish biggest aristocratic family] receives nearly 4 million euros in agricultural subsidies), the utilisation of the mining subsidies has been subject to particular criticism in Teruel, León and Asturias. The subsidies were supposed to provide a new industrial scheme in preparation for the closure of the mines. Instead they funded professional development plans, managed by the unions and connected companies, preparing young asturians for types of work that would only ever be found in Madrid. Public works were funded in cities that did not even have a mine, underused motorways were built, sports centres half completed, student halls with no students or hotels with no tourists. All this with the supposed aim of reactivating the economy.

The complicity was shared: political parties, unions (CCOO and UGT, which represent most of the workers in Spain) and businessmen all received money. Asturias benefitted from completed construction works corresponding to just 8% of the funds allocated to the miners and at least 50% of the funds were left unallocated or allocated and unused. The president of Montepío (the miners mutual society managed by the unions and headed by SOMA-UGT) is mired in accusations of corruption and the hotel and property businesses of the society have been at the centre of the scandal. Meanwhile SOMA “still maintains a tremendous influence in the pits which is only reinforced by the lack of dynamism in the territory”, claims Vega (history prefessor at Oviedo University). However, without the unions and mutual societies the situation could be much worse: “they have helped to avoid a more profound social deterioration in the mining basins – as happened in the US – which avoided being a focus of social exclusion or criminality in the ’90s to the credit of the miners and the unions”. The problem is that the subsidies are “not a long term solution, merely an anaesthetic” continues Vega. With such scandal surrounding the misuse of funds, the 15M movement of the city of Mieres has demanded an audit of the subsidies and responsibilities of the respective PSOE and PP governments.

Beyond desperation

Without the mines, there is no future in the mining areas. The miners know this, as do their political representatives and indeed the whole population. What is certain is that a united and strong workers solidarity movement and union organisation gives greater intensity to the struggle, a struggle to which the greater population is generally sympathetic.

The aggravation of the crisis and the certainty that the PP will not give any ground – contrasted with the influence that the mining unions had enjoyed within the PSOE – mean that the labour conflict has been converted into a social conflict. Rajoy knows that to concede in any of the cuts would only give encouragement to other similar struggles. Of the 3,100 amendments that were submitted for the original cuts estimates, only 3 were approved. Redondo explains the process as follows: “the cuts being applied to the mining sector are nothing when compared with the Bankia bailout, but if they give way in this case, they’ll have to do the same in other sectors: the PP knows that there’s a class struggle behind all this”. The miners feel the final fight has arrived and for this reason, Vega explains, “there is a strong element of desperation and frustration” that explains their vigor. The historian reminds us that the government´s position bears all the hallmarks of “a strategy of liquidation of the unions to which end they must beat the mining unions”. Thatcher did the same in the ’80s during the 9 month mining strike and her broader neo-liberal victory was built on that base.

The resulting situation has caused a rupture in the traditional union strategy (that involves negotiating and mobilising before taking more aggressive measures) with the protest now spilling over organically. Vega explains that there exists a strange combination of “a great union strength and a dynamic base that is not entirely under their control: the unions are unable to call for a de-mobilisation, although they might want to, and the more radical mobilisation – barricades, pitched battles with police etc – contain a significant autonomous element”. This also explains the involvement of the very young – and inexperienced – in the protests.

Convergences with other struggles

To compare the mining mobilisation with other kinds of struggles, such as the 15M, would be a mistake. Each is a response to the crisis and austerity from its own sector but for precisely this reason mutual learning between the movements is also possible. The miners have demonstrated, says Adrián Redondo, that they remain “an example in the workers movements that continues to provoke imitation and solidarity”. They have brought the classic workers struggle to the fore and can help other activists in other sectors reninterpret their own forms of resistence using their own experience. In Asturias, this “contagion” is exactly what is happening now. On the 4th June, after 8 days of miners´mobilisations, 8,000 workers from the transport sector began their own indefinite strike that, after 5 days, achieved that the 2 transport employers reached out in support of a collective agreement. 16 union members from Thyssen, one of the largest companies in Asturias, started a sit-in on 13th June in the factory at Mieres, copying the action of the miners in their pits. After 3 days, the company conceded its previous plan to apply for an ERE (labour agreement that permits redundancies under special terms where the company claims to have insufficient funds) that would have affected 181 employees.

The initial spread of actions culminated in the occupation in front of the government buildings in Oviedo while a minority group of temporary workers began their indefinite general strike. Anonymous have also done their bit by leaking documents from the internal meetings of the coal companies. Eventually the general strike in the mining sector was successful – complete stoppage was achieved. Despite the extensive and positive media coverage of the mobilisation in Asturias, censorship on the part of the state has been the norm. The various media communication mediums across the world have been covering the story while the state press ignores it, trying to avoid any spread of the struggle.

However, in the face of the idealisation of the mining struggle myth, Emilio León (union member of the Corriente Sindical Izquierdas) warns that “violence can also be accepted by a system that has survived years of cash point burnings. The battle is not just against repression but also against depression, in there being no visible means of resolution.” In as much as the demands of the miners are able to mix with other movements with more populist movements, as demonstrated in the 15M of Oviedo, the struggle against the cuts could reach new heights. For Redondo, the objective must be “to unite all the mobilisations of great Asturian industry because what we are witnessing is a cultural collapse.” He asks that we remember that “the miners were the meak of the 19th century and, at the base of mobilisation and struggle, are now the key example to follow.” He asks, “will the same fate await other sectors such as the new technologies of the 21st century?”



[This article was originally published in Spanish on June 25th 2012]


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