Spain: Austerity plans face growing resistance /FRFI 226 April/May 2012

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012

In February, the 2012 growth forecast for the Spanish economy was revised down from 2.3% to a decline of 1.7%. Immediate negotiations started with the European authorities, given the impossibility of meeting Spain’s commitment to reducing the deficit from 8.5% to 4.4% this year. The new agreement with Brussels sets the figure at a difficult to achieve 5.3%, requiring 35 billion euros of cuts. The government of Mariano Rajoy wants to prove its commitment to European capitalism, at whatever cost to the Spanish people. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Spain.

The conservative government lost no time in signalling its willingness to implement the austerity programme. While raising taxes, the ruling Partido Popular has frozen the minimum wage and the salary of civil servants. In some provinces, people have to pay for all medical prescriptions – eventually everyone will have to pay half the costs of their health care. In March, the government announced the dismantling of 27 state-owned companies and a drastic reduction in state funding for many others. Alongside economic cuts come right-wing social measures, such as changes in the law to restrict access to abortion and to promote private education.

But the backbone of the anti-working class policies is the new Labour Market Reform Bill. It reduces redundancy payments and increases the ability of companies to fire workers without compensation. If a company’s sales or profits fall, it is allowed to modify employees’ shifts, salaries, job specifications and place of work. Time off for illness, even with a doctor’s note, can be counted as absenteeism and grounds for dismissal; job centres are to be cut back to make way for private agencies providing temporary work, and the power of the unions to negotiate is to be severely restricted.

Nationalist unions in Galicia and Basque Country called for a general strike on 29 March, a call echoed by the main unions – although the latter called on Rajoy for last-minute negotiations to avoid conflict. On 11 March, 1.5 million marched in 60 Spanish towns against the labour market reforms. In Madrid, half the demonstrators split off, abandoning the union leaders and their blithe talk of the ‘responsibility to negotiate’.

Debt and corruption have exhausted state budgets in some areas, and the lack of resources has resulted in Dickensian conditions. While waiting lists grow in hospitals, complete floors are locked or underused. On 13 February, a month after the heating was cut off for non-payment, students at a state high school in Valencia decided to protest peacefully against the unbearable conditions. Afterwards, parents and school authorities described how police had attacked the students, ripping their clothes and arresting a protester. The outrage spread and in the days that followed growing numbers of students, teachers and parents protested against the cuts and police repression. A wave of police brutality resulted, as teenagers were kicked and dragged away, teachers viciously hit and screaming students truncheon-charged. When asked about the excessive use of force, the Chief Officer described the protesters as the ‘enemy’. In Barcelona, tens of thousands demonstrated against education cuts on 19 February; here some fought back police violence, and the skirmishes ended with a car and rubbish bins set alight, a bank office attacked and nine people arrested.

Community resistance

In Spain, when a household cannot pay the mortgage, the financing company repossesses the property and forces payment of the outstanding interest. This has led to a social crisis and people getting organised to defend each other. The Association of Those Affected by Mortgage (PAH) has managed to stop 156 evictions throughout Spain in the last eight months.

So far this year, in Madrid alone, eight evictions have been prevented or delayed. Neighbours and activists block access to the buildings to prevent eviction orders being carried out. Increasing pressure has also led to 20 cases where banks accepted the surrender of mortgages without imposing extra charges, and some even negotiated low rents for families to stay. The housing problem is so acute that in March, the government had to extend this practice to households where all family members were unemployed.

The 15 May (15M) movement was born last year as an expression of collective outrage, and has made the streets and squares its main platform for protest and political discussion. From its assemblies comes the network that aims to link all struggles. Together with alternative trade unions, teachers’ groups, activists from social centres and political organisations, the movement campaigns on a broad range of issues that directly affect the vast majority of society. Actions include a referendum to prevent the privatisation of the water canal in Madrid; pickets of banks; health care workers demonstrating against the closure of clinics in Barcelona and people’s assemblies in squares to discuss the new labour market reforms.

In Madrid, the network organised the Week of Struggle for Dignified Housing between 18-25 March, which involved many discussions at an abandoned building squatted for the occasion, as well as peaceful street direct actions. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao groups of up to 150 people have been getting onto the underground without a valid ticket, with placards denouncing the rising costs of public services as a result of state subsidies to banks.

In Catalonia, a group of pensioners linked to the 15M movement has got involved in direct action. Many were involved in the struggle against the fascist dictatorship and today fight the dictatorship of the market. In October 2011, they occupied the Head Office of Santander Bank in Barcelona, seized the offices of rating agency Fitch and even temporarily took over the offices of the Catalonian Institute of Directors.

The 29 March general strike is not an end in itself. But, given the main union leadership’s passivity, it could become an opportunity to gather forces around real campaigns. If we are to confront the hard times ahead, it is essential to strengthen the movement. It must involve community participation and mass political organisations, practising the most radical democracy, pushing for real change in the social, political and economic conditions of the working class.