Refuse collectors strike in Madrid

Printer-friendly version

We are publishing below the translation of an article from Accion Proletaria, the ICC's paper in Spain, which analyses the strike of rubbish collectors in Madrid of November 13 and which stresses an essential and vital factor for the class struggle: workers' solidarity.

November 17 last, general assemblies of the Highways Department of Madrid ended 13 days of strike by accepting an agreement which avoided job losses of close to 1200 workers as well as threats of wage cuts of up to 43%. Coming out of these assemblies the feeling among workers was one of relief, a feeling that they had gained something, at least temporarily, from the outcome of an interminable struggle against the incessant attacks from this system against our living conditions. That they had this feeling wasn't so much because of the tangible results of negotiations - because these workers had been forced to accept the freezing of wages up to 2017 as well as a temporary contract of work limited to 45 days a year up to this same date - as for the way that they had succeeded in resisting this latest blow: support from a rousing demonstration of workers' solidarity. A solidarity which was revealed to all the workers of the three sub-contracting firms responsible for the Madrid streets and which spread to the workers of the public firm TRAGSA, to the bars of the most populous districts of Madrid where "collection boxes of support" were placed as a spontaneous form of assistance in order to compensate from economic losses of the strikers or in the concentration of solidarity amongst them on the last night of the negotiations...

Solidarity builds the unity of the workers

The media and the TV channels particularly - themselves accustomed to "rubbish" programmes - focused attention on the sacks of garbage and on the protagonists who were shown as social rejects. Firstly, regarding the media, there wasn't a television programme that didn't take its cameras onto the streets in order to interrogate the population on "the inconvenience caused by the strike" (they didn't make the least enquiry about the inconvenience caused by the budget cuts of the highways services) or on their economic repercussions, except for business people, hotel owners, etc. It was really the launching of an ideological campaign being used to put the population up against the refuse workers. This kind of campaign has been used successfully on several occasions before, including with the complicity of the unions[1]. However this time, public opinion, above all in the workers' districts of Madrid, went to the side of the strikers. Thus for example in a "proclamation" of the Popular Assembly of Lavapies, one can read: "The men and women on unlimited strike is an example for us all. No sensible person can remain with folded arms looking at these events (...) What we are seeing today, is only a prefiguration of a Madrid filthy and left to rot which will hit our popular quarters; if the strike is defeated it will follow that there will be less workers and in worse conditions (...) If the workers who look after our streets and parks (and consequently, all of us) go on strike, we must support them to the end, we must be with them among the strike pickets and in demonstrations (...) If they imprison the strikers, we must be on the streets every day in greater numbers. The motives and the anger of strikers must not be reduced to silence by the police, judges, the bosses, the media and the union chiefs. If the strike ends it must be because we have won something and not because of agreements concluded on the backs of the men and women on strike..."[2].

When they tried to pass off the strikers as "blackmailers", the workers remembered that the origin of these job cuts was a cut in the budget of the highways municipality of Madrid and that the local firms - subsidiaries of the larger concerns - were being fattened up by building speculations and other gifts accorded by the administration while at the same time the latter was trying to lay the cost on the backs of the employees of these enterprises and the population of the workers' districts of Madrid.

It's true that the arrogant attitude of the mayor of Madrid, worthy spouse of the ex-President Aznar ("worthy" of him in any case...), served to heat up the atmosphere of support for the struggle somewhat. When she put forward an ultimatum calling for an agreement in the middle of the night of November 15, by threatening to call on the workers of the public concern TRAGSA to abort the strike, she met with a refusal of these same workers (who, in their turn, were threatened with job cuts) to play the role of scabs against their comrades. Trying to recruit 200 workers that she wanted immediately only appeared completely ridiculous. The same night, during which the mayor supervised the semblance of a minimum service dressed in a fur coat, the boss himself accepted replacing cuts in wages by a freeze up to 2017, and reported on the following night, going beyond the time of the ultimatum, the decision on job cuts. Among the workers a feeling spread that, this time, they had been able to put a brake on the attacks.

Why was this? Because our exploiters became more reasonable? Nothing could be further from the truth: a few days later the same protagonists - or almost - announced a very similar attack aimed this time against laundry workers of Madrid hospitals. And did the unions make a "volte-face" (as the PSOE repeated) in order to defend the workers? You can't say that when you can see that they signed agreements involving thousands of job cuts in the banks, at Panrico, RTVE and so on. During the night of Saturday November 16, when the unions of the highway workers of Madrid were ready to accept a deal on a reduced number of job cuts for hundreds of workers(in fact, the UGT stayed at the negotiating table and the Workers' Commissions quit, although they returned later). And this was not only in the highways sector but also others - who were meeting up around the building where these so-called negotiations were taking place and began to call for a demonstration on the following day. A few hours later, the companies withdrew the announced plan of job cuts, replacing them with technical measures of temporary unemployment.

