Sunday, March 11, 2012

General Strike

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.


Brett Hetherington said...

You make a few telling points which are probably true about many union leaders, but I have found excellent help and assistance from my own union when I needed after being unfairly dismissed from an [almost] full time teaching job last year.

I think your main point about the general strike not being worthwhile because it will achieve nothing is really quite false. It will probably achieve few, if any concrete results such as better pay or working conditions, but surely a protest is worthy and important if by taking part in a march it gives people a feeling that they are doing something [together] to show their frustration with the cost of living continuing to hugely outstrip wages in this country.

To not protest is to quietly accept further erosion of living standards at a time when the most wealthy in society feel no financial discomfort at all and governments of all political colours are doing nothing about this.

For this reason it is much more than a symbolic protest. It will be an expression of the human spirit that instinctively knows when they are getting used and abused. I don't support any violence in these situations. In fact, I will probably have to go to work on this day because to not go will put my contract in jeopardy. This is wrong but I know it is just one wrong in a sea of wrongs.

I have tried to understand your point when you say "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." I just fail to see what you are trying to say. "Other people's money?" What does that mean?

CIngram said...

I understand the urge to protest, to do something, anything, but this strike is a purely political exercise whipped up by the leaders for their own ends, and I am sure it will do more harm than good to those who take part and those who don't.

There is surely no one in Spain, including among the political leaders, who is not aware of the seriousness of the economic situation and is not trying to do something about it. It doesn't need bringing to anyone's attention. The government, national and regional, are genuinely looking to improve the situation rather than ignoring it and doing politics as usual. more or less ideologically, more or less competently, but they don't need to be reminded that the problem is there. Not that I have much more faith in the new government than I had in the old to find solutions, but they are trying.

That this is a political strike is quite clear from the language of the trade unionists, and from the fact that during three years of thrashing around by Zapatero they did nothing, and now after three months of Rajoy they are already attacking, a plan that must have been hatched even before the election.

When I talk about 'rights' costing money, I mean that 'rights' tends to be union code for guaranteed employment, salaries, pay rises and constantly improving conditions, which is good for the worker but has to be paid for, imposing a cost on the employer or the tax payer which is reflected in the destruction of less protected jobs and in reduced investment meaning new jobs are not created. Similarly, the less flexible the labour market, the more difficult it is to sack people when they are no longer needed, the more difficult it is to employ them in the first place, and the fewer new jobs, which are what will eventually get us out of this mess, can be created.

It's very hard, not surprisingly, to convince people that losing their job might be good for the economy in the long term, which is why the unions have the advantage in the rhetoric. No one wants to be the one makes the sacrifice (no, I don't either).

Having said all that, and although I question the motives of the unions, I am certain that it will achieve nothing, and that there will be violence as usual, I'm sorry that you won't be able to join it if that is your wish. It is a legally convened strike and as I said in the original post, I do support the right to withdraw your labour without having to meet too many government criteria. I just wish that, like so many other rights and freedoms we enjoy, or should enjoy, it wasn't so regularly abused.