The far-left Mafias which masquerade as trade unions here were out in force this morning. Flags waved, horns blared, whistles sounded, and some chap with quite a good voice shouted the usual nonsense through a sound system that had been specifically designed for you to be heard clearly without shouting.
Despite my habit of eating babies, I believe in freedom of association as one of the basic things that defines a free society, one in which it is possible to live and to experience respect for your humanity. Not only do I defend the right of trade unions to exist, I think they are a good thing, or they would be if they did what they claim to do. The right to strike is a much more complex matter, but I also believe that, subject to certain conditions, the collective withdrawal of labour can be a legitimate tool of negotiation.
The two major leftwing union, Comisiones Obreras and UGT have called a general strike for the 29th of March. This is not a labour dispute, but a political protest. They have been preparing it since they realized the left would lose the general election, and it was always perfectly predictable that they would act in the first few months of the new government, whatever it did and whatever the results.
They have called the ‘strike’ without a ballot, of course. How could they hold a ballot when they claim to speak for all of us? They have, unilaterally and without consultation, called for a day of protest simply because they have to be seen to do something to justify the large salaries their leaders pay themselves. They have suffered years of frustration at not being taking seriously by governments and the media and now they have a chance to act. They are the leaders of a (supposedly though not in practice) private organization whose membership consists of a small fraction of the population, and in any case the decision was taken without asking the membership. Anyone else in that position would be laughed at if they declared that the entire nature must stop work on a particular day under threat of violence. Or locked up. But Méndez and Toxo get invited onto the TV to shout and order the rest of us around.
The unions are not very interested in their own members, except that they need to keep the numbers up in order to increase the payments they get from the long-suffering taxpayer, and that means telling the members what they want to hear. They are not interested at all in the unemployed, except as a weapon to throw at the government; otherwise they would not instinctively oppose every attempt to make it easier and cheaper to hire people and invest in new business.
The question is not whether this sort of strike should be legal, nor whether the government’s policies are good or bad for Spain. But is the strike itself a good thing, in some way? It will not achieve the aims that are being claimed for it. It won’t achieve anything at all because the government will (quite rightly) ignore it and carry on. It won’t bother the union leaders because they aren’t trying to reach the government. Their message is for the television and the activists.
Those who wish to protest should be free to do so. Those who wish to protest by withdrawing their labour are also free to do so and that is probably as it should be. But the price of a protest that will achieve nothing is many thousands of people losing a day’s pay, and for the great majority who are not interested in the protest it will mean an atmosphere of open hostility and sporadic violence as they try to go about their business.
Here in my small city these things are usually quite civilized, but in many of the bigger cities the leaders will pump up the strikers with a sense of the injustice they are suffering, will make sure they know who the enemy is, and will send them out on the streets where they will smash things and attack people. That is what will happen, because it’s what always happens, and the unions will not accept any responsibility for it, because they never do, even though they know it will happen and that they have caused it themselves.
When the union leaders talk about defending the rights of workers, they ignore the fact that those ‘rights’ are paid for with other people’s money, and that the more secure their own job is, the higher unemployment is likely to climb. We all see our own point of view most clearly, but to make it into a virtue, and use it to put words in the mouths of millions of people who have never asked you to represent them, is not something we should accept as normal.
That’s why it is not good enough to say, ‘the government is wrong, we are entitled to protest and if it doesn’t work, at least we didn’t just sit back and do nothing’. It will be a purely symbolic act, but with serious consequences for many people.