Strike at SEAT, Spain: The need to confront union sabotage

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On 23 December, in the SEAT car factory in Barcelona, the workers on the morning and afternoon shifts spontaneously went on strike, in solidarity with 660 comrades who the day before had received dismissal letters from management.

It was the beginning of a response to a criminal attack on their living conditions. An attack planned well in advance and treacherously carried out by the infernal triangle of bosses, the ‘Generalidad’ (Catalan regional government), and the unions. An attack which went well beyond the 660 lay-offs, since there was also the disciplinary sacking of workers who had taken part in actions at the beginning of December, 296 ‘voluntary’ redundancies, and plans for the intensification of exploitation without any increase in wages…This was a brutal attack which will open the door to further attacks. It was no accident that the company’s president provocatively announced that “the measures contained in the accord will not reabsorb the entirety of the excess in the workforce”.

Like the comrades at SEAT and like all workers, we have to fight back. But to fight back with strength, we have to quickly draw the lessons from the strategy of manipulation and demobilisation pursued by bosses, government and unions.

A strategy calculated to demobilise the workers

From the moment in mid-August that the company announced the “necessity” for a reduction in personnel, as well as a 10% cut in wages, the representatives of the company, as well as those who are supposed to represent the workers, i.e. the unions and the ‘left wing’ regional government, have shared out the roles to prevent a real workers’ struggle from blocking their plans.

For more than two months, from August to the beginning of December, the union representatives devoted themselves to anaesthetising the workers’ anxiety about the question of redundancies, saying that they weren’t justified because the company was making a profit: the crisis at SEAT was only temporary or was simply the result of poor trade policies. With such lies – which we attacked in our leaflet ‘SEAT, Saving the company means lay-offs and dead-end contracts. The only response is the workers’ struggle’ – they got the workers to lower their guard, making them believe that all this was just bravado by the greedy bosses, which would soon be put in its place by the economic studies carried out by the unions or by pressure from the ‘progressive’ regional government. The bosses also played their part in this mystification, playing hide and seek for weeks until on 7 November they announced the ERE (Procedure for the Regulation of Employment) for 1346 workers.  

The unions had proposed a partial strike for that day, but the workers’ demonstrations went beyond this; in two industrial zones in the Barcelona suburbs, they mounted road blocks. Faced with this situation, the United Platform (in which the main union organisations, UGT, CCOO and CGT, participate [1]) called for a one day strike on 10 November, and a demonstration to ‘demand’ that the regional government “gets involved in the conflict on the side of the workers”(!). With this action the three unions intended, as we put it, “to entrust our fate to our executioners, to the masters of fine words and the knife in the back. The state is not the representative of the people but the unconditional defender of the interests of the national capital. All the authorities – from the president of the government to the least local mayor – are there to guard those interests”.

After this masquerade, the three unions washed their hand of the problem and no longer called for the slightest action until 1 December! That’s three weeks during which the workers were kept passively waiting around, while the unions engaged in interminable ‘negotiations’ followed by the ‘mediation’ of the regional labour relations chief, Senior Rane. As we said in the leaflet, “this tactic of ‘pressure’ and ‘petitions’ dupes the workers and makes them passive”.

The United Platform attempted to get back in the saddle after the holiday week of 5-10 December. But this was just another lie! Using as a pretext the legal limits imposed by the ERE, and the pressure from the regional government which was wielding the threat of ‘arbitration’, they ‘forgot’ the mobilisation and, on 15 December, the CCOO and UGT (the CGT having withdrawn on the 13th) signed the agreement for the 660 redundancies.

But the worst was yet to come: they stayed quiet for a whole week about who the victims were to be. It wasn’t until the last day before the holidays that the disclosed the main part of the dismissal notices; and they scaled the heights of cynicism and humiliation by treating the workers concerned like criminals. This vile manoeuvre unmasked them (hadn’t they said that they had signed the “best deal possible”?) and showed that they are afraid of the workers, because if they had felt sure of themselves, they would have announced the redundancies right away, and wouldn’t have employed extra security agents to guard the offices of the UGT and the CCOO.

The struggle must be run by workers’ assemblies

The CGT played the role of the ‘good trade union’, which stays with the workers. It’s true that 145 of its members were among those laid off. But the sufferings of those comrades and the need for solidarity with them can’t hide the fact that the CGT is no alternative to the UGT-CCOO and that it is every bit their equal. Why did it participate in the farce of negotiations and the ‘struggle’ of the United Platform, which it only left very late, on 13 December? Why, when the UGT and the CCOO signed the deal, was the only ‘mobilisation’ it called a rally outside the factory, with very few workers being told about it, and which only drew in 200 workers? Why on the morning of the 23rd, before the spontaneous strike, did “The CGT decide to limit the protest to a few hours only” (cf the internet site Kaosenlared, 24.12.05), at the very time when there was a real push from the workers, as shown by the fact that afternoon shift held an assembly and decided to stay out for the whole day? Why did any alternative suggested by the CGT reduce itself to “reviewing each lay-off on a case by case basis and if necessary taking the matter to the courts”?

