Spain on Strike

This past Wednesday, the 29th of September (or, as it is now called, “29-S”), Spain’s seventh general strike since the end of the Franco dictatorship was convoked by the country’s two major labor unions, the CCOO and the UGT. Its object—which is to say, that to which it was intended to object—was the recent set of labor reforms proposed by the current ruling party, known in English as the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and in Spanish as the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE.

In a short article, it is impossible to detail those reforms in any meaningful way, and it would probably be impossible in a much longer article as well. Predictably, they have been articulated via an economic pseudo-language designed, it seems, to sound like abstract math: perfectly objective and at the same time comprehensible only to highly trained experts. Nonetheless, a couple of key terms, inseparable from nearly any description or discussion of those reforms that has to this point been attempted, likely tell us all we really need to know.

The first of these terms is “ajuste,” or “adjustment.” The proposed labor reforms, Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and other PSOE leaders insist, represent necessary adjustments to an economy—a Spanish economy irremediably entwined, since long before the end of the aforementioned Franco regime, with the so-called global economy—in crisis. The slippage from “reform” to “adjustment,” which we in other foci (or outposts) of that global economy have all witnessed for ourselves, is not for nothing. Reforms, after all, are political. Reforms are made. More, they change something that already exists, presumably with the goal of improving it. Reforms can be opposed on the grounds that they will not improve that which they are, it can be assumed, intended to improve. Adjustments, by contrast, are technical. They do not change anything, but rather restore a system that has ceased to function the way it is supposed to to its proper functioning condition. So, for example, when my 2001 Volvo—like me, of the cyber age but already a bit behind the times—is not functioning as it should, I bring it to the local Volvo mechanic, who then plugs the car into a computer that tells him which adjustments need to be made in order for the car to function again as it should (he then has the pleasure of telling me just how much those adjustments will cost). My Volvo, as it happens, is a system whose function is, above all, to drive. Late capital, global capital, or whatever you want to call it, is—or at the very least presents itself as—a system whose function is, above all, to grow. Suffice it to say that, in the last couple of years, Spain’s economy hasn’t really been doing much of that. (My Volvo, on the other hand, has continued to motor along.)

The second term that appears whenever an attempt is made to articulate the proposed labor reforms is “flexibilidad,” which should require no translation. The necessary “adjustment” will entail the creation, first and foremost and beyond all else, of a more “flexible” workforce. Without a more flexible workforce, the government contends, the Spanish economy will have no hope of competing in the larger global economy to which it belongs. Moreover, introducing more flexibility into the workforce, the government argues, will reduce unemployment, which is quite literally out of control. Over 20 percent of the population of Spain, according to official (read: lowball) statistics, is currently unemployed, a figure that pales in comparison to the 30 percent or more of citizens under the age of 30 who are out of, and seeking, work. Will these adjustments reduce these unsightly unemployment figures? I don’t know. But I do know that, unemployment figures aside, a more “flexible” workforce unfailingly means a more vulnerable workforce: more easily fired (as will certainly be the case following the implementation of these latest labor reforms in Spain) and more easily hired via part-time or short-term contracts, which in turn means (as anyone who, like me, has accepted adjunct teaching work at one point or another as a means of making it from one end to the other) more easily denied benefits, primarily of the healthcare variety.

So if one reduces the situation in Spain to those two terms, what in the details appears all but incomprehensible becomes almost unthinkably simple, a kind of elementary logical equation that goes something like this: the fact that Spain’s economy has stopped growing means that something in the system needs to be adjusted, and according to the diagnostic machinery that something is labor, which, like a fan belt in need of loosening, must need be made more flexible.

From a certain perspective—a writerly one, I suppose—I had hoped that participation in the strike this past Wednesday would be either unexpectedly low or unexpectedly high. One way or another, then, there would be something to comment on—something to mull over. But, alas, it was not to be. According to the day-after news reports (which referred, in just these terms, to ‘post-strike hangover’), approximately 10 million workers participated in the strike. Industry ground to a halt for the day, but commerce, for the most part, proceeded as usual. There were a few violent incidents in Madrid and Barcelona, along with the requisite arrests. In Valencia, there was a disproportionately high number of violent incidents, and disproportionately low participation in the strike. In cities around the country, public transportation services were reduced, but the agreed-upon-in-advance “servicios mínimos” were maintained. This is the same reduced service that is provided on Sundays and holidays, which leads to what, for me, was a rather curious statistical measure of the magnitude of the strike: consumption of electricity was also roughly commensurate with that of an average Sunday or holiday.

Such curiosities aside, the uninspiring truth was that the strike of 29-S was almost indistinguishable from Spain’s last general labor strike, organized in summer 2002 as a protest against unemployment reforms proposed by the ruling conservative government (the Partido Popular) of José María Aznar (who currently resides on Rupert Murdoch’s Board of Directors), and no less indistinguishable from the one before that, held in 1994 to protest a set of labor reforms put forth by Felipe González, leader of the then ruling PSOE. Which is to say that this latest strike, like those that immediately preceded it, will in the long view almost surely have been neither consequential enough to reverse the course on which things have already been set, nor so obviously inconsequential as to bury the labor unions once and for all as a marginally legitimate political player.

A couple of days before the strike, I was talking with a woman who, having returned to Spain with her family after the end of the Franco dictatorship, experienced the early years of Spanish democracy and, as it happens, the first of what have now been seven general strikes. Regardless of turnout for the strike, we agreed, the adjustments proposed by Zapatero and the PSOE—criticized by his conservative opponents and representatives of big business and finance for not going far enough—would be implemented. Nevertheless, she told me, it had to be done—the strike had to be called. It was, she said, a “moral” issue.

Moral. An unexpected word, this one, in such a pronouncedly material context. It implies an obligation, moreover. But to whom or what? To the workers who will not be rescued by it from the punishment of the coming reforms? To the major labor unions that, at this point, probably aren’t much more than bureaucratic money-sucks? Neither answer made much sense.

Mulling it over later, as one is wont to do when something unexpected occurs, I had another thought: what if the obligation implied in her qualification of the strike as a “moral” issue was an obligation, somehow, to something or someone like humanity in general—the “man” to whom Simone de Beauvoir was referring when, in her A Very Easy Death, she wrote, “nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question”? After all, to acknowledge as inevitable that the always increasingly merciless demands of late global capital (or whatever one chooses to call the monster) will be met (even where it is, indeed, inevitable that they will be) is to concede that despite our fervent hopes to the contrary, history really has reached its end. This, of course, would also mean the end of hope. And as for a life without hope, I, for one—and I doubt very much I am alone in this regard—would just as well leave the living of that to someone else.

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