Spain’s two main union confederations, UGT and CCOO, called a one-day general strike on 29 March over issues similar to those sparking the strike wave in Italy.
In a country with 23% unemployment, the new conservative government wants to change the law to make it easier for employers to sack workers.
The executives of UGT and CCOO met jointly, for the first time in history, on 9 March, to decide to call the strike.
The government’s proposals weaken collective bargaining by giving precedence to company-level agreements; allow employers to unilaterally reduce wages or change working hours and labour terms; and provide for new employment contracts under workers can be hired and then sacked without ado for up to a year. They also cut jobless benefits and make layoffs easier.
In Portugal, workers staged a general strike on 22 March, against moves by Portugal’s conservative government to make it easier bosses to sack workers.
The strike, called by the CGTP confederation, halted trains, shut ports and paralysed most public transport, but was weakened by lack of support from the other main confederation, UGT.
Yesterday's general strike, called by all of the major unions in the Spanish state, was the backdrop for a contestation not only of the principle of secure, high quality employment and against the exploitation of low wage earners, but also of the control of the streets of Barcelona.
The police, clearly taking their cue from a political leadership that aimed to prioritise the dispersal and intimidation of demonstrators, were tooled up and ready to go from the start, with rubber bullets available immediately. At several points in the day there was firing of rubber bullets into a crowd which contained small children, on the pretext of “troublemakers in the crowd”, however the effect was not the de-escalation of the conflict, but its ramping up, as an increasingly frustrated police force fired more and more rounds as the day went on. More than one head injury was sighted, which seems to point to the fact that the police weren't even aiming at the legs, and could easily have blinded people.
Estimates of the strikes effectiveness have varied, with government sources describing the country as being in a state of, “complete normality”, with this assessment obviously being challenged by strike leaders. However, what this observer found interesting was the manic desperation of the police on the ground to keep the radical feeder marches of the CNT and autonomist groups away from the main demonstration, including a huge number of protesters in Placa Catalunya who spend much of the afternoon being shot at by police while responding in kind.
There was also, according to other media, a large number of plain clothes cops identifying individuals in the crowd for arrest, which is a trend that should be common by now.
Overall, it is likely that much of the information about the effectiveness of the strike (in purely economic terms) will be coming out at a later date, but at first glance it seems that the strike was not aimed around the stoppage of work, as the figures seem to indicate, but instead was a means to a symbolic mass mobilisation. Progress, certainly, but surely the real challenge would be to organise prolonged industrial action against the government, rather than a somewhat token national demonstration that can be passed off as a flash in the pan.