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Telefónica Strikes in Spain
Reflections on the Class War in the Twenty-first Century
On March 28 this year the technicians and installers of multinational mobile phone company Movistar went on indefinite strike. Whatever its outcome the strike has turned out to be one of the most significant of recent times. This article outlines the nature of the struggle and reflects on what it shows for the future of the global working class.
Movistar is owned by the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica S.A. which controls over 41% of the Spanish market as well as other major operations throughout Latin America. It is also present in other European countries like Germany, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK, where it operates as O2. It is the biggest company on the Spanish stock exchange declaring profits of €4.4 billion in 2012. As such it is regarded as the shining example of Spanish capitalism. It is a bit like BT in the UK in that it was the state telecommunications company until 1996 when the Socialist Party under Felipe Gonzalez began the process of privatising it by selling of its shares. Since then it has expanded across the globe and is the darling of the financial institutions. One thing though in which it really is a world leader, and the epitome of capitalism today, is in the way it exploits its workforce.
To achieve and maintain it’s steeply rising profits the Telefónica group have slashed the workforce in the Spanish operations from 72,000 before privatisation to 22,000 today. How did it achieve this? By using all the methods which capital restructuring has developed over the last 30 years. In the first place it has hived off much of its work to subcontractors so that they become responsible for the contracts with individual workers. This means that contracts can be started and finished as it suits the company whenever it has to expand or contract due to global capitalist conditions. No expensive settlements or legal arrangements are required to implement redundancies. At the same time this enables it to cut its own material and labour costs (constant and variable capital in Marxist terms). This is what the capitalists call “flexibility” and it is very much the model of the modern capitalist concern. But that’s not the end of it.
There is also the “let’s tell everyone to go self-employed trick”. This is not confined to Telefónica. In the UK 1 in 11 working age people are theoretically “self-employed” and running their own businesses. The Government hails this as a triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit but reality it is a situation forced on those who cannot get a job. Less than 40% of them earn enough to pay VAT and over 40% of them would prefer not to be “self-employed”. One Spanish worker at Telefónica calls this “pseudo-self employment” and defined what it really meant:
What is a pseudo self-employed worker? It is a worker who was previously on a staff contract and when the contract ran out was dismissed because there was no work, but they came up with the brilliant idea of telling the worker if s/he invested their dole money, plus a small settlement but not one that was fair, and bought tools, he or she could continue working as their own boss, taking orders as the staff did but without vacations, pay, sick leave, obligations, i.e. zero cost and high profit. The perfect business, labour at zero cost and for less than what you need to survive in life.
Workers on zero hour, short-term, temporary, part-time contracts everywhere will recognise the same practices in their own lives. It’s a process of “casualisation” of labour, as we used to call it, but which now tends to go under the wider definition of “precarity”. Its aim is to reduce labour to a pliable force which can be increasingly exploited. One hundred and fifty years on we have returned to the kind of conditions Marx was writing about in Capital.
What is a working day? What is the length of time during which capital may consume the labour power whose daily value it buys? How far may the working day be extended beyond the working time necessary for the reproduction of labour power itself?' It has been seen that to these questions capital replies: the working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labour power absolutely refuses its services again. ... But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over a meal time incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. ... Capital cares nothing for the length of labour power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour power that can be rendered fluent in a working day.
Marx, Capital Volume 1
In addition in our “post-fordist” world the whole aim of the bosses is not only to ensure a docile workforce but is also out to stamp out the faintest possibility that members of it are capable of relating one to another. This can be clear enough inside big firms like Amazon where the same devices that are used to monitor how fast you “pick items” from shelves can also check whether you stopped to talk to anyone inside the plant.
