Cuts, reforms and union response in Spain

The crisis in Spain has deepened, proving that austerity measures do not work. The unemployment rate is currently 25 per cent and youth unemployment has reached 53 per cent; double that of other EU countries. Poverty is increasing; it is estimated that 12.5 million people in Spain (27 per cent of the population) live in poverty or are at risk of social exclusion. In education, Spain suffers from the highest early school leave rate in Europe (26.5 per cent in 2011). Young student graduates are emigrating because they cannot find jobs that match their qualifications. At the same time, national banks have been rescued and the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has privately negotiated the terms of an international financial bailout. 

Rather than solving the acute problems of our society, our current government appears to have a hidden agenda; they systematically lie about data and their real objectives. What Spain needs to increase is its competitiveness; a shift from the current model towards a more knowledgeable one. This would entail an increased investment in education as well as in research and development. Instead, all reforms that have been implemented by the government are leading to a decrease in labour costs, a reduction in salaries and a deterioration of working conditions. The current reforms are also leading to the degradation and privatisation of public services, and in particular, education, health and justice. At the same time, civil (including union) rights are under attack. The fact of the matter is that cuts and reforms have been systematically dismantling democratic and social achievements in Spain.

Unions and civil society have shown strong opposition to the austerity policies that have been implemented by our governments via relentless demonstrations and strikes that have been carried out since the introduction of regional spending cuts in 2009. Governments have responded with extreme repression. One example might be the increased police brutality during the student protests in Barcelona and Valencia, or the more recent and violent demonstrations in Madrid on 25 September 2012. Trade unions have proven to be formidable enemies, both in their opposition of these policies and in their solutions; but, trade unionism has increasingly come under attack.

Spain is a decentralised state, and the political stance of regional governments is important because regions are responsible for public services. Nearly all regions in Spain are governed by conservative parties (including nationalist conservatives). Although the right wing parties received fewer votes in the recent regional elections in Galicia (one of the first regions to apply budget cuts) and the Basque Country, they have continued to govern, while the Socialist party faced the worst results in 30 years. In spite of the efforts of trade unions to explain the disastrous consequences of public budget cuts and to provide viable alternatives, many people in Spain still believe that the reduction of public expenditure is the only solution to the crisis.

Cuts in the public sector began in some regions in 2009, and they have intensified during 2011 and 2012. The most important reforms and cuts were introduced by Zapatero’s Socialist Government in 2010, which paved the way for the current reforms under the Government of Prime Minister Rajoy.

Most of the reforms take the form of a “Royal Decree-Law,” or a decree wherein legal consequences are immediate, but is later modified and approved by parliament. This procedure is usually reserved for extraordinary situations that require urgent actions; however, its current systematic use constitutes a very un-democratic way of legislating.

In May 2010, the Socialist Government reduced public servant salaries by 5 per cent. Unions responded by calling a public sector strike in June 2010. After collective bargaining and the Labour Law were reformed, job precariousness increased and collective bargaining was significantly weakened. A general strike was organised to contest this reform in September 2010. Also, a public initiative was launched and a million signatures were collected.

Pensions in Spain were reformed in September 2011 and an agreement with the main confederations, CCOO and UGT, saved our pension system based on solidarity between citizens of different generations and across all regions.

A key reform during the socialist government, the mother of all later reforms implemented by the conservatives, was the modification of Article 135 of the Spanish Constitution; this modification had an aim to establish a public debt ceiling, and, according to our government, the objective was to re-establish market trust. It was unsuccessful, though, as the market never provided respite.

While regional cuts were being implemented between 2009 and 2011, Zapatero’s central government increased expenditure on education; although the central government finances only allowed for 6 per cent of the total public expenditure to be allocated for education, these funds are very important in terms of equity (grants are a substantial part of them) and quality. By contrast, cuts in research and development were implemented by 5.5 per cent in 2010 and 8.4 per cent in 2011.

The People’s Party has governed Spain since December 2011, under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy. Their first measure was to limit the expenditure on personnel in the public administration positions in 2011. Another important limit that was introduced was that only 10 per cent of retirements were to be covered. In the case of public higher education, this means that universities cannot not offer enough fixed term contracts or tenures, or promote professors to higher positions. Those individuals that are new in their professorships have the most difficult implications, as their contracts are, by law, fixed-term contracts. They are unable not progress in their careers—they will lose their jobs unless universities offer them contracts under precarious conditions. By these measures our government is destroying the future of our universities.

Another Labour Law reform came in February 2012, which has been described by unions as the worst attack on labour rights of our democracy. Under this law reform, the employer can modify working conditions, salary, or work environments, without agreement; in the public sector it enables collective redundancies. This reform was immediately contested by a general strike in March and CCOO and UGT have appealed the reform to the ILO.

In April 2012 two reforms that aimed to reduce regions expenditure in Health and Education were passed. Since then, access to Social Security is no longer a universal right in Spain and pensioners have to pay for their medicines. In Education this reform cut 1/3 of the regional budget for higher education. Tuition fees were increased by 50 per cent and the Central Government reduced funding for grants and set stricter conditions for obtaining one.

Education unions called for strike in May and organised protests and mobilisations:

http://www.fe.ccoo.es/ensenanza/menu.do?Informacion:Galeria_de_videos

July 2012 started with the publication of General Budget for 2012 that proposed a 62 per cent cut in the Central Government’s higher education budget, and academic grants were reduced by another 25 per cent; this came only two weeks after a Royal Decree-law was issued that reduced public workers’ salaries by another 7 per cent, reduced civil servants holidays, decreased unemployment benefit (in a country with more than 5 million unemployed), enabled the modification of collective agreements by employers, augmented the VAT and restricted (again) union rights.

Now the Spanish Parliament is discussing the 2013 General Budget than plans another 15 per cent cut for the education sector (more than 18 per cent in university funds). Also, a reform in Education Law is being debated. For our Ministry, quality and modernisation mean a public expenditure in Education of 3.9 per cent of GDP and going back to policies that date back to Franco’s days.

This year unions mobilized in the mass March on Madrid on 15 September, along with daily demonstrations and strikes all over Spain.

The two largest confederations CCOO and UGT have called for a general strike on 14 November, the ETUC day of action and solidarity. It will coincide with a general strike in Portugal being the first Iberian general strike, and the Spanish Social Summit, that includes other confederations and over 150 organizations, has endorsed this call.

This will be the third general strike since September 2010, and the second strike this year. The Government under Rajoy has broken two records: Rajoy’s regime has prompted the fastest general strike ever (3 months were enough to deserve it), and now it is the only one that has ever faced two general strikes in less than one year!

Finally, international action and solidarity helps us and encourages us in our difficult work. Thanks to all.

 


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María Luisa Sánchez Simón

María Luisa Sánchez Simón is an advisor on higher education for the Spanish teachers' federation, FECCOO. At the regional level in Galicia, she is a member of the executive board of CCOO. She is also a professor of fluid mechanics at the University of La Coruña, Spain.

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