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Spanish general strike looms large

Tens of thousands of students and young people in Spain marked the European TUC Day of Action against austerity measures by taking to the street to demand an end to education cuts and mass unemployment, by Jeremy Dewar
NEARLY HALF of all Spain’s youth are jobless.

On the European TUC Day of Action against austerity measures, 29 February, one of the biggest demos in Spain was in Valencia, where 20,000 protesters marched. They assembled at a school, where the police had attacked students a week earlier, injuring dozens and arresting 43 people. Tens of thousands more took part in Madrid and across the country.

But the biggest and most militant protests were in Barcelona. Again the police brutally attacked the demonstrators with repeated baton charges and plastic bullets. Students responded by building barricades out of rubbish bins and some occupied the university. More significantly, around 10,000 trade unionists swelled the ranks of the youth in the early evening. The day was a great success for the anti-austerity movement, proving beyond doubt that workers and youth want to fight to bring down the Popular Party (PP) government. It followed and surpassed the scale of an earlier day of action on 19 February. Now the main unions, – UGT and CCOO – have called a general strike for 29 March.

Spain’s woes

Spain’s plight bears an uncanny resemblance to the UK’s. The country enjoyed a decade-long boom under the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government, largely propelled by a construction boom and resulting housing bubble. Families, banks and regional governments borrowed heavily on the back of rising house prices, only to come crashing down in the 2008 financial crisis.

An 18-month recession followed, which saw unemployment soar – to its current level of 4.7 million (23 per cent). For the under-25s, the situation is even bleaker – nearly one in two are out of work.

The PSOE leader José Zapatero initially promised a stimulus package, including €8 billion for infrastructure and a €2,500 “baby cheque” for new parents. He also bailed out the banks with €99 billion of taxpayers’ money. If anyone in the UK is wondering whether Ed Balls’ Keynesianism-lite package would work here, the Spanish example tells us – no.

The budget deficit spiralled and the debt ballooned. By 2010, the deficit hit 11.2 per cent and the debt was up to €225 billion, about the size of the Greek economy. Only Iceland was suffering a higher twin deficit. First Standard & Poor and then Moody downgraded Spain’s credit rating and borrowing rates climbed.

Soon Zapetero’s government managed an ugly U-turn: raising the pension age from 65 to 67, cutting public sector wages by between 5 and 15 per cent, cutting the budgets for public services, and raising VAT by 2 per cent. To cap it all, the PSOE government passed labour market counter-reforms, making it easier for the bosses to sack workers. In its last act, in September 2011, the PSOE government forced through a constitutional amendment, forcing all future governments to pass balanced budgets. At the same time, the economy stagnated and a new recession loomed. If ever a reformist government ‘deserved’ to be punished at the polls, it was this one.

Unsurprisingly, their vote collapsed two months later and the right-wing PP now has a clear majority, despite hardly improving on their 2008 vote.

Plans for deeper austerity measures

In a macabre coincidence, the right wing came back into office on the anniversary of general Franco’s death, 20 November. The new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has wasted no time, already announcing measures that will have a devastating impact on Spanish society.
Rajoy has already introduced €15 billion of tax rises and spending cuts this year. But to hit the EU’s deficit reduction target, it must implement twice as many cuts in the next round of austerity. Even before these savage cuts are announced, economists are forecasting a 1-2 per cent reduction in GDP this year.

News from the recent EU summit confirms that Europe’s big players are in no mood to compromise. “Spain must respect the targets it has been given,” said Euro Group president Jean-Claude Juncker.

So what does Rajoy have in store for Spanish workers? Deeper cuts in health and education, pay and pensions. The PP is also keen to transfer much of the responsibility for cuts onto the 17 regions, which enjoy varying degrees of autonomy, with a new law that will give central government the right to veto regional budgets. Fears of control from Madrid, dating back to Franco’s repressive regime, will certainly be reawakened.

All out general strike!
A new, much tougher labour law has just passed through parliament. It threatens to slash redundancy pay, tear up collective bargaining rights and effectively turn all Spain’s workers into precarious labourers. It is this law that has finally woken the sleeping giants CCOO and UGT and galvanised them into action.

But a one-day general strike – on the important, but ultimately too narrow, basis of forcing a government retreat on the new labour law – will not be enough. At best, it will show workers and the wider movement what their real power could be. At worst, the union bureaucrats, who barely lifted a finger to stop rising unemployment under the PSOE, will simply use 29 March to allow their members to let off steam. Then they will return to fruitless ‘negotiations’ – a dialogue with the deaf.

No wonder some of the ‘indignados’ in the 28-M movement, which prefigured Occupy Wall Street, have washed their hands of the unions. At its height, 28,000 young people occupied Puerte del Sol in Madrid last spring, calling for “real democracy now”. They still need democracy – and jobs, services and welfare.
Socialists need to bring these two great social forces together in fighting unity. By linking up the struggles across the regions and building on the protests of the past few weeks, young people and workers can launch not just one-day protests but an all-out general strike and indefinite occupations to bring down the government.

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