Hiving people off into small contracting firms working for big companies also ends up as a form of blackmail at various levels. The small firms doing the actual work are in competition with one another. Consequently they tell the workforce that they must accept this or that wage cut or increased hours “otherwise we could lose the contract” with the obvious conclusion that the workers would also lose their jobs. Given the high rate of unemployment in Spain this is no small threat. However given its dominant position Telefónica has been able to impose even tougher conditions on workers. This comes via what is called a loop contract which is renewed every 3 or so years but each time it is renewed the conditions are worse. Under these loop contracts the company awards points for each task where one point is supposed to represent one hour’s work. Who decides how long a task takes is Telefónica-Movistar. Since 2006 what they assessed as being worth over 4 points is now valued at less than half a point. This means they have ratcheted up exploitation by 700% in 7 years. In addition there are a whole series of tasks which the firm says are unproductive so they are assessed at 0 points. Or in other words they have to be done for free by the workers. And of course the contract includes heavy financial penalties for work that is not completed on time or completed inadequately. As a result workers now have to put in 12 hour days, day after day in order just to take home between €600-800 a month. According to the striker quoted above, the latest contract proposal (May 2015) to impose yet a further increase was “the straw that broke the camel's back” and the workers, despite everything that they were threatened with decided to organise to strike.
Again let the striker speak for him/herself:
It all started on March 28 in the capital Madrid where a group of hired, outsourced and self-employed or, rather, "pseudo self-employed" workers working for the company Telefonica-Movistar said enough to a new contract entailing very precarious, inhuman working conditions and decided to call an indefinite strike against the telecommunications giant, the biggest firm quoted on the Spanish stock exchange.
When this strike began in Madrid, it quickly set off alarms in the rest of the country and from Barcelona, together with Madrid, the possibility of convening a state-wide indefinite strike, began to emerge. This became possible on April 7th.
A historical struggle that ought to have occurred before thus started on April 7. It is historic because a strike of this size affecting so many companies in this sector has never occurred before. It is a just strike where the fight is against job insecurity, capitalism’s abuse of power, the abuse of power of the few and the slavery of the many, the slavery of a working class that is suffering cuts in wages, rights and the freedom of expression. This struggle, known as the "Revolt of the Ladders" gave birth to a movement called the BLUE TIDE.
The “Revolt of the Ladders” comes from the way in which they stand on the ladders they work with as installers to make speeches in mass meetings and in demonstrations. The Blue Tide refers to the aqua-blue uniform the workers wear in demonstrations which has become a symbol of the struggle
The strikers demanded:
● An end to “loop contracts”
● The same rates for workers with fixed-term contracts and subcontracted workers based on the same wages and conditions as those with a permanent contract.
● A standard 40 hour week with 2 days off instead of the present situation where they can work up to 12 hours every day.
● One month’s holiday a year.
● Health and safety cover at work.
● All tools and instruments to be paid for by the company.
● All the self-employed who want it to be directly employed by the company.
● Guarantees that there’ll be no victimisation of strikers.
This strike is an example of open class war. In the first place it is an all-out indefinite strike with no limits. It far removed from the ritual one day strike here and there we have seen in the last few years. These ritual strikes have been largely just used by the union bureaucracy to increase their own influence rather than win real gains for the workers.
The striker we quote says it was a strike that should have happened earlier but that is the second remarkable feature of it. This is a strike in a sector where the conditions of work were designed to prevent workers getting together with some workers on precarious contracts and some on permanent ones. In a country terrorised by massive unemployment this explains why it took so long to arrive but when it came it came about it did so with a vengeance because the workers had finally had enough.
Our witness calls it a “just” strike by which he means that no-one can doubt the brutality of the exploitation they have been subjected to and it has found a response in the solidarity they have given and received from other workers in struggle. The Movistar full-timers have also largely shown their solidarity by refusing to take on the work that the sub-contractors were supposed to do. The latter in turn have seen their struggle as part of a wider struggle of the working class and not just a sectional issue. The support they have received has included “crowd funding” of their strike fund so that they have been able to continue without pay for two months.
