Over one hundred years ago, the International Workingman’s Association — the First International — gave voice to the hundreds of millions of impoverished workers of the world when in 1866 it declared that all workers should enjoy the right to eight hours’ work, eight hours’ rest and eight hours’ play. It took decades of bargaining and even blood to achieve this goal in most countries of the world, with some sectors in some societies achieving it as early mid-nineteenth century, while most others had to wait until the mid-twentieth century to enjoy what many now take for granted.
But in 2015, many in the developed world — and most in the majority of the world — still dream of enjoying such a luxury as the eight-hour day, let alone a two-day weekend or a weekend at all. Pope Francis recently declared that, when a person works for eleven hours a day to make only 600 euros per month, they are not truly workers or laborers but rather the exploited and the enslaved. He then declared that all of us should take up the fight for dignity against unfettered capitalism, against the idolatry of money and against modern-day slavery.
The subcontracted technicians and installers of the multinational telecommunications company Movistar are such people — and they have taken up such a fight. After having weathered repeated reductions in their salaries over the past several years, they found themselves having to subsist on a net salary of as little as 700 euros per month, working up to ten, twelve and fourteen hours per day, and without a single day’s rest.
When they went on strike on March 28 this year, they rejected not only the company’s meager offer but also that of the two largest Spanish trade unions — the CC.OO and the UGT — which, as one striker put, “sold us” for a small rise on the previous drastic reductions and to put an end to the strike. Meanwhile, the CEO of Telefónica (the head company in the telecommunications conglomerate) earns a gross 6.7 million euros per year; that is, over half a million euros per month, which is equal to at least 700 subcontracted net salaries per month.
The Movistar strike committee — who call their strike The Revolt of the Ladders for their distinctive use of ladders in their demonstrations — rejected the unions’ negotiated peace and declared an ‘indefinite strike’ which has now lasted for nearly two months. They have said that they will continue to strike until their basic conditions for an agreement have been met, and those include an eight-hour day, forty-hour week, employer payment of working gear and protection, and for a dignified ‘social’ salary which can support their families, together with four weeks’ holidays to enjoy time away from work.
From the unions, the strikers demand their own seat at the bargaining table — a representative of the strike committee — in place of an external representative sent from the dominant unions, in whom, they made abundantly clear, they have very little trust. When strikers are having to negotiate with both the company and the union, you know something has gone awry.
As relations between the strikers and the unions soured, the strikers turned to other labor and social allies to gain legal protection and financial support. The anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT), together with the minority Alternative Workers’ Union (AST) and the Union Commission of the Base (COBAS), are providing organizational support until talks can be arranged, while friends at the cooperative and social bank Co-op57 have provided substantial support to the strikers’ Resistance Fund for workers and their families who have now gone over one month without a pay-check — meaning one month and one more missed mortgage payment, one month and one more meeting with the bank manager, one month and one more fight with their husbands or wives, one more month and one less day out with their boys and girls, one less kilo of meat in the fridge.
This financial desperation, organizational isolation and exclusion from the negotiations has led the Barcelona strikers — and there are hundreds, thousands more in Madrid and around all of Spain — to occupy the Movistar headquarters in the main Plaça Catalunya, hoping it will finally push management to come to the negotiating table, and hoping at least to bring media attention to their cause. The occupation has seen the headquarters’ facade covered in paint and placards while its interior is a mess of papers and posters around the group of strikers who now eat and sleep in the building.
Previous attempts at garnering the people’s support have included protests and marches through the city’s streets together with other attempts at occupations of key buildings — the last of which lasted less than half a day before a truce was called in the illusory promise of serious talks, which the strikers claim were held in bad faith, with riot police surrounding the negotiation meeting-place and accusations of illegitimacy from management.
The current occupation might not last much longer than that — but then again, it might not need to. On the second night of their occupation, Barcelona elected as mayor an anti-austerity and anti-eviction candidate from a coalition of grassroots movements and community activists who have promised to give unwavering support to the strikers. All of a sudden, then, the Movistar-Telefónica strikers found friends in high places.
Within one week of Ada Colau’s election to the mayor’s office, the new Alcaldesa — wearing the distinctive aqua-blue uniform of the strikers — had visited the occupied building and offered to act as a mediator in the labor dispute, writing in their visitors’ book a salute to the workers who “have defended the rights of all workers” and who are working help bring about a Barcelona where “fundamental rights will never again be weakened.”
The intervention of the city’s highest politician into the conflict came just as the judiciary ordered the eviction of the strikers from the building; an order which the new mayor attacked as unhelpful and illegitimate, writing on her Twitter account that “these are legitimate labor demands which cannot be solved through evictions,” and instead insisting that the ball is in Movistar’s court, who, she argued, must at least come to the negotiating table.
It appears that the mayoral intervention, together with the tensions brought about by the judicial order of eviction, has acted as a catalyst for negotiations, with reports coming in on Monday that the multinational has agreed to return to the negotiating table.
Whether the strikers will win or lose, and whether they can arrive at a compromise or not, this event is clearly indicative of something larger: a collapse of faith in the trustworthiness, representativeness and utility of the country’s two main trade union confederations.
It is deeply revealing that this strike may come to an end not through the intervention of the majority trade unions’ mediators, but instead through the intervention of one of the new left’s most popular figures, who promises to bring about a socially just end to the long strike which has resulted in not only great economic stress for the strikers, but also for the company, which now is dealing with thousands of complaints from clients whose services have been neglected.
Words of cynicism and distrust are repeatedly heard by activists of the country’s countless social movements, whether it is the excluded and isolated Movistar-Telefónica strikers, the powerful and popular PAH platform of indebted mortgage-holders and evictees, or just ordinary people who see the union movement as but one more player in capital-P politics — even to the extent that they form part of the hated casta, the ruling establishment.
How nuanced, fair and widespread these sentiments are may be debatable and unknowable, but it is clear that the old high-level negotiations, the growing distance between workers and their union representatives, together with the bureaucratization and the awkward arrangements of public funding, have made people turn away from the traditional labor movement to develop alternative ways of pushing for social justice and equality.
If the strikers do win — which looks more and more likely by the day — not only will it be a stunning victory for the workers themselves, who have fought against all odds since the very beginning, but it will also be a victory for all those who have fought, since the beginning, against the austerity and neoliberalization that have so radically reshaped Spain’s and the world’s economy.