Spain’s socialists and unions struggle to adapt

With 20 percent unemployment and a series of unpopular
new austerity measures, Spain would seem a natural breeding ground
for labor unrest. But by most accounts, a general strike late last month was
more a demonstration of discontent than a sign of trouble brewing.

Analysts said it appeared to be a well-choreographed
effort by unions to show that they were upset with the austerity measures
without significantly damaging an ally, Prime Minister José Luis
Rodríguez Zapatero
, who is at his weakest point since being elected
in 2004.

Indeed, recent interviews with the three main
protagonists of the strike revealed a peculiar concord: the two main unions
declared victory but could not point to specific concessions they expected to
win from the government, led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and the
labor minister praised the unions’ bargaining skills.

“It was perhaps a necessary ritual,” said Enric Juliana,
an editor and columnist at the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. “Now both sides
are condemned to pretend that they can make an accord, which would be very

Above all, the strike underscored the challenges facing
Mr. Zapatero, whom Spaniards increasingly criticize for having failed to
respond quickly, decisively or convincingly to the economic crisis, and who now
struggles to satisfy workers who see the labor reforms as excessive and
investors who see them as weak.

At the same time, the strike reflected the difficult
position of the unions, which are faced with an economy moving away from
industry and a work force that many say the unions do not represent well.

After the government said for months that it would
protect workers’ rights while raising state spending to stimulate growth, it
reversed itself in May. In June, it introduced austerity measures after hearing
concerns by the World Bank and others about the country’s
rigid labor market, its bloated deficit and an unemployment rate double the European Union average.

Among the changes, the reforms cut severance pay for
fired workers and made it easier for companies to reduce work hours as a
temporary solution to drops in demand. They also reduced the unions’ collective
bargaining power with regard to some contracts.

“Never in the history of Spanish democracy has a
government taken such negative measures,” said Cándido Méndez, the president of
the Unión General de Trabajadores and an organizer of the strike. “If the
Spanish market were so rigid, then so many people wouldn’t have lost their
jobs,” he added.

The changes led the unions in June to call the general
strike — the first since 2002 — for Sept. 29, saying they needed time to
coordinate with demonstrations elsewhere in Europe. Ignacio Fernández Toxo, the
leader of the Comisiones Obreras, Spain’s other major union, said it would have
had little impact during Spain’s long summer holiday — an irony not lost on

But when the time came, the joint action across the
Continent turned out to be little more than pockets of unrest and protest, and
the Spanish labor leaders limited the potential impact at home by agreeing to
maintain minimum transportation and other basic services.

The two unions, which have 1.2 million members each and
together represent 80 percent of Spain’s unionized workers, say the changes
have simply made it easier to fire workers without addressing deeper problems,
like the Spanish economy’s heavy reliance on construction, which led to the
nation’s housing boom and bust.

They are also opposed to other government proposals,
including one to raise the retirement age to 67 from 65, an idea that was
shelved earlier this year amid protests.

For its part, the government said it had no choice but to
change course.

“The crisis isn’t a parenthesis; the crisis is a before
and an after,” said Celestino Corbacho, the Spanish labor minister, who is
preparing to leave the government to run in next month’s regional parliamentary
elections in Catalonia. “Neither the government nor the unions will be able to
govern with the same tools in the same way as before the crisis.”

The International
Monetary Fund
forecast last week that the Spanish economy would grow
0.7 percent next year — compared with the Spanish government’s 1.3 percent forecast,
on which its 2011 budget is based.

Nevertheless, the government says everything is riding on
whether global economic tides rise, and lift Spain, too. “Time is on our side,”
Mr. Corbacho said.

But it is unclear if voters will be on their side, too.
With such low growth predictions, Mr. Zapatero must walk a fine line between
honoring his party’s stated commitment to social welfare and its need to reduce

It is not going well. “I have the sense that the
Socialist government is committing suicide,” Mr. Fernández Toxo said. “It went
into conflict with its social base.”

At the same time, Mr. Zapatero’s support is low. Last
weekend, he suffered a stinging defeat when the candidate he backed in the
Socialist Party primary for president of Madrid Province lost.

“In my view, Zapatero is dead now politically,” said Mr.
Juliana, the newspaper editor. “The Socialist Party just needs to decide when
to hold the funeral.”

The most recent poll, conducted Sept. 30 for the
newspaper El País, showed the Socialists with about 29 percent and the Popular
Party backed by 43 percent.

Some on the left refused to support the strike because
they saw it as tantamount to supporting the Popular Party. Others said they
could simply not afford to strike. “Striking is an important right, but losing
out on my daily wage when things are so tight is just unfeasible, certainly for
me and in fact for all my friends as well,” said Begoña González, an employee
of Tinto Avenida dry cleaners in Madrid.

Still others said the unions were a self-protecting
caste. “I think now the majority of people feel the unions don’t represent
workers,” said Antonío del Rio, 65, a retired car factory worker in Madrid.

Indeed, many young people say the unions are a crucial
factor in Spain’s troubled two-tier labor market, in which older workers with
full-time contracts are protected while new arrivals to the labor market,
especially younger workers, live on temporary contracts with fewer protections
and benefits.

(The union leaders dispute this and say that the 150,000
new members since 2007 include many younger workers.)

But the unions appear to be aware that times have
changed. As the Spanish economy evolves from a more industrial base to one that
is more service based, they are repositioning themselves as enlightened critics
of welfare reform rather than militants stirring up their industrial rank and

“The role of unions in the 21st century is not so much to
defend individual salaries but to defend this model of social protection,” Mr.
Fernández Toxo said. “You can bargain for a better salary, but what good is it
if you lose it all paying for pensions, medical insurance, education?”

But with the state coffers empty and growth forecasts
low, how the Spanish state can finance this dream is an open question.