Throughout the strike, the precarious workers of Telefónica have taken all the necessary steps needed to reinforce their struggle. Not only have they used social media to keep everyone informed but they have collectively discussed what they should do in mass meetings (assembleas) which run the strike with strike committees responsible to the whole workforce. This has enabled them to organise pickets to watch workplaces so that scabs could not be brought in to break the strike. This has involved them in collaboration with other workers who were in conflict themselves as they have joined each others picket lines. These were so effective in the first month that the Government decided move in. The ordered the police to try to frighten the workers with the so-called “Operación Muro” which led to the arrest of 13 strikers in early May. They were charged with acts of sabotage and intimidating scabs. By a strange coincidence the main unions the UGT (General Union de Workers – linked to the Socialist Party) and the Workers Commissions (CCOO – set up the Communist Party) called for an end to the strike a few days later. So the workers were attacked by two sets of cops working in collusion to end their struggle. However it was not the first attempt of the big unions to sabotage the struggle.
From the beginning, the UGT and CCOO argued that the workers did not belong to the company. They refused to include them in the fight for better conditions by staff directly employed by the company itself. So from the very beginning the installers on precarious contract in Madrid had to set up their own strike committees to organise and lead the conflict. A basic demand they have maintained throughout the strike is that these committees have to be recognised as the only negotiators on behalf of the workers against the bosses. In an attempt to gain control of the movement, the CCOO and UGT then called for a strike within the company involving only the full-time employees. And then surprise, surprise, a few days before the strike, the unions decided to call it off claiming that all the demands had been met by the company. This was a blatant manoeuvre since none demands put forward by the workers through their strike committees had been satisfied. If you still need proof as to how the traditional unions are now just part of the capitalist establishment and its state apparatus this was it. They have a cosy deal with the management which although superficially antagonistic allows them to manage and control the labour force together.
But it was not just the traditional unions that the workers had problems with. According to our witness even the smaller, rank and file unions like AST, CGT (linked to the IWW) and Cobas just turned up at the last minute and tried to take over. He tells us that
In publicly announcing an indefinite strike we did not intend minority unions such as AST, CGT and Cobas to turn up at the last moment without asking, what’s going on?, what are you asking for? Why are you in this situation?, and put themselves at the head of a struggle they had not called, calling instead for two strike days spread over three weeks, a far cry from the demands of those who are suffering this very precarious situation in the flesh.
The problem here is that rank and file unions, or their like, tend to metamorphose over time into lesser versions of the traditional unions which they oppose. The issue is not one of bad leaders or even bad intentions but the fact that permanent negotiating bodies get sucked into the legal framework of the capitalist state. No doubt the suggestion of a two one day strikes spread over a fortnight was considered to be all that was possible on the basis of the recent past but then “past performance is no guide to future action” in the class war and the Telefónica workers had already gone beyond that. The contrast between the soaring profits of Spanish capitalism’s one success story and their declining conditions of existence was just too blatant. They wanted an all-out strike and not some token resistance. The CGT denies it tried to take over. On its website is a statement by a local CGT member which correctly denounces the big unions.
The big, institutional, bureaucratic unions have had nothing to do with the real mobilization. They called for a make-believe, partial strike in order to try to interfere with the real strike. They engaged in negotiations with the company even though they didn’t have the strikers’ consent. Finally, they reached an agreement (not approved by the workers either) and called off their puny strike.
What it does not admit is that they too proposed “a puny strike” which was rejected by the workforce. However they obviously learned some lessons here since they conclude that
The strikers organized, as it was decided, horizontally in workers’ assemblies. It is the workers themselves who were running the show.
Unions such as the one to which I belong, those that really believe in the struggle of the working class, have supported the strike in many ways.
The final statement is closer to the truth since the strikers managed to get support from a wide variety of workers’ organisations who provided food, money and other forms of real support (on the picket lines, for example). Without such solidarity the strike would not have been able to last so long against the full force of the most powerful firm in the land supported by the state and the traditional unions.
News Blackout and Occupation
However the strikers also faced another problem. They realised that the company was using all its contacts in the state and media to create a news blackout of their struggle. This is neither new nor confined to this struggle. News of workers struggles elsewhere in the world do not get mainstream coverage for the very reason it might encourage others to follow. Whilst the firm hoped that they could strangle the strike by denying it the oxygen of publicity, the workers had other ideas. Their solution was to twice occupy the Movistar-Telefónica head office in the Mobile World Centre (famous in the “May Days” of 1937 as the Barcelona Telephone Exchange) in the Plaça Catalunya.
