APRIL 03, 2012
The Unmaking and Making of a General Strike
Spain Fights Austerity
With a deepening crisis and aggressive austerity measures, the people in Spain have reasons aplenty to rebel. First a socialist and now a conservative government have slashed retirement, unemployment, and severance benefits, made all labor contracts effectively precarious, steeply raised the prices for education and transportation, begun the privatization of healthcare, further militarized police and private security and dramatically increased their numbers, and paid out insulting amounts of money to bail out banks or pander to tourists. But given the events in the recent past, the most level-headed expectations for the March 29th general strike were decidedly pessimistic. After workers paralyzed Spain with a one day strike in September, 2010, the two major labor unions, CCOO and UGT, showed their true colors by signing on to the reforms proposed by the socialist government then in power. The following January, minority unions such as the anarchosyndicalist CNT and CGT tried calling their own strike without the big unions, and though the mobilization functioned well as a major day of protest, as a strike it achieved only a paltry participation.
In Barcelona, the Catalan capital which is generally a flashpoint for social struggles, events in the weeks immediately before March 29 provided an even more grim forecast. At the end of February, public transit workers double-crossed each other and the thousands of people who were organizing in solidarity with them, when one group of workers made a self-interested deal with the bosses and called off the strike. Just weeks later, the Barcelona bus drivers, historically one of the most combative and solidaristic groups of workers, announced that they would not support the upcoming general strike, which came as a slap in the face given the huge amount of public support they had relied on in their recent struggles.http://www.zcommunications.org/dreams-demands-and-the-pragmatic-pitfall-by-peter-gelderloos
The March 29 general strike was a strike designed to fail. Although the earlier two strikes had not leveraged adequate pressure to slow the wave of austerity measures, they had contributed to an intensification of social struggles that on various occasions had effectively contested the state’s ability to control the streets and implement the new measures demanded by the bankers. The September 2010 general strike had transformed into major rioting in Barcelona, and more broadly served as a precursor to the 15th of May plaza occupation movement. The resonance of the general strike collectivized social problems that previously people had been suffering individually, and also sowed the field with an anticapitalist critique that was deliberately left out of the populist democratic program authored by the organizers of the May occupations. In other words, the first general strike made it conceivable to come together and take over space, and created a context conducive to the radicalization of the subsequent movement.
The Spanish state had every reason to fear that this next general strike would further intensify ongoing social struggles. Given that more people were even angrier in March 2012 than they had been in September 2010, the strike could easily transform into rioting in at least a couple cities and could even spark unrest of a more insurrectionary character. The major unions also feared another general strike, because it likely meant losing control as they had in September 2010; nonetheless, they were obliged to take at least the resemblance of a stand if only to save face. As much as the governing institutions might have wanted to suppress it, the next general strike was an inevitability, given the aggressiveness of the latest Labor Reform introduced by the conservative Popular Party.
Whereas dictatorship dissuades protest by attacking it, democracy controls protest by managing it. Institutions from the Left to the pinnacle of power colluded to organize a strike without hope of succeeding. To start with, CCOO and UGT called the strike with just three weeks advance notice, signing on to a call-out made by two minor unions in Galicia and the Basque country and turning it into the countrywide general strike that everyone knew was coming. CCOO and UGT are largely recognized as bureaucratic, opportunistic unions that tame rebellion in exchange for government funding. They were clearly surpassed by the events of the 2010 general strike, when they made the mistake of convening months in advance, giving anarchosyndicalist unions like the CNT and CGT, or new organizational spaces like the neighborhood assemblies of Barcelona, time to make their own plans.
This time, the strike preparations by CCOO and UGT were minimal to the point of invisibility. Not only did these two major unions leave scant time to organize, they hardly put up any propaganda in favor of the strike until the day before, leaving the field open for the media to color public opinion. And the media went into overdrive, raising fears of violent picketers trashing any shop that remained open, emphasizing the inconveniences a strike would cause to commuters, consumers, and tourists, and championing the right to work. The very concept of an economic shutdown was presented as a totalitarian coercion and a violation of individual rights. In the view spread by the media, a legitimate strike could go no further than a peaceful protest. Several media outlets openly denounced the strike or published surveys showing that very few people would actually participate.
