Monday, July 05, 2010

Wild Cats And Other Dangerous Beasts

The strike which brought the Madrid Metro to a complete standstill for two days last week is not over yet, although it appears that the unions are recommending suspension of the action for this week to give negotiations a chance. The Metro workers are on strike over the decision by Madrid's regional government to cut their wages, allegedly as an anti-crisis measure. There is no doubt that a Metro strike changes the face of the city, the strike coincided with some of the first really hot days of summer and the noise and pollution levels above ground were in complete contrast to the silence underneath the ground.

There have also been inevitable effects on productivity, as at least 10% of the active workforce in Madrid spent most of their working day bitching in internet forums either about how long it had taken them to get to work or about how long it would take them to get home. Many Madrileños have been confronted with an uncomfortable truth that they are reluctant to face up to, that many journeys within the city centre can be realised using a well established traditional method commonly referred to as walking. So instead they clogged up the streets of the centre with their cars, and the fiesta definitively belonged to the idiots who believe that constant use of the car horn makes a difference to traffic flow.

It's an unpopular action, but then having your salary slashed at a stroke is not a trivial matter. What caused much of the controversy was the decision by the unions to ignore the minimum services, which had been set at 50%. This converted the strike into a "huelga salvaje", or wildcat strike, and led to threats of disciplinary action from the regional government; who as we know have always been meticulous about respecting the law. The setting of minimum services at such a high level was obviously going to be problematical, as such a measure is designed to remove most of the impact from the strike. Actions like this are, like it or not, the only effective means that the Metro employees have of protesting at their situation.

Esperanza Aguirre clearly sees the strike as a chance for her to emulate her political heroine by having a "Thatcher moment", I'm not sure how to literally translate "the lady is not for turning" into Spanish but we may well find out quite soon. Even worse was the attempt to present the strike as a political action aimed at Aguirre herself, she is never shy of playing the victim. This tactic was coupled with the outrageously untrue claim that her government was simply implementing the national government decree on wage cuts for public employees. This is not the case, Metro workers are not funcionarios and even Aguirre herself has effectively acknowledged that ripping up their salary agreement is probably not legal. But she wants that money, after all in these difficult times it has become hard to maintain the relentless spending on autobombo and there are elections coming up.


Lee said...

Sorry, man, I'm one of those commuters who hate the PP with all my heart, but at the same time feel like the transit workers fucked up. (BTW, how long have you lived here, just asking..) I have been a union rep here in Madrid as well as in New York University. I know the weirdness involved. But I still think that stranding the commuters with no other options really sucks. When I was a union rep I argued with the union "management" about h this - job actions should at best bother the bosses, not the customers/clients. And before you tell me that that's impossible, ...well, I'll tell you that's why I stopped colaborating with union management.

In the last year I've developed a problem with my leg that may be permanent and is very uncomforatable and makes walking difficult, but isn't recongnized as a disability by Seguridad Social (like many...). I', also self employed and yes, a lot of my work is off the books because I have not other alternative (the bullshit of teaching English).

Last, what pisses me off about the transit workers is that they NEVER reach out to - the illegals, the self employed,, the part-timers....the people who will lose money, or even jobs,. because of a strike. If they at least tried to form a coalition with those of us who have NO job security.....

Graeme said...

Lee, there's always a fairly evident problem with the "if you support my cause first, I might consider supporting yours" line of argument. Of course it would be great if the unions took up the case of those who have less protection and rights, but lets not fall into the trap of making them responsible for that situation. One thing is for sure, a union that can't defend its own members against an arbitrary pay cut isn't going to be doing much for anyone else.

It shows how far we have advanced down the road of general impoverishment that people earning 20-30000 euros a year are treated as some kind of privileged labour aristocracy just because they have a degree of organisation and relative security. The implication of your argument, although you don't put it this way, is that the Metro workers should hold a demonstration of protest, accept the pay cut and then get on with driving the trains. The trouble is, and I suspect you know this, is that if Espe can get away with this one then she will soon be back for more from someone else.

Workers in essential services are often faced with the problem of how to defend their conditions. Health workers also have the right to strike and the problem is that if they don't use it occasionally their unwillingness to cause problems for those who depend on them is taken advantage of. So in return for their commitment they get shit salaries or long hours - or a combination of the two. Finally, you'll have to explain to me the relevance of the question, but I've been in Madrid for 13 years.

Julia said...

Love this blog, have an intense dislike of Aguirre, but I have to agree with Graeme on this one.

Being one of the lucky ones who can walk to work I just couldn't help thinking as I saw hapless Madrileños trying to get buses that there has to be another way that doesn't involve screwing over fellow workers big time. Meanwhile, as usual, both unions and management get to flex their egos, still managing to flit around Madrid in chauffeur-driven transport.
If the strike had been in protest of the impunity of the finance sector (yet again) I might have felt more kindly towards the gesture, but it came over as a distinctly "don't mess with the transport sector, even if it means other workers having to bear the brunt" kind of affair.

Julia said...

Sorry should read "got to agree with Lee on this one..."

Graeme said...