The front of the building was plastered with posters and slogans brought the strike to wider notice as well as denting the image the company was trying to portray of itself to the world. The occupation has also solidified the strike and given it a sense of momentum. Several hundred workers from other firms have come to the occupation to block any attempt to remove the occupiers. Movistar, having tried to recognise only the official unions had refused to enter into negotiations with the strike committees until this point but with the strike now getting more attention (even if still ignored by all the capitalist media) they have started to climb down. The first occupation in early May ended when the company promised to negotiate but then turned round and repeated that they would only negotiate with the CCOO and UGT.
The second occupation thus started on May 23. It has won the support of Ada Colau, the newly elected Mayor of Barcelona of the Guayem Party (the Catalan version of Podemos, the reformist left party which supports Syriza in Greece). She came down to the occupation to solidarise with the workers (wearing their blue T shirt) and promised to try to get Telefónica to negotiate. The workers asked her to get Podemos and other political parties to cut their contracts with Movistar in order to increase the pressure but they were not sure that they would do this. Instead Podemos have tried to “institutionalise” the strike according to their own brand of reformism by doing such things as paying for a delegation of strikers to lobby the European Parliament in Strasbourg. More publicity for the strike certainly, but even more for the “radical” image of Podemos.
Restructuring in the Capitalist Crisis
Whatever the final outcome, this strike it marks a significant turning point in recent working class struggles. Ever since the post-war boom ended in the early 1970s the working class has been fighting a rearguard action against the attacks of system seeking to maintain its rate of profit by devaluing labour power. In the 1970s the working class resisted to a certain extent as it was still organised in huge workplaces of thousands of workers and most were unionised and many worked for the state so that every strike was potentially a political strike. However the strikes of that epoch never went beyond economism (“money militancy” we called it). In the UK the nearest to a political movement came when the 5 dockers were imprisoned in Pentonville in 1972 but that withered as soon as the UK state released them. At this point states thought they could pay off the workers then devalue their wages by printing more money so we had massive inflation in the advanced capitalist world. Eventually this led to the first states getting into financial trouble (by present standards they had little debt but UK and Italy had to be bailed out by the IMF in 1977 and the first attacks on welfarism began).
This was a real game changer as each national state no longer could afford to print money to fund the “commanding heights of the economy”. Unemployment thus began to rise and this undermined the old union-led workers resistance. The capitalists seized the time. What followed was the gradual de-industrialisation of the West, the transfer of much manufacturing to the Far East primarily China and the implementation of what are generally called neo-liberal policies. Globalisation was soon followed by financialisation as the creation of real value became of less concern than appropriating that value through financial means became the aim of the big capitalist institutions. All the regulations on finance (imposed after the Wall St Crash) were relaxed and the era of speculation and financial instruments had begun. All this of course took place over decades. In the 1980s we had the last vestiges of the fightback of “organised labour” (the miners’ strike of 1984-5 being a particular turning point but these failed in the face of massive increases in unemployment and the failure to go beyond trade union sectionalism.
Since then the working class in the West has globally been “disaggregated” (to use the ugly word we coined at the time) or fragmented into smaller units (whilst capital continues to be ever more concentrated in huge financial corporations). In fact the average level of concentration of workers in the West seems now to be about the same as it was when Marx was writing Capital. The difference is that capital was less mobile then and tied to its investment in constant capital. Now we have all the labour practices highlighted in the Telefónica-Movistar strike outlined at the beginning of this article. Wage labour carried out by insecure workers on zero-hour, part-time and/or short-term contracts not only undermines the collective character of those precarious workers but also has a disciplinary power over those workers still “enjoying” the pleasures of being full-timers with more legal rights than the casuals. Not only are they cowed by the fear of losing this “privileged status” but they are usually represented by traditional unions carefully approved by the firm. This has allowed the firms (with union assistance) to keep wage rises to a minimum. In recent years these workers in permanent jobs have also seen the ending of fully funded final salary pension schemes so they now end up with a pittance after decades of work.
