By Diego Fernandez-Pages
The building on Madrid’s Calle Agustin de Betancourt is massive, in an unimpressive sense. Bulky and decisively quadrangular, it looks like some sort of prison from the 1800s, as though the architects were trying to build something elegantly ministerial but only succeeded in creating an unwieldy sprawl of columns and windows. Apart from the busy traffic of the adjoining street, the building doesn’t seem to be bustling with activity either.
But this sleepy giant of a building, the Ministry of Employment and Social Security, is now the locus of a national crisis. Spain’s labor unions have declined precipitously since the 2011 elections elevated the People’s Party (PP), the country’s premiere conservative party, to power. Some call this crisis progress; others believe it is the expression of right-wing policies so reactionary that they harken back to the days of Franco’s fascist Spain.
Spain’s sindicatos, or labor unions, have existed since the late 19th century and have served both as organizations for workers and as political machines, negotiating as much with the government as with corporations. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the sindicatos sided with the Republicans, fighting against a fascist military coup led by General Francisco Franco. After Franco won the war, he outlawed unions, forcing them into the underground.
When Franco died in 1975 and Spain transitioned into a democracy, the sindicatos emerged from secrecy and became key players in the reconstruction of the Spanish Republic. December of 1978 saw the ratification of a new, democratic constitution. Subsequent elections put the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in power, and under their leadership the government granted enormous concessions to unions: strengthening collective bargaining, guaranteeing workers’ rights, expanding the offices and the jurisdiction of various unions, and negotiating with both sindicatos and corporations on an even playing field.
This is what Concha de Sena, an administrator for Comisiones Obreras, or Worker’s Commissions, called “the good old days,” when the sindicatos effectively legislated to defend the working class’ constitutional rights. They secured guaranteed benefits for laborers, made sure that wages were fair, and ensured that negotiations would be upheld by every party involved.
Yet, the “good old days” ended abruptly in 2008. The Great Recession, or La Crisis, hit Spain especially hard. La Crisis refers to political and cultural turmoil as well as financial upheaval; many believe it prompted the greatest changes to the Spanish government since the transition to democracy in 1978. Old factional tensions (notably in Catalonia) resurfaced, reaction against the political system brought the PP in power, and fear pervaded the national consciousness, to the point where no conversation left out the effects of La Crisis.
And this is where our crisis begins—the one centered around that languishing building in the Cuatro Caminos neighborhood of Madrid, where union representatives clamor to be heard, and government bureaucrats are too busy trying to get a depressed country back on its feet to listen to them. The government does not deny that it is signing away the unions’ rights, but officials believe it necessary to retake control of the labor force to order to stimulate growth in the wake of a tumultuous recession.
“Unions are partially responsible for the crisis,” said Dr. Kerstin Hamann, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “They collaborated with the government on the reforms that led up to it.”
Now the sindicatos are no longer able to bargain collectively, and corporations have been authorized by the government to ignore union negotiations. On the other hand, the government has managed to institute new work-formation programs and widen the accessibility of employment services to those not affiliated to unions.
According to Jose-Antonio Espin-Sanchez, an economics professor at Yale, “unions serve a positive purpose in government.” But in Spain, Espin-Sanchez said, the sindicatos had three serious problems: first, the regulation to which salary growth is tied to is too rigid; second, recent corruption scandals led them to lose considerable legitimacy; and third, they monopolized work-formation programs, which alienated much of the workforce. These problems greatly affected public perceptions of the unions and took away their moral high ground.
Furthermore, much of the problem remains in the unions’ original structuring. “These are general syndicates. If they were based on professions or sectors, it would make a lot more sense,” explained Espin-Sanchez. In generalizing labor rights, he argues, the sindicatos are less adept at recognizing the needs of particular professions and neglect to set wages on a basis of productivity, opting instead to protect all of their workers regardless of their economic output. That’s not all: “the biggest problem,” continued Espin-Sanchez, “is that they aren’t looking out for the unemployed.”
And yet, this is never what they were meant to do. Unions, especially Spanish unions, were made to represent those in the workforce who are often overlooked by government and industry, not those who are not in the workforce at all. Perhaps the sindicatos overstepped their mission before La Crisis, but La Crisis does not also have to mean the death of labor unions as they were originally conceived.
Nevertheless, the situation remains dire for unions. “Oh, merde,” exclaimed de Sena, exasperatedly using the French expletive. “We’re in a terrible place right now. The sindicatos have been completely stripped of power, especially now that they no longer have the right of collective bargaining. It’s horrible, horrible.”
And, for unions and those affiliated with them, it is horrible. The reforms instituted by the conservative leadership have weakened unions’ representation in government as well. Now, negotiations occur almost exclusively between the government and the corporations in question, leaving those workers represented by unions—and the general laborers of those industries—out of the equation.
There is, however, one more area in which unions are still thriving. The sindicatos have not lost affiliates in the same way that unions in the United States, for example, have. “Many were afraid of losing their jobs,” said de Sena. “In order to try and prevent that, they joined unions, so affiliation has remained more or less the same even through La Crisis.”
The reaction against unions has had drastic effects on their activities. According to Hamann their “protest function has become much more pronounced since the crisis.” As public animosity grows against institutions in power, the sindicatos have become a rallying point. Political movements, of which alternative parties like Podemos has been the most notable result, work alongside established unions to gain legitimacy. Hamann feels that the unions have also adopted “a more visible political role.” The rise of the right has forced unions to emerge from their cushy relationship with friendly leadership and enter into a very public battle. But, as La Crisis winds down, Hamann said, “it is still hard to tell where the unions are headed.”
That lazy, massive building, lolling in the middle of Madrid, is probably not where the solutions to these problems will be found. The government offices within, filled to the brim with uncompleted forms and occupied by people hostile to the very idea of unions, are not going to consider an answer any time soon, let alone come up with one. But that prison-like sprawl of columns and windows is not a graveyard. Through thirty years of dictatorship and oppression, Spanish sindicatos managed to thrive; before that, they weathered a civil war, several transitions of power, and two world wars. They faced the massive economic changes of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and met the 21st determined to continue fighting for workers’ rights and protecting their livelihoods.
Yet, whether or not the core values of the sindicatos can remain intact amid the crisis is unclear. Collective spirits have gone down, according to de Sena, as labor becomes more and more individualized. Unions must now contend with people working from home, the proliferation of internet employment, and the deindustrialization of the economy. Both de Sena and Espin-Sanchez described the future of Spanish unions in absolute terms. “They either adapt,” they said, “or they disappear.”
Diego Fernandez-Pages ’18 is in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.