What would that other way be Julia? Obviously if your local iPad factory has a strike the only consequence for most people is that they have to wait a bit longer for their shiny gadget, but for the people working there the main way of exercising pressure on their management is to withdraw their labour. People whose work involves provision of services are in the same situation, even if more people are affected. Maybe the union leaders do drive around in their cars but the people who work on the Metro are losing money by going on strike and I don't notice their mortgages being cut by the same amount. Let's not forget either what caused the strike. Nobody forced Aguirre's government to cut the wages of Metro workers, and nobody asked her to do it. The Metro would be running as it normally does were it not for that decision. As for them striking against the financial sector, we can't really demand of them what we are not doing ourselves.

Lee said...

First, I despise la Deathsperanza as much as you do. Having survived a helicopter crash and the terrorist attack in Mumbai, I can only conclude that she's Nosferatu's baby sister or the reincarnation of Rasputin.

Second, to say "The implication of your argument, although you don't put it this way.." is to rewrite and reassign meaning to what I said. If tht's the case, why not just write all your own comments?

And your response to Julia was condescending. Referring to the "shiny gadget" (iPad) sounds condescending and trivializing. iPad? She didn't mention that. Where the hell did that come from?

I asked you how long you've lived here just to know how much of Spanish labor activity you're familiar with (though by your writing, it's obvkous you've been here a while and are well informed). I've been here since 89 (and was here as a visitor during the General Strike of '88 which was universally followed, and it impressed me enough to affect my decision to come and live here. )I've also seen and even been personally affected by crap behavior and bullying on the part of union millitants who think that a membership card in their wallets is a free ticket to be a prick. Just because we feel that the wildcat strike was abusive doesn't mean we've grown neoliberal fangs overnight. It's the 21st century, fellows. Figure something else out to inspire solidarity from the public that doesn't involve bullying. the bloody left here (and elsewhere)is as fucking hidebound by tradition as the right or the Vatican and has hawk-eye aim when it comes to shooting itself in the foot.

And I certainly don't think that 20-30K€ a year is luxurious. I work hard and struggle to make it to the end of the month.

Anyway, I won't bother you again. Julia, see you in the Mac store, I guess.

Lee said...

I must confess to a dangling participle in the second sentence of the previous comment. It should read, "Esperanza, having survived...."....

Graeme said...

I'm completely amazed by that comment Lee. First things first, I didn't mean to put words into your mouth but I was trying to provoke some discussion about what those who don't agree with the strike think the strikers should be doing. You haven't suggested any alternatives either in your first comment or your second. Maybe I went the wrong way around it, but that was my aim.

Secondly, the accusation of being condescending to Julia is truly beyond me and is a tremendous misrepresentation of my intentions. Where did the iPad come from? Read my comment again, from drawing a contrast between a strike in a factory and a strike in a public service industry. That's it, nothing else. I could have chosen shoes, Metro trains or nails - but instead I chose an iPad. I wasn't having a pop at anyone and I honestly don't see how you've arrived at that conclusion.

I haven't accused you at any point of being a neoliberal or a supporter of Esperanza Aguirre - I thought I was just debating the issue but you seem to disagree. I've never seen this blog as a place where people have to agree with me or with anybody else who comments. Nor, obviously is anyone obliged to visit - it's your choice but if you're going to stomp off so angrily you should at least do it based on something that I've actually said.

Julia said...

Graeme, I must admit that the reference to my (?) local iPad factory had me a bit nonplussed but all is clearer now!

Lee, as I see it, I may be wrong, explains how many people, like the strikers, lost wages because of the strike. Unlike the strikers they have no hope of the payback in the form of improved wages or conditions - just the added insults of physical discomfort and plain old misery. I loved many aspects of teaching English, but the run up to the summer when classes (and consequently income) tended to be all over the place wasn’t one of them. Couple that with a health problem that makes getting to your classes difficult enough, and then a metro strike (held because the metro workers are suffering what most of us have already suffered) making it all but impossible, I would very probably be smarting and responding angrily to anyone who happened to think said strike was worth people having to suffer.

Could there be an alternative plan to strikes that make people’s lives a misery? Possibly. Confess I don’t have a surefire plan for the moment but I’m working on it and am open to suggestions, even weird ones. Your comment about the fact that we can’t expect the metro strikers to do something that we are not doing ourselves just might hold a key though – think about it. Would I be prepared to make other people’s lives a misery for money, or merely on principle for that matter? Hope not, haven’t done so far (our household income has dropped 12% so far over the last 18months because of government cuts), but never say never I suppose. Will the metro workers or any other workers benefit from all the misery their vote to strike has caused? Very likely not. Will management and the trade unions suffer? Doubt it very much, rather the opposite in fact. When I worked at the UGT, albeit many years ago, they used to LOVE a good strike (I seemed the be one of only a few who found it harrowing). Funny thing is, having seen strikes from very close quarters from the management side as well they quite seem to enjoy the challenge too. My conclusion? The workers are just the meat in the sandwich, and the misery of the general public is seen as a source of power. Willie Walsh is probably the best person to explain exactly how it works…

Is Espe unbearable? I reckon we can all agree on that one...!

ejh said...

Could there be an alternative plan to strikes that make people’s lives a misery? Possibly. Confess I don’t have a surefire plan for the moment

Right, but did it occur to you, or Lee, before telling the workers that they should find another way because there has to be one, that you might like to give them a clue what it is? Because saying "don't do this, you don't have to, you can do errrrrr" is pretty silly, isn't it?