Up until the 23rd, the workers were the victims of a demobilisation, of a strategy to prevent any response. The unions aren’t just playing with us when they sign redundancy deals; they also play with us when they organise their ‘Struggle Plans’. Their action against the workers has three interlinked aspects:

-            their pacts and agreements with the bosses and the government,

-            their plans for ‘struggle’ which are in fact strategies against the struggle,

-            their unconditional defence of the interests of the company and the national economy, which they claim coincide with the interests of the workers, when in fact they are diametrically opposed.

This is why the main lesson of the struggle at SEAT, which the workers themselves are beginning to draw in practice through the spontaneous strikes and assemblies of the 23rd, is that we cannot entrust the struggle to the unions.

On the 23rd, the laid-off workers, instead of going home and sitting alone anguishing about the prospect of unemployment, turned towards their comrades; and the latter, instead of consoling themselves with the thought that “it’s not happening to me”, or behind the individualist response of “every one should do what they can”, demonstrated their solidarity in the struggle. This kind of solidarity, this common response by those who are being made redundant with those who still have their jobs, between employed and unemployed, between those with ‘precarious’ contracts and those with long term contracts, is the basis for an effective reply to the inhuman plans of the capitalists.

The year 2006 has begun with the drama of the 660 lay-offs at SEAT, but who can believe that these will be the last? We know that they won’t be. We know that the blows of redundancies, the crime of industrial accidents, the anguish caused by a lack of affordable housing, the threats to pensions, the endless ‘reforms’ being concocted by the infernal trio of government, bosses and unions, will be the source of new suffering. That in the automobile sector, as in all other sectors, as in all countries, the attacks on the living conditions of the workers will continue; that the horrors of war, poverty and hunger, which go with capitalism like vultures go with death, will continue.

This is why we have to struggle. But for the struggle to be effective and powerful, the development of class solidarity is vital, and it must be organised and controlled by the workers themselves.  

The need for class solidarity

The problem at SEAT can’t be reduced to the 660 redundancies; the problem involves the whole workforce. It’s not just the problem of the SEAT workers but of all workers, both state employees who have a ‘guaranteed job’ (until when?) and workers in private enterprises, workers with or without legal status in the country. We are all in the same situation as the SEAT workers!

Our strength is class solidarity, unity in the struggle. A struggle limited to SEAT and closed in at SEAT will be a defeated struggle.

But what do we mean by solidarity? Does it mean boycotting this or that brand? Does it mean declarations of ‘support’ from the ‘critical wing’ of the CCOO or the EUA? [2] Does it mean ‘citizens’ actions’ in the neighbourhoods?

This kind of solidarity is just as false as the ‘Struggle Plans’ of the United Platform. The only real solidarity is to unite in the struggle. It means workers from different sectors, different areas joining in the same struggle, breaking through the barriers which weaken us: company, sector, nationality, race, coming together in assemblies, delegations and demonstrations.

The necessity for sovereign workers’ assemblies

The experience at SEAT is clear: we already know what happens when we leave our fate in the hands of the unions.

The direction of the struggle has to be in the hands of the workers from start to finish. It’s the workers who have to evaluate the forces they can count on, the demands to put forward, the possibilities of extending the struggle. Their response can’t be influenced by the provocations of the bosses, or the ‘Struggle Plans’ of their accomplices the unions, but by the collective decision of the workers organised in assemblies and in elected and revocable committees. Negotiations with bosses or the government must be carried out in full view of everyone, as was the case at Vitoria in 1976 or in Poland in 1980. It was the assemblies themselves who took charge of looking for solidarity by organising delegations and demonstrations.

The time for resignation, passivity and disorientation must come to an end. The margin of manoeuvre that this situation has offered capital for years is getting slimmer. It’s time to fight back. The voice of the working class must be heard with increasing volume.

Leaflet distributed by Accion Proletaria, ICC section in Spain, December 2005

[1] UGT: Socialist trade union federation; CCOO: the ‘Workers’ Commissions’ controlled by the CP; CGT is a ‘revolutionary syndicalist’ current that emerged from a ‘moderate’ split in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT.

[2] EUA: Esquerra Unida i Alternativa – a disguise for the Spanish Communist party in Catalonia


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