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Lack of support set to hamper Spanish general strike

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2010-09-29

Spanish unions have called for the country’s first general strike in eight years to protest against proposed labour reforms. But with polls predicting only a 9% turnout, it looks more likely to be detrimental to the unions than the government.

Twenty-four hours of industrial action across Spain was expected to serve as a test for Prime Minister José Zapatero. But with little support for the action from the country’s workforce, it may be the unions facing testing times if the country’s first general strike in eight years falls flat.

The strike comes some three months after Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won approval for his minority government’s reform bill which it is hoped will reduce the country’s alarming budget deficit. The government needs to cut the deficit from over 11% of GDP to just 3% by 2013. The reforms have been praised by the International Monetary Fund, who described them as “absolutely crucial”.
During the summer, one of the bill’s more controversial reforms was introduced: increased labour flexibility for employers. The government hopes the programme will tackle rampant unemployment – currently Europe’s highest at 20%. The unions, however, are determined to cling on to the country’s protectionist labour policies.
Zapatero’s old pals
Zapatero is himself a member of the General Union of Workers (UGT), one of the unions leading the strike; although his relationship with the union has cooled over recent years amid the financial crisis and ensuing recession.

In response to Zapatero’s reforms, the head of the UGT, Candido Mendez, described Zapatero as an “avatar, a reincarnation”, that needed to return to his former beliefs and policies.

To strike or not to strike?
The union leaders opinion, however, does not appear to represent that of the vast majority of Spanish people. While many Spaniards are sympathetic to the strikers, a massive 73% of people say they do not support the action, and only 9% plan to take part, according to a poll by daily newspaper El Pais. spoke to one of the minority who back the strike, Jesús Rivera Armán. Jesús is an administrative worker at a gym in Santiago de Compostela and plans to protest in the city’s main park at midday Wednesday.
While Jesús admits that the strike may not be a huge success, he is still holding firm. “For me, staying at home or just going to work is not a solution. For the moment, we only have the unions to help us protect workers’ rights. What will come from this strike, is another strike, like in France. The government does want to talk, but its offers are very poor for now.”
Jesús comes from one of Spain’s poorest regions, and one where industrial action and protests remain a fundamental part of workers’ lives. Laughing about the poor turnout forecasts, he exclaims: “I think that more than just 9% of my friends will be taking part in the strike!”
However, Alejandro Melgarejo Frías, a journalist from the capital, told that he doesn’t know anybody who plans to take part in the strike.

“People are angry with the unions. Why did we have to wait three months for the strike? We know the answer; it’s because of their cosy relationship with the leftist government, which they don’t want to upset. So people who would usually support the unions are disillusioned. As for the conservatives, they find the action useless and unrealistic.”
Waning support
Support for unions has been waning for some time in Spain; the last time large numbers of people took to the streets was in 2001.
One of the solutions for beleaguered unions is to try and attract younger support, which they are attempting by taking on the newfangled realms of social networking sites and YouTube. The UGT’s efforts to attract young workers comes in the form of a series of clips posted on the union’s YouTube channel, portraying a sexist and careless boss who shuns pensions and plays games in his office. But with the average number of hits per clip being only ten, it doesn’t look like this method will yield notable results.
Image courtesy of UGT de Catalunya on Flickr using the Creative Commons license.

Date created : 2010-09-28


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