The key factor in the course of this struggle - solidarity - has been the fruit of a change obscured by bourgeois propaganda which preferred to focus attention on the piles of rubbish bags, or on the declarations of the mayor who, recently, has reappeared among the media complaining of a permanent campaign aimed at her. For the exploited, on the contrary, the most important thing is the response given by an anonymous striker to a television reporter who asked him what was positive about the strike: "To discover that someone who works alongside me is a real comrade."

Class solidarity can't allow itself to be buried in a democratic or nationalist rubbish dump

The "basic" mechanism on which the capitalist system rests is one of relentless blackmail: the isolated worker can only obtain his or her means of existence if their labour power profits capital. The propaganda of our exploiters artfully insinuates that this is an "order" inherent to human nature, wanting to reduce our existence to that of a commodity, aiming by any means to let the "market value" of this commodity fall to the lowest possible price. But in reality the price of labour power is not determined on the blind laws of capitalist exchange (supply and demand, the law of profit and exchange value...) but also on moral parameters such as courage and anger faced with the inhumanity of the laws which regulate society, solidarity and the defence of the dignity of the workers. Here, two worlds oppose one another and are separated by an abyss: those of human need and those of the interests of capital.

All attempts to sacrifice the first to the second is presented as a defence of the "competitive edge" of the enterprise or to the profitability of the public service such as health or education. Whether the living conditions of the exploited are to be sacrificed to the demands of this or that firm, this or that local or regional industry, or even the interests of the nation, this very clearly implies the sabotage of the very principle of solidarity between the exploited in order to put in its place a fraudulent fraternity between exploiters and exploited. The most important contribution of the struggle of workers of the Madrid highways is not to have shown an infallible way of drawing concessions from the boss, but of having won a level of solidarity which serves to strengthen the unity of the class rather than further subjecting the workers to the logic of exploitation.

Again we're seeing today a deluge of thousands and thousands of redundancies and, among those workers that "keep" their jobs, brutal wage cuts. Everywhere the concern of workers is growing faced with the cynicism of the exploiters who are announcing the end of the crisis and a recovery for the Spanish economy while scapegoating those most hit by poverty becomes more commonplace and dramatic. This agitation has given rise to a number of protests and mobilisations. But we must be honest and not let ourselves be fooled. In the great majority of cases, this agitation among the ranks of the workers has been recuperated by the parties of the left of capital and the unions through a string of movements that have been dispersed and, above all, diverted onto a false version of solidarity, that of the defending democratic institutions.

We can use the example of Radio-Television Valenciana[3] where the anger faced with job cuts was channeled into the defending "television at the service of the public and the region". On this terrain, the unions had a free hand to justify the reduction of wages by proposing a so-called viability plan - all in the name, of course, of salvaging the "national heritage". On these grounds the workers of Canal 9 were forced to march alongside the deputies of the PSOE who, when they were in power, undertook the most massive plan of job cuts in Spanish radio and television!

On this rotten ground our exploiters present themselves to us as "allies" and workers of other firms, other sectors of production or other countries, are presented as competitors and enemies. It's what we've seen for example at Panrico or at FAGOR. In the first case, the workers at the firm of Santa Perpetua of Mogoda, who refused to accept redundancies and wage cuts, were exposed to a brutal offensive by the boss and the media, but also from the unions which told them that their intransigence and those of workers of other firms were putting the "future" in danger. Another case was the Mondragon Group, part of the FAGOR business and up to recently a model for the "rise of Basque industry" and the advantages of "cooperative systems". A "cooperative" which has now thrown onto the streets more than 5,000 workers who then found themselves caught up in an ideological battle about which units were the most "profitable" or whether they had the right to be relocated to other firms of the group...

Competition between workers[4] can deliver profits on capitalist investment but implies the ruin of the exploited. Class solidarity isn't sufficient to protect workers indefinitely from the attacks of capitalism in the period of decadence, but it does show the sense of a social alternative, another form of the understanding of relations between men that do not submit to the laws of the market. As the Communist Manifesto, written some 150 years ago, indicates: "Sometimes the workers triumph, but it is an ephemeral triumph. The real result of their struggles is less their immediate success than the growing union of all the workers".

Valerio (November 25, 2013)



[2] The complete text of the proclamation by this assembly, produced during the struggle of  the Indignados in 2011, can be found here:

[4] The Spanish car industry is surviving the crisis mainly through a brutalisation of the workforce, with contracts for young people which are set at only 70% of the wage. The most significant result of this is to see how the right wing People’s Party and the unions both rejoice about swiping production from other enterprises such as Ford, Nissan, SEAT…but this will never supply our daily bread, either today or tomorrow. Unless we impose class solidarity, there will always be someone more desperate ready to accept even bigger wage reductions. 



Class Struggle in Spain