But when March 29 arrived, Spain slowed down almost to a halt. At the crack of dawn, cities across the country were paralyzed by barricades of burning tires. Highways and rail lines were also blocked. In the ports they stopped unloading all but the perishable goods. Participation in the strike was calculated at 77% over all (much higher than the 18% predicted by the media). In mining and construction industry the figure stood at 97-100%, in manufacture over 80%. In the shops and the service sector, where big employers typically threaten their workers not to strike and small employers are infamously unsolidaristic, participation was less than half, with shops run by immigrants much more likely to close for the day. Electricity consumption in Catalunya fell by 24%, even though many cities kept the streetlights on all day or used other tricks to bump up the statistic. Throughout the morning, pickets in cities large and small roamed the streets and forced unsolidaristic shops to close, in many cases going to workplaces where employees had requested a visit from the picket because the bosses weren’t letting them strike. Other pickets blocked major avenues or set up barricades and spray-painted banks.
In Barcelona, the strike set off a full day of rioting that lasted late into the night, saw the smashing and even burning of dozens of banks, fast food chains, luxury stores, luxury cars, and shopping malls, along with hundreds of dumpsters. Capitalist normality was completely interrupted for a day, as the sky was filled with columns of black smoke and the police in a couple occasions were even sent running from the center, assailed with rocks and kept out with burning barricades. Undercover cops were chased down and beat up, journalists had their cameras and their vans smashed, and the central immigrant neighborhood of Raval was effectively autonomous for much of the night.
Significantly, in many cities CCOO and UGT were ostracized throughout the day. In places like Barcelona they were not present in the pickets and more people participated in the spontaneous protest in Plaça Catalunya, where rioting was heaviest, than in the official union protest. When strikers and protestors passed a group with the flags of CCOO or UGT, they would start yelling insults or chanting one of several popular chants that label these unions as sell-outs.
Afterwards, the media went on a rampage, howling about the “violence,” by which they meant the picketers forcing shops to close or the rioters breaking bank windows. They didn’t talk about the picketers injured by shopkeepers (in one case stabbed), the tens of thousands of people the banks have kicked out of their houses, the dozens of people injured by police batons and rubber bullets, protestors and bystanders alike, the immigrants killed in recent months, or the increase in death rates since the cutbacks to healthcare. Their moral repugnation was strictly limited to actions that hurt the interests of the wealthy.
Simultaneously, they deigned to lecture people in the street about how to carry out their struggle, and gave glowing coverage to the”successful” and “peaceful protests” of CCOO and UGT.
But successful at what? Most dramatically in Barcelona, although to some extent in other cities as well, it was clear that the strike did not belong to the unions. So if the two largest labor organizations in the country were trying to sabotage the strike, how was it organized? How were hundreds of thousands of people brought out into the streets?
In many parts of the country, the March 29 general strike was organized by a loose network of groups new and old: neighborhood assemblies, workers’ assemblies, anarchist or antiauthoritarian unions like the CNT and CGT, or labor assemblies arising out of the 15M plaza occupation movement. Faced with the need to organize a strike that had been effectively abandoned by its unions, with just a couple weeks time, the neighborhood assemblies and other groups threw their shoulders to the wheel and in record time produced a variety of flyers, posters, and stickers. In every neighborhood they covered the walls and went door to door or shop to shop to talk with people about the strike and build support. In many neighborhoods they held local protests to announce the strike and explain the reasoning behind it.
As many people going door to door soon found out, one of the main reasons some people did not want to go on strike is because they did not want to support the major unions, which they saw as bureaucratic institutions run by careerists. But it quickly became clear that this strike was not being organized by CCOO and UGT, but by neighborhood assemblies and common workers. In fact, many of the flyers and posters calling for the strike directly criticized the unions.
In other words, most of the people who took to the streets on March 29 opposed the major unions and on some level they wanted things to get out of control, so they would not be just another number in a protest claimed by the bureaucrats of labor.
Additionally, much of the propaganda calling for the strike also directly called for retribution against the banks and other institutions responsible for the economic crisis and the generalized misery. The resulting protest was not a space for the self-interested middle class to lodge a complaint about the violation of the social contract. It was a place for the most marginalized and the most exploited—those left out of every social contract—to strike back against the forces that make life increasingly impossible, a place where immigrant youth from the peripheral neighborhoods mingled with students without a future or middle age folks without job or retirement, fighting together against the police and the banks.
Every time a cop was pelted with rocks and every time a bank was set on fire, there were people farther back in the crowd who cheered. It was these thousands of people who made it impossible for the police to surround the so-called violent ones, and who therefore made the entire riot possible.
