The two largest unions in Spain launched a one-day nationwide strike on March 29. Many flights and train services were canceled and factories were idled across the country. The auto manufacturing industry was hit particularly hard with almost all Renault, Volkswagen, Seat and Ford factories forced to stop production. Some television stations went off the air. Mines and ports were also severely impacted by the strike.
Millions of strikers and their supporters came out for evening protests in over 100 cities and towns. Union organizers estimated that 1.7 million combined protesters took to the streets in just Madrid and Barcelona alone. That is an overwhelming protest turnout in a country with a total population of approximately 46 million.
The general strike was called in protest of the conservative government’s plans to weaken labor laws and impose massive budget cuts. The changes in labor law would make it easier for employers to lay off workers and unilaterally cut wages. The proposed budget would freeze public worker salaries, raise electricity rates, and impose 17% cuts to most departments. Spain’s finance minister called the budget the most austere since elections resumed in 1977 - after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Spain’s capitalist crisis intensifies
The government’s attack on workers and the consequent strike by unions take place as the capitalist crisis in Spain deepens. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. The unemployment rate is projected to reach almost 25% this year. Almost half of all youth in Spain are unemployed.
The Bank of Spain issued a report confirming that the country’s economy has officially reentered recession after shrinking for a second consecutive quarter. Spain’s economy is projected to contract by as much as 2.7% this year.
Spain, like many countries, is experiencing what is often referred to as a debt crisis. The total amount of Spain’s 2011 deficit was equal to 8.5% of the country’s GDP. The European Commission pressured Spain to agree to slash its deficit to 5.3% of GDP this year.
The dramatic deficit reduction target is intended to please the foreign big banks and speculators that own much of Spain’s debt in the form of government bonds. However, the contracting economy means that even with the recent round of cuts Spain is unlikely to meet its target. This means that the French, German, and British banks that have high exposure to Spain’s debt will likely continue to demand ever more drastic budget cuts.
Spain joins Greece, Portugal Italy, and Ireland as one of the euro zone countries mired in a severe economic crisis. The crisis in Greece brought that country to the brink of an outright economic collapse. The crisis in all of these countries is intensified by their participation in the euro zone. Having given up their national moneys for the euro, they are not able to lower interest rates or lower the value of their currency to cheapen their exports and stimulate their economies. They also cannot print money to pay off their bonds, increasing concern among banks and speculators about Spain’s ability to pay its debts.
Spain’s economy is the 13th largest in the world and is twice the size of Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. Many economists believe the intensifying crisis in large economies like Spain threatens to destabilize the entire European Union. Such destabilization could set off a domino effect and drag the broader euro zone into deep recession. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently stated that the Obama administration is concerned that the crisis in Europe could grow and spill over into the U.S. before the November elections.
Same struggle, different continents
The ongoing crisis in Spain and other euro market countries has its roots in the same global recession that hit the U.S. in 2008. Much like the U.S., Spain experienced a construction boom and housing bubble that burst and was followed by a foreclosure crisis and a period of recession.
Governments in both countries have also turned to policies that ease the pain on banks and focus on reducing the deficit at the expense of investing in public programs. Meanwhile, workers both here in the U.S. and in euro market countries like Spain know that what they are facing is a crisis of unemployment.
Like Spain, the U.S. has also seen its share of large-scale labor protests in recent years. When right-wing governors in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida pushed union-busting legislation, labor responded with campaigns of mass protest. General strikes, like that in Spain, are an even more advanced tool that workers have in their arsenal to fight back.
Spain’s unions have vowed more action during International Workers’ Day on May 1. This has been a significant day in the U.S. in recent years after immigrant workers reclaimed it as a day of strikes and protest in 2006. Immigrant rights and Occupy protesters are planning for May 1 actions this year in many parts of the U.S.