As a consequence of all these factors the share of wages in GDP has continuously declined since the end of the 1970s (the post-war boom ended in the early 1970s but early attempts to make workers pay were resisted for a few years). In the US for example workers share of GDP was 52% in 1979 but today it has fallen to 42%. The picture is no different anywhere else although it is worse in the English-speaking states. This lowering of working class living standards has is now so severe that the capitalists themselves have become very worried about growing inequality. Even such famous financiers as George Soros or Warren Buffett have expressed alarmed views that the working class’ retreat in the face of the class war has gone too far and that capitalism could soon face some social backlash.
A New Way Forward?
If the response of the Telefónica-Movistar workers is anything to go by their warning is not before time. Until now “precarious” conditions of work and individual contracts have prevented real resistance. Wage slavery has increasingly looked like outright slavery. Many who had had enough despaired of being able to organise given the conditions under which they worked. The signs though are that workers on precarious contracts are finding new ways to organise themselves despite the difficulties. Using social media anonymity they can talk to each other without the bosses monitoring their discussion and they are either masking up or acting as pickets in each other strikes so the firm cannot identify and victimise them. Instead of strike pay from a union (how many unions actually ever pay strike pay – most of members dues goes into financing the pensions of the bureaucrats) they have resorted to crowd-funding and food banks in order to be able to pay rents/mortgages and survive at the same time. It’s not easy and it’s different from the traditional model but this is an important aspect of the new era of class warfare.
Of course there are still those who hanker after the traditional model. They want the old labour movement back. And a whole new generation or two has grown up who don’t know what it was really like. In places where unionisation is low (particularly the United States) the old labourists still make the same old propaganda. “Low wages? It’s because you are not unionised” is their constant refrain but they don’t mention all the sell-outs, the corruption and the cosy deals with leftwing capitalist parties to control the class struggle. In fact the failure of traditional unions is that they are the negotiators of the commodity, labour power. When the market goes against them (in the high unemployment of capitalist restructuring) they have little to bargain with. If the capitalists find there is too much resistance they can increasingly up sticks and shift their capital elsewhere especially in an era where the whole world is incorporated into the capitalist productive mechanism. In these circumstances trades unions of the old type increasingly act like company unions (like the CCOO and UGT here) as they have to maintain some sort of control over labour as part of maintaining their credibility in the negotiating process with management.
Solidarity and coming together to fight for our own interests now has to mean more ad hoc forms of organisation. These inevitably go beyond the old unionism and demand that workers form mass meetings or assemblies which elect revocable strike committees to coordinate and extend strikes to other places. This is the way the working class has to organise just to effectively resist. It is a far cry from the notion that having a strike is just a question of a vote and then leaving it to others to lead until the point that they tell you they got you a good deal. Class autonomy means that everyone must constantly be part of the battle at whatever level all the time. Token strikes are proving to be increasingly ineffective against intransigent bosses in an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism even where workers “enjoy” more permanent positions. And that is the exemplary contribution of the Telefónica-Movistar workers to the future of the working class. This still leaves open the question of how we go from fighting capitalism to overcoming it, but for now, after decades of retreat, let’s just honour the militancy and creativity of the Blue Tide and more importantly, learn from the workers who started it.
July 6, 2015
 See leftcom.org
 For the joys of working in Amazon see leftcom.org
 As we go to press the workers have returned to work with promises from the bosses that conditions will improve but the strike committees and mass meetings have not ended (four are planned in the next week alone) as no-one trusts the bosses, and with good reason. Our eyewitness JM has since posted on www.teleAfonica.net the following
“It's been _several days since the return to work after the indefinite strike. It is time to take stock, to assess what has been achieved. We say that the balance is positive, in general, and excellent in Vizcaya, where two agreements … with Comfica and Elecnor have been signed, which is a point of reference for the future and also a very clear lesson: by fighting, you can get anything. It is an agreement which does not include all the initial aspirations, but it greatly improves on the national agreement with the employers signed by CCOO and UGT._
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