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Strikes in Spain fall when the economy falters

The frequency of strikes in Spain falls when the economy is in trouble and the unemployment rate rises, although this has no impact on the scale of industrial conflicts, which increases in line with growth of the industrial sector.

Although Spain still has the highest rate of industrial conflicts in Europe, the number of days each salaried employee spends on strike has fallen by more than 70% over the past 20 years. The Basque Country and Asturias were the regions experiencing most conflicts between 2001 and 2006.

These are some of the conclusions of a study analysing changes in the frequency, scale and size of strikes in Spain between 1986 and 2006, published by David Luque, a professor of sociology at the University of Oviedo, in the latest issue of the magazine REIS.

High unemployment rates lead to a reduction in the frequency of strikes because “the negotiating position of workers is weaker”, a factor recognised by both workers and business owners, who “are prepared to yield less”, Luque tells SINC.

In addition, not all sectors benefit during times of economic bonanza, for example the mining or ship building industries, which are in decline and have high levels of conflict, according to the expert.

The number of workers taking part in each strike, and the number of working days lost during each conflict grow in line with the industrial sector itself, in which the calls to strike are widely supported not only by the workers directly involved, but also “by the population of the economically-affected area”, says Luque.

Professional categories are much less homogeneous in services than the industrial sector, since these can include anyone from an administrative assistant to a doctor, so their interests are not so homogeneous. Therefore, says the researcher, “what is good for train transport workers could be counterproductive for those working in air transport”. He points out that the creation of smaller work centres, partly due to the proliferation of sub-contracting, also limits the size of strikes.

Strikes in Spain tend to have become more frequent, but smaller. There were 19,459 strikes between 1986 and 2000, on average 927 per year. However, the number of conflicts fell after the second half of the 1990s, to an average of 700 strikes per year, a far cry from more than 1,000 prior to 1994.

The number of days not worked due to strikes has fallen from 519.2 for every 1,000 employees at the end of the 1980s (1 day for every 2 employees), to 223.5 in the 1990s (1 for every 4.5) and 140.4 so far in the current decade (1 day for every 7 workers). “Sector-based unions are on the defensive. Their industrial base is shrinking continually, and the impact of globalisation is forcing them to forge pacts – this isn’t a very good situation for them”, Luque tells SINC.

Additionally, the number of self-employed workers and employees working on short-term contracts has grown, both of whom have a more precarious existence, and this also reduces conflict. The study shows that short-term contracts lead to a reduction in the length of strikes.

Spain has developed a labour market model with two classes of workers, “those aged over 45, generally male, with permanent contracts and high levels of protection, and those who entered the labour market later – young people and women – who experience worse conditions and less stability”, says the sociologist. “The unions focused on protecting already established workers, leaving the others trailing somewhat behind”.

Divergences between autonomous regions

Differences in terms of employment conflicts between the various autonomous regions has declined over the past two decades. During the first six years of this century, the Basque Country has suffered the highest levels of labour conflict, with an average of one day not worked for every two employees, followed by Asturias, Castilla-La Mancha and Navarre.

The Balearic Islands are at the other extreme (1 day for every 45 employees), behind Murcia, the Canary Islands and Valencia. There was less differentiation in the second half of the 1980s, with Asturias and Cantabria in the lead (with an annual average in excess of one day per employee) and La Rioja bringing up the rear (one day for every six workers).

Regional employment pacts and autonomous region agreements to resolve conflicts without recourse to the courts help to reduce conflicts. Strike activity tends to be more common in autonomous regions with more left-wing populations, and where unions gain benefit from local politics.

The report classifies the autonomous regions according to their profile over the past 20 years. Asturias Castilla-La Mancha, Cantabria, the Basque Country, Navarre and La Rioja have had a high level of conflict (with frequent, though small, strikes, although those in Castilla-La Mancha and Asturias border on being large-scale strikes). Murcia, Andalusia, Madrid, Catalonia, Extremadura and Valencia have had a medium level of conflict (infrequent but large-scale strikes), while Galicia, Aragon, the Canary Islands, Castilla and Leon and the Balearic Islands have a low level of industrial conflict – infrequent and small strikes.

Spain remains at the head of industrial conflict league tables, however. “The unions are not as strong as those in northern Europe, where there is higher membership and greater negotiating power, so the only option is to strike,” concludes Luque.

SINC Team | alfa
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