If the purpose of a strike is to shut down the economy and cause material damage to the owning class, and to constitute a threat to the order of the ruling class, the riot is an extension of this same logic. It causes an even greater shutdown, heavier damages, and a more direct threat. Where the crowd succeeds in seizing space from the hands of the police, they create the immediate possibility for self-organization. They provoke the question of how to rearrange this urban jungle that previously had been minutely managed as one giant shopping mall. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they win the possibility to shape their physical environment. The results spontaneously follow a common pattern. Symbols of wealth and power (advertisements, luxury stores, government buildings, police vehicles) are smashed. Cars are kept out so the streets can be used by actual human beings. Banks and chain stores are destroyed, but family businesses (excepting luxury stores) are almost always spared. Even though many in the crowd have worked for small businesses and know their owners to be among the most cruel and miserly bosses on the planet, they represent the direct means of survival of a neighbor, someone who can be dealt with face to face. Only what is faceless and inhuman is put to the torch. Where crowds have been able to hold space for longer, they have torn up asphalt and planted gardens. Who knows what more they might accomplish, given enough time.
When the fire engines arrive to put out the flames raging in the Starbucks by Plaça Catalunya, a sharp division appeared in the crowd. Immigrant youth immediately responded by throwing stones, while other people in the crowd gasped in horror and shouted them down. In the experience of many immigrants, all social services, from the police to the hospitals to the schools, are a weapon used against them. In the naïve view of the citizens, only the police are deserving of criticism.
The crowds summoned forth by the strikes were neither homogenous nor unified. Some were immigrans and others were citizens. Some were unemployed, others precariously employed, others permanently employed. Some lived on a thousand euros a year and wanted to regain lost comfort, others scraped by on a couple hundred. Some were anarchists, some were socialists, some were progressives, and some were simply angry. But none of them were controlled, no one had to submit to the edicts of a labor union, party, or any other organization, because the strike was organized by everyone.
With the plaza occupation movement that appeared on the 15th of May, 2011, pacifism came out into the streets and quickly failed. It did not meet the needs of people trying to take over space, organize their own lives, and oppose the government. In the same learning cycle experienced in Egypt, in the Occupy movement in the US, in the Civil Rights movement, and other struggles throughout history, people became more militant. The general strike in Spain only succeeded in shutting down the country and building momentum for future struggles because pacifism’s authoritarian impulse to control a movement and dictate acceptable tactics had already been abandoned. In this leaderless strike, everyone hurt by the austerity measures could participate however they saw fit. There was room for everyone.
In the days following the strike, the most vocal advocates of pacifism were the media, the union bureaucrats, and the police, each of them still nursing injuries inflicted on their pride and their legitimacy. Their strategy in denouncing the so-called violence of the underdogs illuminates the conflict ahead. It is a conflict between democracy and revolution.
On the one side is the notion of making demands, trusting in representatives, and seeing our interests in terms of individual rights. Everyone has the right to work, and the right to starve to death if they do not work. On the bottom, everyone competes for survival, while on the top they collaborate and make deals. People on the bottom have the right to complain as much as they want, as long as they do not actually do anything about it.
On the other side is the notion of solidarity, of collective well being, cooperation and direct action. It is the understanding that we are a social species living on a finite planet, and our survival and happiness can only be understood when viewed collectively.
The media correctly point out that beating up a scab, pushing out a strike-breaker, or shutting down a shop is a violation of individual rights. They don’t point out that every benefit, privilege, or measure of security enjoyed by the scab has been won by collective struggles. They criminalize the concept of sabotage, renaming it “violence,” while erasing the history of collective struggles, in which the strike and sabotage have always gone hand in hand, among two of the only tools of resistance working people have.
Many shop owners who decided not to participate in the strike used the following excuse: “if 51% of the people participate in the strike, I’ll be in the 52nd %.” This equation is a recipe for defeat. It is a short-sighted enactment of the prisoner’s dilemma, in which the exploited are made prisoner to their own limited conception of competitive individual interests. As long as people try to struggle alone, hoping to come out on top, as long as people refuse to risk themselves for the collective good, or to even understand that a collective good exists, we can only keep on losing.
In Spain, the general strike was one important step ahead for the recovery of a culture of solidarity, the recovery of the use of sabotage and the economic shutdown, and for the development of a practice of self-organization, without the old institutions of the Left that have long since sold out. Without solidarity, self-organization, and stronger tactics, the people who own everything will continue to push us around and squeeze us dry. It’s high time to push back and take what’s ours.
Peter Gelderloos is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and How Nonviolence Protects the State, which is available for free download.